Hypochondria in the Year of COVID-19

By: Ruby Rose Moscone

Persistent itch on right index finger; small pain under rib when sleeping; bump on forehead—no fall; normal tongue vs abnormal; white spots on toenails: My search history reflects a long list of insecurities, anxieties, and made-up illnesses that consume my everyday life. I am not happy to say that I constantly succumb to the urge to scroll through medication side effects, read Reddit horror-stories of medical mysteries, and view far too many images of strangers' rashes.

Get off WebMD, says my mom, who is on the receiving end of my infinite health queries. Sure, some may call this obsessive googling a common side-effect of our generation's need to fact-check everything and leave no anxiety unresolved. The ins and outs of hypochondria, however, can be debilitating and can even induce symptoms of real illnesses: anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or generalized depression. The term itself, hypochondria, suggests a long-lasting or chronic state of hyper-awareness of one’s health. So what’s it like to live in this state of medical mania?

The rise of coronavirus

Although very common, hypochondria can often feel isolating; that is, until 2020. Cue the global pandemic, a hypochondriacs worst-- or maybe even best-- nightmare. If you don’t think I was googling COVID-19 symptoms on the ninth of January when WHO members began addressing the nature of the virus, you probably want to re-read that beginning paragraph. In fact, I was frantically calling my doctor asking if my “winter cough” sounded anything like this new virus. The anxiety I experienced at the time felt similar to any other medical doom that I had experienced before. Unknowingly to me, however, COVID-19 would soon consume both my conscious and subconscious thoughts, behaviors, and worries for months to come, much like it would with the rest of the world.

While spending the first few months of the year abroad in Paris, France, the imminent threat of COVID-19 consumed me: flyers in pharmacy windows addressing the shortage of hand-sanitizer, passengers on the subway covered head-to-toe in self- made protective plastic coverings, and daily thermometer checks inside my Parisian university slowly amounted to a festering fear inside of me. Headline after headline reported updated symptoms and surging cases near me as my travel plans turned me into a human ping pong ball, bouncing from every soon-to-be contaminated country. As early as February 1st, I felt my time abroad ticking away, akin to the status of my dwindling mental health.

Hypochondria while living in lockdown

As 2020 inched along, my time in Paris ended abruptly and a new life of lockdown in my family home began. I became a nervous wreck. But all of the sudden, my hypochondria felt less isolating: the rest of the world was a nervous wreck, too.

For those who relate to hypochondriassm, the COVID-19 pandemic has been an inside look at our brains, all the way down to the goddamn Google searches. Never before has the world felt like a collective fishbowl of medical paranoia: new symptoms? Odd long-term effects in previously infected patients? We’ve imagined it all before, only now the reality is depressingly and tragically unavoidable. While this—in a terribly sad way—could feel comforting, it was also a cause for panic. Suddenly, the only saving grace to my ridiculous fears was gone. Texts to my mom about an odd pain here or a throbbing there were less quickly dismissed. Some even prompted pause, and a look into any newly listed COVID-19 symptoms. I was no longer the only persistently paranoid person in my household, and it was both unnerving and eye-opening.

Setting boundaries

For the latter, I started to see what others may have previously seen in myself. With what felt like no real guidance on what was happening in the world around us, my family members began to jump to conclusions quickly and impulsively. Spraying down groceries, stocking up on toilet paper—I’ll save you from anymore PTSD by stopping that list. What these events sparked, however, was a newfound appreciation for boundaries. I began to learn where to draw the line from crazy “what ifs” to realistic approaches to staying healthy and safe. When hearing some of the down right idiotic remarks about the pandemic, such as Donald Trump’s suggestion to inject disinfectant into one’s body, or that 5G acts as a digital contagion device for the virus, I recognized my own idiosyncrasies. When so little was out of our control this year, it was important to selectively prioritize what we worried about. For me, that meant being conscious of what I consumed via the news, social media, and my own grim internet quests. By staying aware of the uncertainty around me, I felt determined to control what I could, which is an ability to protect myself and others by staying home.

I may still think I have mad cow disease, or suffer from new unknown allergies, or harbor a secretly damaged organ here or there, but this year I have learned take life one day at a time. So, be nice to those who seem a little uppity, or confused, or demand to sanitize the outside of their hand-sanitizer bottles. Maybe they have mad cow disease.