Health anxiety can be a bit tricky, to say the least.
It is hard to downplay and not worry about a fear that you might be having a stroke or heart attack, or that you might have cancer. If you don’t take those kinds of things seriously then it could potentially lead to a bad situation. So I want to give you some guidance on how to manage these types of concerns.
Let’s start with phobias about immediate health issues.
A lot of us with anxiety issues have ended up in the ER at least once due to thoughts such as “What if I am having a heart attack?“, only to find out that we were having a panic attack, not a heart attack.
That is because the symptoms of anxiety can be so intense and overwhelming, that it is hard to tell if our lives are in danger or not.
We think, “Why chance it? I better go to the hospital.“
And that is the smart thing to do.
If you genuinely aren’t sure if you are having a heart attack, and if you are having some symptoms that are questionable, its best to go and get looked at, especially if it’s the first time you are experiencing the particular type of symptoms that are causing you concern at that moment.
These types of vague “iffy” symptoms are one reason why it is SO important to get a medical check up when your anxiety symptoms first break out, and then to maintain regular check ups.
You need to know from the get-go what kind of physical shape you are in, so that you can then reason with yourself when you are in the middle of a health scare. If you have been to the doctor and he or she tells you that your health is good, then it makes it easier to talk yourself through those times when you are having “vague” symptoms and aren’t sure if you should be concerned or not. This is especially true if you are open and honest with your doctor about all your anxiety related concerns, and fears and ask specifically about the symptoms you need to take seriously.
If you haven’t done so already, make an appointment, get a physical and explain your situation with your doctor and tell him or her that your anxiety symptoms can be tough to interpret and you need some general guidelines to follow so you know if and when to seek medical help.
When it comes to anxiety, honesty is always the best policy. Be straight with your doctor and just say “Look, I don’t want to be calling you every single time I have an anxious thought or feeling. Can you give me some advice on the best way to handle these symptoms?” I promise you that physicians find this kind of transparency refreshing. Be open about all the different symptoms you have, whether its a choking sensation or a racing heart or chest tightness. Whatever it is, just put it out there. Trust me, they have heard it all. You are not going to shock them in any way.
Almost all general practitioners are very experienced at dealing with patients who have anxiety and are more than happy to give you some reassurance, and let you know when its time to be concerned and when it’s not.
And of course, if your doctor gives you a check up and says there are some areas you need to be concerned about, then you can ask for the symptoms that you need to watch out for, and clarify which symptoms it’s okay to take a “wait and see” approach with.
The minds of those of us with anxiety can become very quickly cluttered, especially when we are under stress. I have found that it helps knowing I have a plan in place, worked out with my physician, that I can refer to and follow when my own judgement seems to be spinning around like a compass needle gone haywire. It helps to know, “If this happens, then this is what I do.”
Of course this doesn’t take away health anxiety completely. If only it were that easy. The truth is that health anxiety is very sticky and very tricky, and when we are in the middle of feeling symptoms, it can be very difficult to reason with ourselves. For immediate health phobias such as the fear of having a heart attack or stroke, we start throwing all kind of thoughts at ourselves like “I know what the doctor said, but this time is different. It just “feels” different. I feel weird. I just KNOW that something is wrong.” and we can find it very hard to not rush to the hospital or call 911, even if we aren’t having any symptoms our doctor warned us to take seriously.
In situations like this, my first and strongest advice to you is to focus on CALMING DOWN, no matter how hard it is. You have to calm down so you can eliminate any of the “weird” anxiety-related symptoms and determine what exactly is going on with your body. Sometimes the symptoms your doctor tells you to watch out for can also be caused by adrenaline so its important to settle down and determine what your body is telling you, as opposed to what your fear is telling you. I know that it is hard to do, but it will be easier if you focus on WHY you are calming down. Remind yourself there is a purpose to it that could save your life. If a few minutes of genuine calm go by and you find your symptoms remaining or increasing and/or your logic is telling you that something still feels very wrong, then its best to seek medical help. If you notice your symptoms dissipating, and/or the weirdness you previously felt going away, then it is okay not to seek medical help. Just keep in mind that if the same thing happens on a regular basis, you should still mention it to your doctor.
You may not live with health anxiety over acute issues. You might live with health anxiety that is more obsessive and chronic; perhaps about fears of developing a terminal illness. I know about this all too well.
My mother died of mesothelioma when she was 57. Mesothelioma is that rare asbestos cancer that you only know about from TV ads, and after my mom died of it, I became afraid for years that I might die of it too. It didn’t matter how rare it was. I thought if she got it, I was going to die from it too.
There was no logical reason for me to believe that. The doctors told me she was exposed to asbestos when she was very young, probably before I was even born and that I really shouldn’t worry that I would develop the cancer. But it didn’t matter. I became somewhat obsessed with my fear of it for a while, even though it was completely irrational. And the phobia controlled me in a lot of ways until a few years later when I just ran out of things to Google, and ran out of energy to care about it anymore. I spent so much time obsessing about it that I completely de-sensitized myself to it and became bored with it. It wasn’t a deliberate, methodical plan. It just happened. It took a long time because I have a huge battery for caring about things and I wasted a lot of my life on this fear and I will never get that time back. But the important thing is that I now know that yes, there is a small chance I could develop this cancer, but logic tells me the odds are low enough that its probably safe to not feel like I have to obsess about it every day of my life. And that is really how we all need to weigh the importance of our obsessive health phobias. We need to talk to our doctors and get their opinions. Then we need to use our logic instead of our emotions to decide how much energy and thought we are going to put into our fears. We need to put logic in charge and leave it there, even when our emotions are screaming at us that THEY know better.
As hard as it is, and as much as it flies in the face of how a lot of us operate, those of us with anxiety can’t listen to our hearts. Our emotional side simply cannot be the one running the show. Our emotional side is not qualified to be in charge of our lives. While our emotional side is running wild with theories and drama and worst case scenarios, our logical side will stay calm and give it to us straight. It will let us know when i’ts time to be really concerned and when it isn’t. We just have to listen.
As hard as it is, we hypochondriacs have to make the choice to listen to our doctors, listen to our logic and then let go of our quest to feel 100% reassured all the time. It is simply not practical or realistic to expect to walk around this life with 100% certainty that we are going to be okay. It is ridiculous to obsess about our health phobias until we waste years of our lives de-sensitizing ourselves to them or by carrying the burden of these phobias around with us until we die of what will probably be a completely un-related cause we never once thought of.
I know how hard it is to change your attitude about the things you fear the most.
But you cannot live your life trying to stay one step ahead of death. You can certainly try. And a lot of us with anxiety do. But the truth is, death is going to happen when it happens. All you can do is live your life in a reasonable way and be smart. None of us are getting out of this alive and micro-managing your health is only going to ruin the time you have. You must make the choice to refuse to indulge your fears until logic tells you that you have a genuine reason to be concerned. It is the only way to have any kind of peaceful life at all.
To summarize, my health concerns will never completely go away, and if you live with health anxiety, yours probably won’t either. But there are things you can do to cope in a healthier way.
What do I do when my health anxiety kicks in?
If it’s an immediate medical concern, I calm myself down and listen to what my body is telling me and I remember the things my doctor told me to watch out for. Then I assess what is going on. Is it fool-proof? No – I live with anxiety. It will never be fool-proof. But it DOES help, and it has saved me from rushing to the ER many times.
For long-term medical fears such as a new cancer phobia? I choose to distract myself.
I never give in to my fear and allow myself to go on a worry binge. I know there are no answers that are going to satisfy me. I know that there is no available screening, or amount of analyzing in the world that is going to take this fear away. So I just do my very best not to take the bait. I immediately go to “Nope. I am not thinking about that.”, and then I eventually get my mind on something else. And again, I am not perfect, and I go through my periods where a new phobia lurks in my subconscious for a week or two but then eventually I forget about if I keep distracting myself and refuse to indulge it and analyze. If I didn’t make the conscious decision to force myself to let it go and walk away from it, I would become obsessed with it all of the time, every single day. The more you indulge a phobia, the stronger it gets so you must make up your mind to never engage it. Ever.
The road to peace is paved with acceptance, not resistance. Those of us with anxiety need to LET GO.
Give up your concerns to God or the Universe or whatever higher power you believe in. If you don’t believe in anything that you could give your fear up to, then don’t give it to anything. Just drop it on the ground. Leave it. Then turn around and dust yourself off and walk away.
We have to realize that sometimes there are problems in this world bigger than us. There are potential situations bigger than us and there are things that we simply can’t do anything about. Making peace with that fact is one of the greatest things we can do for our emotional health.
When it comes to our health, we can be as health conscious as possible, do all the right things, and see our doctor regularly….but aside from that, we cannot climb into our bodies and control the workings of every cell. Those cells have the control. They have the power and yes, we just have to sit around and wait for them to tell us when there is something to be concerned about it. All the worrying and dwelling and pondering isn’t going to do anything but give us a false sense of control over something that deep down, we know we can’t do anything about. We need to accept that we can’t do anything about it, and let it go.
The final point that I want to talk about here is that, much like any other anxiety symptom we might have, hypochondria can be the result of a bored mind.
Those of us with anxiety are creative people with big imaginations, and if we aren’t feeding that creativity, then our subconscious will feed it for us. If you find yourself frequently dealing with health anxieties, take a look at your life and find something that interests you and stimulates you more than your worry over your health. Never let your anxiety be the most interesting or important thing in your life.
For more anxiety support visit The Worry Games on Facebook.
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Photo Credit: Nervous Woman Yahoo Free To Use Commercially Images