How I learned to tame my hypochondria

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Recent years have seen a dramatic rise in the number of people suffering with health anxiety. Annalisa Barbieri reveals what triggered – and eventually settled – her ‘late-onset hypochondria’

Surrounded, as I was growing up, by slightly health-hysterical women (“How are you?” I once asked an aunt over the phone. “I’m on a mobile intravenous drip,” was the answer), I never worried about my own health. There simply wasn’t room to anyway, because someone was always more ill. How I laughed at my friend Mark when, in our 20s, he thought he was dying due to some dodgy bolognese. Even when I smoked and developed what would now be a Google-worthy search – a searing pain in my lungs – I just lay on a tennis ball and massaged the spot. It went.

So when my, as I came to call it, “late-onset hypochondria” hit, in my 40s, I wasn’t ready for it. And I didn’t know how terrifying it could be. In its own way, it is an illness. (Strictly speaking hypochondriasis and health anxiety are two separate malaises with overlapping features.) The background to all this was deaths – lots of them. My cousin died, aged 51, her death shrouded in whispers and secrets; then a friend died, then another, then another. This last friend, Callie, had felt fine, gone to the doctor and was dead two weeks later. All these friends had also been 51 when they died and in my mind, it seemed impossible to get beyond that age.

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