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The Global Coronavirus Threat Is Making Life Hell for Hypochondriacs

Experts say international health concerns can affect people struggling with illness anxiety more severely than most.
January 27, 2020, 5:30pm
coronovirus, passengers on subway, Wuhan, hypochondriac, mental health
Passengers with face masks ride a subway train in Beijing on Monday, amid fears over the spread of coronavirus. Photo by Kyodo News via Getty Images

Emma makes a point to carry rubbing alcohol spray to school every day and wash her hands multiple times per hour. She says the habits alleviate her anxiety.

That’s because a news cycle overloaded with the new coronavirus (2019-nCoV), a deadly illness with the now quarantined Wuhan, China as its epicentre, has triggered her hypochondriasis, a health-centric anxiety disorder that results in an obsession over perceived threat of illness. Emma, 19, knows her risk of contracting the virus while studying in London, U.K., is negligible, but that doesn’t stop her from being extra careful. Experts say she’s not alone: global health events can affect people like Emma differently than the general public.

“I began to think about the potential of the virus travelling to us,” Emma, who’s only using her first name to retain her privacy, said in an email. “I began to question whether it’s OK to go to uni.”

Emma said she has a history of fixating on “any minor change or inconsistency” with her body, and rushes to get examined by a doctor whenever she experiences an irregular symptom like a cough that won’t go away. “Even then, sometimes I feel like I’m the case that somehow slipped through the doctor’s fingers,” Emma said.

If she has to wait for an appointment, she spends a lot of time online, seeking remedies.

“I usually do a lot of research and try every holistic remedy I can find on Google just to feel like I’m doing something about it,” Emma said. “I’ve considered wearing surgical masks to avoid illness,” even though their effectiveness is limited.

Emma said she gets so anxious about diseases she has considered “entering voluntary solitary confinement” to avoid people.

The first reported cases of the new coronavirus arose in late December but have since swelled to nearly 3,000 and continue to climb. Around the world, more infections are appearing, including in the U.S., South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Japan, Australia, France, and Singapore. In Canada, one confirmed coronavirus case and one presumptive case—a husband and wife—were confirmed as of Monday morning. Chinese authorities have restricted mobility in and out of Wuhan and 16 surrounding cities.

Symptoms include fever, coughing, and laboured breathing. Severe cases have resulted in pneumonia, acute respiratory infection, and kidney failure. As of Monday morning, at least 81 people were confirmed dead, but those who are at risk of serious symptoms or death tend to be older or have an already compromised immune system. The illness has an incubation period of one to 14 days and people can unknowingly spread the virus even before they experience symptoms.

Health officials say the risk of contracting the coronavirus in Canada is low, but urge Canadians to wash their hands, sneeze into their elbows, avoid touching mouths and eyes, and avoid people who are noticeably ill.

Anna Prudovski, the director of Turning Point Psychological Services in Ontario, specializes in anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorders. According to Prudovski, people without illness anxiety might experience discomfort when they read a coronavirus-related story, but they can bat the thought away. That’s not the case for someone struggling with hypochondriasis, illness anxiety, or OCD that plays out through hypochondria-like symptoms, she said.

“With anxiety disorder and health anxiety disorder, [people] don’t concentrate on how probable or improbable contracting a sickness will be; they focus on how catastrophic it’ll be if it happens,” Prudovski said.

Prudovski says hypochondriacs typically have one of two knee-jerk reactions: to block out the thought entirely, which reinforces its imagined severity, or to obsess over the fear and start investigating the virus and all of its symptoms.

“It’s a perpetuating cycle... They’re concentrating on how horrifying that outcome will be and the brain continues to scare them,” Prudovski said.

Online forums for hypochondriacs are filled with coronavirus posts. On Reddit, user "honestopinions5" asked if the coronavirus can travel internationally in cardboard boxes. Another person posted that they started feeling ill—fever, plugged nose—after a shopping trip and fretted about coronavirus all night. Yet another account, "pixelmemories," which appears to be based in Singapore, said their coronavirus anxiety is so severe that “it’s taking a physical toll on me.” The user said the anxiety is coupled with panic attacks, nausea, and hot and cold flashes.

Pixelmemories “can’t focus on anything at all, making me completely distraught,” the user said.

On January 22, Emma watched a video that reaffirmed the coronavirus risk is low in London. But early on Friday, one of Emma’s friends tweeted the desire to see stricter travel regulations when pandemic threats loom. The post sent her down a spiral of anxiety.

Emma says social media makes it harder to separate credible information about the new coronavirus from sensationalized hot takes. Even governments, researchers, and public health experts in countries like the U.S., Vietnam, and Switzerland are trying to figure out how to reign in the spread of unverifiable epidemic-related information.

“You truly don’t know who to believe,” Emma said. “I wasn’t too concerned with the Wuhan coronavirus until I saw my peers discuss how perhaps the government wouldn’t want to show the true figures of those infected.”

Toronto psychologist Mariyam Ahmed said the sheer volume of information online also presents a hurdle for people struggling with hypochondriasis.

“What happens with social media is, you know, of course we’ll see a lot of repetition, so we will see the same messages on Facebook then Instagram then Twitter then on the news,” Ahmed said. “Because of the frequency of that information, people will overestimate the probability of that virus being present—or the likelihood of catching it.”

For people who have loved ones with health anxiety, Ahmed said validating their fears is paramount, especially since it’s common for people like Emma to seek reassurance from friends and family.

People with health anxiety “seek absolute certainty” regarding health risks, but “that’s just not possible,” Prudovski said. Instead of reassuring anxious loved ones over and over, family members should focus on the anxiety as opposed to the illness.

“Say things like ‘I know you’re worried, but your anxiety hooks you every time with new symptoms and I don’t want to reinforce your anxiety, so let’s move on,” she said.

Recommending therapy is also a productive step, Prudovski said.

Emma said she prefers receiving statistics about sicknesses and tips for avoiding them over non-stop reassurance. She also said she wants people to take hypochondriasis seriously.

“I sometimes feel patronized when people say I’m just being silly or there’s nothing wrong with me,” Emma said. “I would appreciate it if people around me just supported my extra measures rather than make me feel weird.”

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