WAKING up every morning, Laura White frantically turns on the news, convinced she could be wiped out by coronavirus in a matter of hours.
When she first heard of the terrifying outbreak back in January, it confirmed all of her worst fears, preying on struggles with hypochondria which make every minute of her day a misery.
“I was totally convinced I had it," Laura - who suffers with serious health anxiety - told Sun Online.
"I was experiencing two of the recognised symptoms — a headache and a sore throat.
“So I went straight to my GP and insisted he check me out. He told me I didn’t have it.
“I went again the following week and demanded a test — but he wouldn’t give me one.”
The stay-at-home mum hadn’t been out of the country - or been in contact with anyone who had.
Laura is one of a growing number of 'cyberchondriacs' — people who constantly surf the internet to self-diagnose real or imagined health problems.
Experts reckon 10 per cent of the population are in the grip of this modern condition - and health anxiety is at a national high.
I went straight to my GP and insisted he check me out. I went again the following week and demanded a test — but he wouldn’t give me one
Since the first media reports of the virus — which has killed almost 8,000 people worldwide and 104 in the UK — Laura has spent as many as five hours a day researching the symptoms and the spread of the virus across Britain.
She checks her phone every half hour for coronavirus updates and has signed up to dozens of news apps to keep across the latest developments.
“I record every speech Boris Johnson gives to watch it again and again for advice and reassurance," Laura says.
“I like him and voted for him. But I reckon he has been too slow in stopping this killer disease.”
In the past Laura’s cyberchondria has resulted in her diagnosing herself with a range of disorders from brain tumours to meningitis — all diseases she never had.
She was even hospitalised on one occasion because she was convinced she’d had a heart attack.
Doctors said it was more likely an anxiety attack.
Laura, 36, is married to Paul, 35, who is registered disabled due to poor vision.
She knows she is in the grip of cyberchondria and — as a result of the coronavirus — says it is causing her to take drastic measures.
“As a family we are now in lockdown. I’ve been out stockpiling Calpol for the kids.
ARE YOU A HYPOCHONDRIAC?
The NHS lists hypochondria as "health anxiety".
According to the health organisation, it is commonly listed as having the following symptoms:
- Constantly worrying about your health
- Frequently checking your body for signs of illness, such as lumps, tingling or pain
- Always asking people for reassurance that you're not ill
- Worrying that your doctor or medical tests may have missed something
- Obsessively looking at health information on the internet or in the media
- Avoid anything to do with serious illness, such as medical TV programmes
- Acting as if you were ill (for example, avoiding physical activities)
Anxiety itself can cause symptoms like headaches or a racing heartbeat, and you may mistake these for signs of illness.
"I have got a medical cabinet stocked with everything we need. From antibiotics to wound dressings, to being able to do stitches too.
“I can’t get masks and that freaks me out. They’ve all gone from the shops where I live.
"The same goes for hand gel sanitiser. I’ve got one bottle left at home — that’s it.
I even had to sniff the toilet rolls to check they weren’t poisonedLaura White
“No one else in the family is worried — it’s just me.”
Laura, from Durham, admits no one else in her family is concerned.
She says official statistics for her area show only one person has tested positive with the virus - but remains uncertain.
"I am utterly convinced that is total BS," she adds. "We’ve all heard of others being hospitalised with it.
"It keeps me awake at night. I am terrified I could be next.”
'I've gone a bit insane stockpiling'
Laura, who is mum to Ben, 16, Heidi, 10, Iidan, five, and Zak, four, says: “Every morning I wake up convinced I’m going to die.
“We’re a big family. I’ve gone a bit insane stockpiling for us. I’ve got 40 rolls of toilet paper, over 25 boxes of cereal.
"Dozens of bottles of pop and loads of biscuits too.
“I went to the local supermarket with my friend. I even had to sniff the toilet rolls to check they weren’t poisoned. My mate told me to cop myself on.”
It is why last Thursday Laura took the decision to keep all four children home from school — and they haven’t returned since.
“I rang their schools on Friday and told them they are not coming in until this is over.
“I have been warned in the past about keeping them home. I know I risk a four-figure fine but I say bring it on.
"My kids' health is more important right now than ticking boxes.
"I didn’t do it lightly — my eldest is sitting his GCSEs soon — but this virus kills.
“I don’t understand why others aren’t as scared as me.
“There is a reason entire countries are shutting down.”
HOW TO KEEP CALM AS A CYBERCHONDRIAC
1. Be aware of your searching
Don’t just search on auto-pilot.
Take note of when, where, how often, and what you are searching about.
Keep track of this for several days so you can spot the warning signs and high-risk times for when you’re more likely to get stuck in excessive searching.
Then you can make a plan to do other things at those times.
2. Understand how web searches work
Web search algorithms are mysterious beasts.
But top search results are not necessarily the most likely explanation for your symptoms.
Top search results are often click-bait – the rare, but fascinating and horrific stories about illness we can’t help clicking on (not the boring stuff)
3. Be smart about how you search
Limit yourself to websites with reliable, high quality, balanced information such as government-run websites and/or those written by medical professionals.
Stay away from blogs, forums, testimonials or social media.
4. Challenge your thoughts by thinking of alternative explanations for your symptoms
For example, even though you think your eye twitch might be motor neuron disease, what about a much more likely explanation, such as staring at the computer screen too much.
5. Use other strategies to cut down, and prevent you from searching
Focus on scheduling these activities at your high-risk times.
These can be absorbing activities that take your focus and can distract you; or you can use relaxation strategies to calm your mind and body.
Every mother's nightmare
Every morning Laura wakes up and checks herself, husband Paul and the kids for symptoms.
She says she knows her lungs are in good nick — because she insisted on X-rays last year.
“I told my doctor I’d had a cough that had lingered for over three weeks. I knew that he would have to refer me for an X-ray.
“Luckily the results came back fine. It does give me some peace of mind.
“Yet because of my cyberchondria if anyone coughs around me I panic. It is irrational but I can’t help it.
"My daughter Heidi was coughing at the weekend and asked for some Calpol — all my fears came true.
"The coronavirus is every mother's nightmare."
Laura’s GP surgery is currently closed following a patient testing positive. It means she now has to email her doctor for advice.
“In my last one I sent him a picture of my tongue to check my throat. Everyone at the practice probably thinks I’m mad.”
Laura’s GP has prescribed her Prozac to tackle the condition. She says taking the antidepressant has helped calm down her obsession.
Every morning I wake up convinced I’m going to dieLaura White
“Before I started taking them I booked a half hour appointment with my doctor so when I took my first tablet I could be with him in case I had an adverse reaction to it.
“He was shocked at how convinced I was that I was going to die.
“Luckily the medication has taken the edge off it. But I know I will always be like this.”
Laura recognises her cyberchondria is a drain on the NHS. In the past she has routinely called 999 for suspected broken wrists.
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“I have looked into private healthcare but I feel guilty about getting it for me and not the kids.
“If I could get a yearly annual check-up it would be a weight off my mind.
“For the foreseeable future — while the virus is multiplying — every cough in the house is going to send me into meltdown.”