Gendering health anxiety: why is it “weak” to fear sickness, but “brave” to fear treating it?

Here’s a potential research question I’ve had all day. Is it possible that the stigma surrounding health anxiety exists because we associate health anxiety with being feminine?

We know, based on the data that we have about health anxiety that it’s common, with conservative estimates putting it at 4-5% of the population (it may perhaps be as high as 1 in 8), and equally common in men and women. Undoubtedly the pandemic has exacerbated this condition. It should really be nothing to be ashamed of! Yet, for whatever reason, it can be extremely difficult to talk about, despite the fact that it isn’t to do with hurting anyone or violating social norms. The term “hypochondriac” may be used pejoratively.

On the contrast, refusing to wear a mask or social distance are antisocial behaviors; they increase the chances that other people will become sick, and are associated with antisocial personality traits. People seem nevertheless plenty comfortable discussing how they don’t want to wear their mask, or get the vaccine, or do anything to prevent sickness. In fact, we may even perceive these things as being tough, or a mark of strength!

We also have data to support that women are generally more concerned with their overall well-being than men, and that men tend to shirk responsibilities like getting physicals or seeking care when sick, sometimes out of fear. Why does it feel so much more embarrassing, and “weak”, to admit one fear than another? Is it because preoccupation with one’s health is stereotyped as being womanly, while eschewing self-care is considered masculine and macho?

Today, I am really wondering if the stigma surrounding health anxiety isn’t rooted deeply in misogyny. I am wondering if this is why it’s been so difficult for me to openly talk about my own experiences with health anxiety. The truth is, I myself suffer with health anxiety. Having health anxiety and a chronic serious illness is a special kind of hell I wouldn’t even wish on an enemy. And, as much as I hate doing this and have been dreading posting this, this mental illness will always be stigmatized unless people start to come out and reveal their experiences with it.

My experience with health anxiety has been deeply personal, and I have hesitated sharing it openly with people outside my personal bubble for fear that I will be perceived as weak, or that my EDS diagnosis will be perceived as invalid. The reality is that I am a lot stronger now than I have ever been in my life, physically and mentally. I’m 110-115 pounds which, at five foot even, is the most I’ve ever weighed in my life. I have conditioned myself to do 30-60 minutes, three times weekly, of HIIT training or other aerobic exercise. Two to three times weekly, I get in some light strength training for my core as well as my joints. I do this both because and in spite of my EDS. I attend counseling regularly, and have abstained from tobacco for half a year and alcohol for over six.

My commitment to living a healthy lifestyle should feel like a testament of strength. However, because much of it is rooted in my fear of becoming sick–and, as a person with a chronic physical health diagnosis, this means I am constantly afraid–I feel like a charlatan: a weak person cosplaying strength, to hide my mental shortcomings.

I just want you to know that if you also suffer with a fear of becoming sick, that you’re not alone, and it doesn’t make you weak. You are strong. Admitting fear takes a lot of strength. You are not weak. A lot of people are suffering with this mental illness in silence, especially nowadays, with no real recourse to figure it out.

If you are one of those people suffering in silence, preoccupied with your physical state and plagued by intrusive thoughts and delusions about your health, I see you, and you’re not alone.

We’re going to be okay.

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