British Columbia

Age of Anxiety: Health anxiety, or hypochondria, challenges young B.C. man

Heinrich Schoeman, who experiences health anxiety, will be speaking at the Age of Anxiety event at CBC Vancouver on Oct. 3

Heinrich Schoeman will be speaking at Age of Anxiety event at CBC Vancouver on Oct. 3

Heinrich Schoeman first realized he needed to address his health anxiety after a massive panic attack several years ago. (Supplied)

For Heinrich Schoeman, a small feeling of pain or illness can set off an avalanche of fears.

"I start to think, 'Okay, I've got this pain in my side. Is that all it is? Is this pain something worse? Maybe it's this,' and I'll immediately leap to some disease, something like cancer," said Heinrich Schoeman.

"To me it's very real and very believable, and I can't escape it."

Schoeman, a managing director at Wolfgang Commercial Painters in Burnaby, suffers from health anxiety, or hypochondria — excessive worrying about one's health.

The 33-year-old will talk about his experiences at CBC Vancouver's Age of Anxiety, a panel on youth anxiety hosted by Gloria Macarenko on Oct. 3.

Paralyzing fears

Schoeman said he has struggled with health anxiety from a young age.

Whenever he got sick as a child, he would be sick for longer than his peers — which he believes may have been because he was constantly worrying about his illnesses.

I certainly felt I was alone, even though people told me there were others that were experiencing this.- Heinrich Schoeman

His anxiety reached a peak when, at around 26 years old, he began experiencing painful headaches and insomnia, and became convinced that he had a brain tumour.

He visited several doctors and had a number of tests done, but no one was sure what was wrong.

"I started to think, 'Well they can't discover it, it's something insidious'...and I simply went into this spiral over and over again of trying to figure out what this thing was, and convincing myself that it was something horrible."

Schoeman became depressed, and withdrew himself from his friends and family — until finally he realized something was very wrong.

"I was walking home at sunset and I was convinced in my mind that this was one of the the last sunsets I was going to see. My heart started racing, I felt like I had ants crawling on my skin, I thought I was going to die," he said.

"I was in a fetal position in a ball, basically screaming and crying. It was immensely horrible."

Later it was discovered that the cause of Schoeman's headaches and insomnia was simply an ear infection — and that it has long since disappeared.

A positive stance

Schoeman told a doctor about what had happened.

"He said, 'It's sounding like what you're experiencing here are some definite symptoms of some real anxiety'. I started to realize that it's me that's causing this pain," Schoeman  said.

Schoeman now practices mindfulness meditation as one tool to cope with his anxiety.

"Instead of seeing it as a horrible disease or a horrible challenge...I started to reposition it, and I started to say to myself, 'This is a good thing. It's teaching you to be stronger.'"

Schoeman also wants others to know that they're not alone if they also struggle with health anxiety.

"I certainly felt I was alone, even though people told me there were others that were experiencing this, and I saw this online. I still felt that no one understood, that no one got me, and despite me trying to find a physical disease, I couldn't. And part of me wanted to, because if I had that actual would give me a certain legitimacy," he said.

"To realize and accept that this anxiety —  in this case for me, health anxiety — is a real thing...took time. So it's very exciting to hear people speaking out about this."

To hear the full interview listen to the audio labelled Age of Anxiety: Health anxiety, or hypochondria, challenges young B.C. man with the CBC's Rick Cluff on The Early Edition.

With files from Manusha Janakiram


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