This Whole ‘Freedom’ Thing Is Daunting When You’ve Been Battling Health Anxiety During A Pandemic

Health Anxiety
Contributor: Diana Dyce

Last Saturday I was trawling through Instagram. There was an undeniably common theme — the NSW lockdown was over and people I follow were celebrating their new-found freedom. 

As I continued to scroll through images of mates at bars and restaurants, many looking absolutely chuffed, a tight knot formed in my stomach. Despite all the joy associated with restrictions easing, I was ruminating on the horrible “what ifs”.

What if, despite my best efforts, I contract COVID? What if I pass it on to someone who is immunocompromised? What if the vaccine doesn’t work and I still get sick enough to go to hospital? What if I die?

I live with Illness Anxiety Disorder, and it’s become particularly difficult to manage. While many are revelling in the freedom, some of us are experiencing heightened feelings of anxiety and fear.

Commonly referred to as health anxiety, Illness Anxiety Disorder (previously Hypochondriasis) is a type of anxiety disorder. You know when people throw around the word “hypochondriac”? Well, that’s what health anxiety is, and it’s very real for some people. 

The disorder is characterised by the persistent fear of a serious or life-threatening illness despite few or no symptoms. This can manifest in a variety of ways — seeking out reassurance from medical professionals, undergoing unnecessary tests, symptom checking and sometimes avoiding medicine and treatment.

My own experience with Illness Anxiety Disorder started a few years ago after some health scares resulted in debilitating panic attacks and obsessive behaviour regarding my health. 

I’d always struggled with anxiety, but this was different. Every bodily sensation was frightening, every symptom represented an illness or disease. At its worst, I was afraid to eat and drink, fearing that I’d choke or water would pool in my lungs. It was exhausting and terrifying. 10/10 would not recommend.

Eventually, after a lot of hard work, things started to get better. I started taking antidepressants and found a great psychologist. I had a few relapses over the years, but I became pretty good at bouncing back. But then my recovery hit a snag: COVID-19.

The pandemic has made the management of my health anxiety particularly challenging. A key part of treating health anxiety is the use of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). You learn to identify and work through your health anxiety and health beliefs, respond to bodily sensations differently and avoid examining your body for signs of illness. 

By late 2019, I was good at keeping intrusive thoughts about my health in check. When COVID arrived on the scene, this got tricky. In order to stay safe and protect ourselves and those around us, the hyper-vigilance I’d tried to battle actually became a necessity. If you felt sick, you had to get tested. You were told to always be monitoring for symptoms. I found myself in a game of tug of war with the need to be vigilant and keeping my health anxiety under control.

Despite the precarious balancing act, I managed to handle 2020. It was only this year that it got hard. I had made the decision to try life without antidepressants — it started okay, but once the Delta variant hit NSW, I found myself falling into old patterns and behaviours.

Before I knew it, I was really unwell and felt like I was back at square one. It was becoming increasingly clear that we were going to have to live with COVID, and that was hard for me to wrap my head around.

When the easing of restrictions was announced in NSW, I felt two strong, conflicting emotions. On one hand, I was relieved. Restrictions lifting meant things were beginning to return to normal (whatever that means). I would be able to see my friends and family again, hold my four-month-old niece I hadn’t even had the chance to meet yet.

But this was eclipsed by feelings of dread and panic. I remembered the news articles I’d pored over, all the scary stories I’d read, and became stuck in a cycle of negative thinking. How could I ever leave my house again? How could I feel comfortable socialising with COVID lurking under the table?

Plans were being made, weddings were back on and I felt pressure to participate. I felt completely out of control and at the same time, totally ashamed that I could not share the same excitement with those around me.

I don’t think I’m alone when it comes to these fears. Loads of us, for different reasons, are hesitant to dive back into pre-lockdown life. I think it’s really important that we respect people’s decisions to take things slowly if they want, and to not make others feel weird or irrational for taking their time. After all, it isn’t a race, guys.

Despite the fear and anxiety that I continue to experience, I’m becoming more optimistic. I’m back on medication and seeing a new psychologist. It’s slowly feeling a little less scary. 

COVID-19 is here to stay, at least for the time being. While we can’t change that, there are ways to manage the uneasiness. Here are a few things I’ve found helpful, if you’re feeling weird about it all too.

I’m a big supporter of going at your own pace. I’ve been tempted to make concessions for my friends and loved ones, but I know that doing things I’m not comfortable with will only make things harder for me in the long run. I’m taking the time to figure out what I’m okay with, to set boundaries with friends and family, and I’m regularly reminding myself that plans can always be cancelled. The pub isn’t going anywhere!

I’m also trying to take a break from reading about stuff online. Trust me, googling “is COVID-19 all good now??!!” is not a healthy use of your time. I’m currently limiting my use of social media and only checking the news once a day.

And of course, the thing that’s helped me the most is getting vaccinated. Knowing that both you, your loved ones and your community are protected have managed some of the anxiety when getting out there again.

I encourage you to be gentle with yourself, treat those around you with patience and care, and remember that with time, things will start to feel a little brighter again.

Diana Dyce is a writer living in Sydney.