I once read on WebMD that if you had Crohn’s Disease you were twice as likely as the average person to suffer with anxiety. It definitely made sense to me – I mean, with a condition like Crohn’s Disease who wouldn’t be anxious? Whether it’s social gatherings, hospital trips or relationships, having IBD gives us plenty of reasons to be anxious. But my anxiety also manifests as a different form: hypochondria. Or, in layman’s terms, health anxiety.
How my Hypochondria started
I have always been a little anxious, but it was only when I was first diagnosed with Crohn’s in 2013 that health anxiety reared its head. It transpired that I had actually had IBD since 2001, and I’d spent 12 years wrongly being told my doctors that I had IBS. Cue the first anxious thought: If doctors got it wrong before, what if they get it wrong again?
If you have no trust in doctors, hypochondria magnifies. Since the only thing that calms it is a doctor’s reassurance, it can be pretty difficult to achieve this if you don’t trust what they are saying. You also don’t trust yourself. Because in my case, I too ‘got it wrong’ (that’s my faulty brain typing here); I too missed symptoms and didn’t listen to my body. So what’s to say I don’t get it wrong again, and start dismissing that cold which turns out to be pneumonia or that harmless freckle which could be a sinister mole?
How it worsened
My hypochondria peaked when I started Infliximab. Let me tell you now: do not read that side effects leaflet. Just don’t, put it down and just imagine that the only side effects are shiny hair, flawless skin and boosted brain power.
Side effect leaflets have not been my friend over the years. And when I first read it, my ‘checking behaviours’ began – e.g. I’d start body scanning; checking my body for the symptoms. This could be physical, e.g. feeling for lymph nodes or just being hyper-vigilant of every twinge. This scanning could sometimes be reassuring, especially if I asked a family member. But, it never lasted because I felt as if something else could spring up at a moments notice.
When body scanning wasn’t working, a new tactic emerged: avoidance. If I could just remove the trigger, surely I wouldn’t feel awful? And it worked to an extent: If someone with an illness appeared on the TV, I’d change the channel. If an article raising awareness of a new condition popped up on social media, I’d hastily shut down my phone. If I couldn’t see it, it couldn’t bring panic. And that extended to my own body too: If I didn’t look at it, then I wouldn’t be able to analyse that bruise, that spot, that thing that has actually been there for the past fifteen years but for some reason looks different today?
Living with Hypochondria and IBD
There are no shortcut to living with IBD and hypochondria and they’re pretty much the worst pairing. I have to visit hospitals, take medication, subject myself to tests and results on a monthly basis and there’s always that fear. Do I still seek reassurance and avoidance? Absolutely! But each panic survived and disaster adverted does make it a little bit easier. I have tried Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (which helps retrain your brain to avoid negative thought patterns) and meditation. These do help with my thoughts, but it needs to be a daily approach, rather than a one-off.
So for now, my Crohn’s Disease and Hypochondria very much remain a part of me. And whilst they are not a great combination, they are something I have learnt to try to live with and tackle each and every day.