Headache. Neck ache. Sore throat. Fever. Fatigue. Sleeping problems. An itchy toe. You name it – any symptom can be related to anxiety.
I was in and out of the doctor’s surgery.
I didn’t have a clue if I were coming or going – and I don’t think the doctor did either.
The constant need for reassurance was the overriding issue.
If you’re stuck in a cycle of anxiety (fear), it’s likely you’ll be visiting the doctor often. It’s also very likely you’ll be hitting the internet to see Dr Google for answers.
You might stay stuck in the cycle because you’re not finding the answers you’re looking for.
Because I know how deep the need for answers and constant reassurance goes, I want to give you some quick answers to typical anxiety-related symptoms and disorders that you won’t hear from the doctor.
Getting straight to the point, health anxiety is the fear of death. If you’re familiar with my DP Rule from Anxiety Rebalance, you’ll know that our two primary fears are Death and People. When you start dealing with these fears, health anxiety becomes much less of an issue.
At its very basic level, social anxiety is caring too much about what people think. When we feel like crap, we prefer to do it in the comfort of our own homes. Longer-term issues with social anxiety arise because avoidance feels good (at first). As time goes by, social anxiety gets worse when we appreciate a reclusive lifestyle isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. When we get comfortable with the fact that EVERYONE deals with the same issues, including social anxiety, we stop feeling so isolated. We also improve relationships with others – and in turn, drop the social anxiety.
In short, panic attacks are bullies that we create when we’re dealing with high anxiety. We become hypersensitive to all our bodily feelings, and when something is off kilter, even slightly, it can cause us to panic (have a panic attack). When you start managing high anxiety better by implementing all the proper lifestyle and mindset changes, panic attacks move on – like all bullies who don’t get attention.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Summed up, OCD is created because we feel out of control in at least one area of our lives. OCD is a way for us to try and get that control back – even if it means coming up with pointless routines that don’t mean anything. So if you hate your job, for example, and feel like there is nothing you can do about it, you might develop OCD as a way of coping with it. Getting back in control (or at least feel like you’re in control) will stop the need for compulsive behaviour.
Constant Worrying Thoughts (Overthinking)
In a nutshell, constant worrying thoughts are brought about by the ‘what if’ type thoughts we produce when we’re anxious and stressed. ‘What if this. . . What if that. . .’. One thought leads to the next and, before you know it, a small problem has turned into a monster. Learning to control our thoughts will stop the monster from getting out of control.
Depression (Depressive thoughts & low mood)
Very simplified, depression and low mood is a lack of energy and willpower. Being highly anxious and stressed zaps our energy. Energy gives you the get-up-and-go you need for the things you want (and need) to do in life – even the basic everyday things take energy. You can’t do anything without energy. When you’re ready to start working on upping your energy levels through various methods, like good diet and exercise, it helps combat the negative and depressive thoughts.
Agoraphobia put briefly, is when you play with the wrong odds. When you’re agoraphobic, the fear of leaving your comfort zone (usually your house) becomes the overwhelming fear and prevents you from living a normal life. The fear is based on bad odds. When you appreciate that the odds are heavily favoured towards leaving your house and going to live your life as you want to, the door gets opened and a new comfort zone is built.
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.)
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.