Health Care Work and Hypochondria: When Knowledge Equals Fear

Photo by Morrissey, via Flickr

By Amy M. Collins, associate editor

This Thursday I will graduate. Not from college—sadly, that was many years ago. Rather, I will finish a health anxiety class, taken in desperation when untimely hypochondria struck. I admit it. I’ve always been a bit of a worrier when it comes to health and illness. Working as a health care writer/editor doesn’t always help. I just have too much information at my fingertips, and a brain that jumps to the extreme (a pain in the side can mean cancer, and so on).

Before getting a degree in writing and journalism, I studied human biology with the intention of going into some type of health care work. But reading about diseases made me start to self-diagnose with fervor, so I decided to switch majors. And this was before the advent of the Internet, where one can constantly consult “Dr. Google.”

Years ago, while working at a medical publishing company in Spain, things got worse. I was put on the cardiovascular beat, which only increased my health fears. Diagnosed with mitral valve prolapse as a child, and on medication for arrhythmia at the time, reading about this particular disease made my heart literally flutter. My boss, recognizing my discomfort, took me off the topic and asked me to instead write about prostate cancer, benign prostatic hyperplasia, and erectile dysfunction—all conditions I could never get myself.

While this is amusing in some ways, it’s also kind of sad. I can safely say that nobody wants to worry about their health all the time. It’s frustrating to the patient who experiences it, the loved ones who have to hear about it, and the clinicians who come across these patients in practice. Hypochondria can also lead to multiple visits to the doctor and unnecessary tests and procedures, all of which tax our health care system greatly.

So now, years later and working at AJN and recognizing that my health anxiety is still lingering, I decided to do something about it.

While many classes focus on anxiety, the one I decided to take centered specifically on health anxiety—teaching some basics on how to make it dissipate. Some of the steps include:

  • recognizing that a random symptom could just be “body noise” and anxiety
  • hitting the brakes on seeking reassurance about health from family and friends (“Do you think I’m sick? Am I dying?”)
  • researching illnesses from reliable sources, but not researching random symptoms excessively and not immediately running away when the anxiety sets in
  • stopping self-checks
  • not seeking multiple second opinions from physicians

Six weeks later I feel a huge shift, a relief that I don’t have to worry constantly—or jeopardize my job!

The interesting thing is this: of those in my health anxiety group, every single person is working or has worked in the health care field in some way or another. There’s a young and ambitious student nurse who’s paralyzed by fear while surrounded by death and illness in the ICU; there’s a phlebotomist and nurse; a medical writer; a physician . . . and these are just a few. Is it a coincidence? How can it be?

How do we who suffer from health anxiety and work in the health care field still do our job without becoming incapacitated by fear? For me, all I can do is try to confront the fear head on, relinquish control of the unknown, live a healthy lifestyle (something we can control), and tell myself that although I may become ill one day, it won’t be brought on suddenly while reading about cancer or heart disease.

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2016-11-21T13:11:10+00:00 December 14th, 2011|Nursing|5 Comments

About the Author:

Managing editor, American Journal of Nursing

5 Comments

  1. David February 28, 2012 at 7:45 am

    I can safely say that nobody wants to worry about their health all the time. I check my blood pressure and go back to work. I usually print a before and after strip to take to my Dr and he just shakes his head. Thanks for the good tips to remember and to share with others to keep our worrying in check. Let us know about your lives and thoughts as nurses and as citizens.Thank you for what you’ve. This really is the very best submit I’ve read

  2. Jessica Ellis December 20, 2011 at 11:14 am

    Wow, this is putting a finger where it needs to be. It reminds of when my classmate and I were going through our psych classes and rotations….we “diagnosed” ourselves every day with disorders until we were all convinced we just needed to check ourselves in. Easy to do. Not so easy to just “stop self check” and live life in the moment instead of in fear of ending up in misery like we see so many of our patients. Good word…

  3. Lois Roelofs December 15, 2011 at 12:32 pm

    Yes, it’s not funny, but I think it’s natural when we have all this information. Even as a retired RN, whenever there’s any new spot, bump, or bleeding at my house, I immediately think of cancer. Thanks for the good tips to remember and to share with others to keep our worrying in check. A friend once told me a helpful saying, “It’s not cancer until your doctor says it is.”

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  5. Judy December 14, 2011 at 10:49 am

    The alternative to this is losing all respect for your health care providers and not going when you need to. So many nurses diagnose themselves and treat themselves that by the time they get to the hospital they are sick indeed!! I am a prime example!! I have an arrythmia and when it acts up, I put myself on a cardiac monitor and check my rythm then medicate accordingly. I check my blood pressure and go back to work. I usually print a before and after strip to take to my Dr and he just shakes his head. It works, but if I saw someone else doing it, I would worry.

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