Think back to when you first realized COVID-19 was more than just another virus. Maybe you think of March 2020 when schools closed nationwide and restaurants locked their doors, or maybe you think of a date even later than that. When faced with the question of when I first thought COVID-19 was worrisome, however, I think back to December 2019 when the virus was nothing more than an unnamed disease in a few articles I stumbled upon while searching for influenza death rate statistics.
Rightfully, you may ask why I would be researching the death rate for the common flu, but to understand my motivations fully, you need to know I suffer from generalized anxiety. Although my anxiety is generalized there are many people who suffer from illness anxiety disorder or hypochondria, and for these individuals COVID-19 is one of their worst nightmares come to fruition. Approximately two to five percent of the population lives with the disorder, according to Kristen Stewart, a contributing health writer for Everyday Health.
For those unfamiliar with the condition, “illness anxiety disorder, sometimes called hypochondriasis or health anxiety, is worrying excessively that you are or may become seriously ill. You may have no physical symptoms. Or, you may believe that normal body sensations or minor symptoms are signs of severe illness,” according to the Mayo Clinic.
The Mayo Clinic describes various potential symptoms, including “having so much distress about possible illnesses that it's hard for you to function, repeatedly checking your body for signs of illness or disease, avoiding people, places or activities for fear of health risks, and frequently searching the internet for causes of symptoms or possible illnesses.”
These symptoms may have varying levels of intensity and many individuals experience this anxiety differently. But for many people suffering from hypochondria, COVID-19 has resulted in an increase in stressors. According to the Renewed Freedom Center, a health center focusing on anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Jennifer Lynch, said the looming impact of COVID-19 on those with illness anxiety may cause people to lose sleep, engage in unhealthy eating and exercise habits or even have difficulty leaving their homes in any way, whether that be to go to the store for groceries or simply to step outside for fresh air.
I can personally attest to the anxieties Lynch mentions. I remember in excruciating detail the first time I had to go to the store during the pandemic. I can still feel the phantom of the panic that hit me when a man without a mask told me to calm down because I was shaking with tears in my eyes. I, with video like quality, can remember the moment I found out I would have to quarantine from exposure for the first time. Every week when I go to class, I wonder if today is the day I walk too close to someone and bring home a virus that very well could kill my parents and leave me in a hospital bed.
Hypochondria did not stop affecting people when COVID-19 began spreading across the world, but as the pandemic forces these anxieties onto more people, many are speaking out on how to manage these anxieties healthily.
A Healthline article discussing the pandemic’s impact on anxiety suggests tactics including avoiding sensationalized media outlets, washing your hands, staying active, validating your feelings but attempting to not be overwhelmed by them, and isolating physically without cutting yourself off from the world entirely.
Although COVID-19 feels like an endless war that gets harder to fight every day for people with illness anxiety disorder, it is important to remember that these anxieties are manageable. Even though the looming variants fill the news each evening, vaccines are beginning to roll out and begin the process of healing. While the pandemic has impacted millions in unthinkable ways, we learn more every day on how to keep people safe, so even if it feels impossible, there is a way to survive illness anxiety disorder in the time of COVID-19.
Follow Lillian Durr on Twitter, @weird_wondurr
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