It feels like a constant and endless battle.
Those obsessive thoughts running through your mind about your health or the health of the people closest to you just don’t let up.
What else could I be talking about but health anxiety?
My experience with health anxiety
After a while, I became relatively immune to the obsessive thoughts about my health. I was having so many negative thoughts about my health throughout the day, I began to think they were normal.
With this said, the thing that got me, each and every time, were the exaggerated obsessive thoughts. You know the ones I mean.
‘Is this headache the brain tumour I’ve always thought it was?’
‘Is this bit of chest pain the heart attack I’ve been expecting?’
I could have three headaches a day over the process of a month, and no matter how irrational it was, I’d still be convinced the next headache was ‘the one’.
It was the fear about the exaggerated thoughts that created the obsession.
The fear became my absolute focus and it consumed me, day and night.
It led to the endless trips to the hospital for ECGs, tests and scans – all coming back with negative results.
I’m reluctant to say ‘positive results’ because, at the time, I just wanted a diagnosis so I could move on.
Surely all these symptoms can’t be related to anxiety?
They were, but that didn’t stop the trip to A&E.
The trip to A&E
In my early 20’s, I left work early because I was convinced I was going to die. I ended up driving straight to A&E in total panic.
I approached the lady at the desk, quietly informing her that I was experiencing chest pains, and it felt like there was a tight band around my heart. (I still wasn’t sure whether or not there was something seriously wrong, so I was hesitant and slightly embarrassed. At this point, I also had no idea I was suffering from anxiety. I didn’t know what anxiety was at the time.)
I was sat down and told to take some pills while I waited. I think they were painkillers. I didn’t ask what they were, I just took them and waited.
I sat in the waiting area with the people around me bleeding and coughing. Their very real ailments kept me wondering whether or not my symptoms were real. There was no doubt the chest pains I was experiencing were real – but were they bad enough for me to be here? It just added to the confusion.
After about an hour and a half (which seemed more like three days) I was called through to speak to a nurse. I explained my symptoms, including the chest pain, and she took me through to lie on a bed, where I was strapped up to a blood pressure monitor.
As the nurse put the pads over my chest, I looked over at the monitor with the bouncy line and numbers. Did they mean I was dying? The unknown was enough to increase my heart rate tenfold.
As I laid on the bed, about half an hour passed, and I began to calm down as I appreciated I was in a pretty good place if anything serious was wrong. With the new state of mind, the chest pain and tightness began to subside.
The nurse came over to look at the monitor results. She didn’t say anything, which was a little concerning. Does that mean it’s bad news? She didn’t seem too concerned, which added to the conflicting feelings. I was reluctant to say anything – I didn’t want to know if it were bad news.
She came back five minutes later and reassured me that everything was OK. The test results were fine.
Although grateful for the news, I didn’t jump off the bed in delight. I was still confused by the whole experience.
She mentioned something about stress and something called a ‘panic attack’, but it was brief with no real substance. The focus was on the test results, and those being OK. I was confirmed as a free man – free to leave whenever I wanted.
I got up and started walking out of the hospital back to my car.
It was true. I was a free man – free from the hospital, that is. But the same couldn’t be said for how I felt inside. I didn’t feel free. For a long time after that experience, I remained a prisoner to the fear that something similar could happen again.
But, as with everything in life, if you choose to, you can just about get a positive out of anything. The positives I draw on this experience is the ability to share it, along with some of the answers that have helped me.
Here are three of the standout things I learnt from the A&E experience – and the many other health anxiety-related experiences like it.
Your mind is very powerful
Never underestimate the power of your mind. It can concoct all sorts of anxiety-related symptoms. You name it, your mind can come up with it.
It’s incredibly difficult, but it’s worthwhile spending some time considering whether or not the symptoms you experience are anxiety-related.
Get in the habit of questioning your symptoms, and not just accepting them.
When you experience numbness, is that anxiety?
When you feel sick, is that anxiety?
When you feel dizzy, is that anxiety?
When you’re at their mercy, anxiety-related symptoms will dominate you. You can only start breaking that pattern when you’re willing to question them.
When you’re prepared to say: ‘Wait a minute. Is this symptom real, or is it anxiety tricking me again?’, you naturally and instinctively up your level of self-awareness.
The panic that health anxiety-related symptoms create isn’t as powerful and doesn’t last as long when your self-awareness is higher.
Health anxiety will have a pretty hard time dominating you when you’re self-aware. It won’t be able to trick you as often. It will still have a good go, and even with a surge of rational thinking, it will succeed at times.
But those times will be limited, as long as you keep questioning.
The doctor’s surgery is an addiction
(I’m also going to include Dr Google in this example. When we’re not in the doctor’s surgery, we’re usually asking Dr Google.)
I’ve made jokes about how much I visited the doctor in Anxiety Rebalance.
It’s the constant need of reassurance that does it. The ‘is it, isn’t it’ back-and-forth internal conversation we have about whether or not it is anxiety has us visiting the doctor (a lot).
Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
And it’s hindsight that tells me, unless you have a genuine need to do so, visiting the doctor only fuels the anxiety further. Ultimately, you get nowhere. If your symptoms are anxiety-related, the diagnosis is always the same, no matter how many times you go. The visits only add to frustration and despair.
This is where rational thinking comes into play.
Rather than jump straight on the phone to make the doctor’s appointment, give yourself some space, sit down, and question whether or not it’s anxiety tricking you. If it is, it’s time to realign your focus.
(If you have any doubt, you should always speak to your doctor. Sometimes we need the reassurance to move on. Just remember that, if you’re seeking reassurance often, it is counterproductive.)
Focus is key
You have a couple of choices when anxiety-related symptoms are hitting you.
- Allow the symptoms to keep the fear cycle turning. Sit still and let all the anxiety-related ‘what if’ type thoughts attack you. Focus on the fear of death, and allow it to consume you – including all the things you can’t control.
- Realign your focus, and focus on what it is you can control.
If you feel like there is nothing in your life you can control, then I suggest you start there. There is always something existing or something you can create that can give you a higher level of control. Focus on that, and everything else, including your health anxiety, won’t play as big of a role in your life.
When I did #1, I stayed trapped. I focused on checking my body for imperfections and continued to worry about the headaches. I was obsessed with the ‘unknown’ and everything I didn’t have control of. The fear created was unbearable.
When I did #2 (which was more difficult), I regained a little more control each time. I focused on the things I could do something about, and that created a new mindset.
Health anxiety isn’t just about worrying about your health. It’s feeling out of control. The only way to balance that is to get some more control.
This creates the only question that matters:
What do you have, or what can you create, that will help you gain more control?
Can you get more control over your job? In a relationship? Doing a hobby?
Realign your focus, and with time and more control, you’ll deal with your health anxiety in an entirely different way.
Are you ready to start dealing with your anxiety? Let’s talk.