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.
There are two sides to bullying. (1) the bully, and (2) the victim.
For a bully to do what they do, there needs to be a victim.
You might not have chosen to get bullied, but being a victim is a choice.
When it comes to being bullied by panic attacks, we can choose not to be a victim any longer.
The surprising connection between a bully and a panic attack
Panic attacks and bullies operate in the same way.
Panic attacks can only exist in a highly anxious, vulnerable state of mind. That is where they flourish. With all the ‘what if’s. . .’, there’s plenty of fuel to stoke the fire of panic.
When our minds are controlled and confident, there’s no victim – nothing for the panic attack to feed on.
What is a bully’s sole intention?
To inflict mental, emotional, and sometimes physical pain.
How does a bully achieve it?
Through intimidation, and by having the attention he craves. No attention means no fuel to stoke the fire.
Why does a bully, bully?
Who cares. Just know that a bully bullies because he can. Forget about understanding his twisted mentality and why he would want to inflict mental, emotional, and sometimes physical pain. Instead, focus on what matters. Focus on the choice you have.
When it comes to being bullied by panic attacks, you do have a choice. I want to make that choice clear to you.
Deal with the bully (panic attacks), or face them for the rest of your life.
Why do some people get bullied and others don’t? You might try and factor in physical presence, but you can guarantee there are examples of people with a bodybuilding physique who get bullied – just like there are examples of smaller people who don’t get bullied.
There will be lots of factors that dictate why some people get bullied and others don’t, but the overriding factor is being a victim.
When I say a bully bullies because he can, it’s because there has to be a victim for the bullying to take place.
Being a victim is a choice.
It’s not your fault if someone chooses to bully you, but it is your fault for letting it continue to happen.
Nobody said facing a bully is easy. But is it any harder than the prospect of dealing with panic attacks for the rest of your life?
Handing over your pocket money to the bully might prevent him from hitting you, but he’ll be back for more. The problem doesn’t go away.
Giving your pocket money away only compounds the problem and makes it worse. The more you do it and give in, the more the bully will expect you to do it.
You have to get to a place that says no more.
I don’t care how you get there, but you have to reach a level where you’re so pissed off with being pushed around, you’re not willing to take it any longer.
I found the best emotion to tap into for this is anger.
If you’re getting bullied by panic attacks, you should be angry.
Anger, when channelled in the right way, is an emotion that supersedes panic. It’s the quickest tool you can use to break the victim mentality.
Get frustrated. Get angry. Get however you need to get to create change.
Unlike your dad’s advice, I’m not telling you to punch the bully in the face. That’s the good thing about a panic attack. You don’t need to.
Anyway, punching yourself in the face won’t do you any good.
You are your own bully
When I say ‘you are your own bully’, I’m not suggesting you get a perverse pleasure in causing yourself mental pain. Of course you don’t. Nobody enjoys panicking and suffering a panic attack.
Your bully is born from habit.
Through patterns of habit and behaviour, your brain has associated things it shouldn’t with a threat to your survival. It’s this association that causes the panic (panic attacks). And it’s this way of thinking that makes you your own bully.
Everyday things like going to the supermarket and seeing friends become unachievable because of the state of mind you’ve created.
This state of mind gets unravelled and dealt with when you start seeing panic attacks for what they really are: bullies.
Confront the bully
The next time you feel the bully (panic attack) provoking you, I want you to say: ‘DO YOUR WORST!’. If you can, shout it. Get angry. You don’t have to verbally say it. Say it in your head. However you say it, mean it.
If there is one thing a bully doesn’t like, it’s confrontation.
That’s why, when you say ‘DO YOUR WORST!’, it won’t get worse – it will get better.
This is a trigger to remind yourself that you’re no longer willing to put up with panic attacks and the physical symptoms they cause any longer.
Like all bullies, pride might dictate that there is some initial retaliation. Pass through it. Keep getting angry, and keep confronting it.
It will soon get the message.
While you do this, please be comforted in the knowledge that a panic attack has NEVER caused anyone any physical harm, ever. Doesn’t this just go to prove that the fear we create is much worse than anything else we experience?
When we don’t fuel the fear (anxiety), there is nothing for the panic attack (bully) to work with.
I’ll repeat the choice that you have.
Deal with the bully (panic attacks), or face them for the rest of your life.
I used to have 4-5 severe panic attacks every day.
Since I’ve adopted this mentality, I’ve not had one since.
Does the bully try it on every now and again?
You bet it does.
While I’m facing new challenges and growing, I wouldn’t expect it any other way.
But now, when I ‘feel’ the sensations of a panic attack, I simply adopt the same physical and mental stance I always adopt.
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.
Panic attacks are one of the worst physical symptoms of anxiety. What can we do when panic hits us, and what choices do we have?
At that moment, when panic attacks, it consumes us.
Panic convinces us that we’re trapped, and we’re so focused on our survival and getting through the panic, we forget that we do have options and choices.
Choices seem like the last thing we have when panic sets in, but we can do more than just allow the panic to consume us and take over.
Feeling trapped and believing our only option is to suffer the panic is part of the trick of panic. It’s a big reason why panic attacks are allowed to continue.
When we appreciate that we do have one more than choice, we can start to look at panic attacks in a different way.
We can look to control and stop them.
Here are five of our most popular reactions to panic attacks. One of them will make all the difference.
Choice #1: Fuel the fear and run
Throw the shopping basket on the floor, and run for your life.
Keep moving forward – run, walk, jog – do anything, as long as people can’t see the sweat on your forehead and the panic on your face as you have a panic attack. That would cause you great embarrassment.
What would people think if they could see me?
What people think matters, so continue to worry about what people are thinking and allow that worry and fear to stoke the fire (panic).
Like a steam train, watch as your fear keeps your panic chugging away and continues to get worse as you stoke the fire.
Choice #2: Question your sanity
Are these symptoms real?
Are they life-threatening?
Is it just indigestion?
Is it a migraine?
Should I call for an ambulance? I might look stupid.
Allow all the ‘what if. . .?’ thoughts to continue to fuel the panic and produce more thoughts about scenarios that will never happen.
Keep questioning your sanity and convincing yourself that you’re not normal.
Allow these negative beliefs to fuel your panic further.
Choice #3: Search Dr Google
Get out your phone or laptop and frantically type in your symptoms on Google.
Fuel the panic further as you read through the symptoms and life-threatening results, believing every word of them.
Spend the rest of your life in and out of doctor’s surgeries, getting more frustrated and disillusioned with every visit.
Make lots of trips to the hospital, seeing specialists and having tests, looking for a diagnosis – one you know you won’t get because deep down you know it’s anxiety.
Allow the constant need for reassurance to keep fuelling your panic.
Choice #4: Fight the panic
Fight the symptoms of panic.
Have a battle with the anxiety and panic, even though you know you can never win against something that is naturally within us all.
Continue to beat yourself up and become more and more disillusioned as you convince yourself your life will never change.
Waste all your energy so you get to a point where you feel like you have no fight left in you – vital energy that could have been used to overcome the panic.
Allow your lack of energy to continue the panic.
Choice #5: Accept the symptoms, stand firm, don’t fight and don’t stoke the fire
Accept the symptoms of panic, and when it hits, don’t fight it.
Say to yourself:
‘I recognise that I’m having a panic attack, but I also accept that it won’t last. It never has. No matter how much I panic, I know it’s never caused me any physical harm. I know it’s a fact that it can’t.’
Get immediate confidence and reassurance by knowing that a panic attack isn’t going to harm you – because it can’t.
A panic attack has NEVER caused physical harm to anyone.
It’s the unknown and ‘what if’s…’ that fuel the panic. This knowledge will help you get rid of these things instantly.
Stand firm, and recognise that, like a bully, panic feeds off fear.
When you give it nothing to feed on, the panic goes away.
Face the panic head-on, and shout out: ‘DO YOUR WORST!’. Shout it out in your head if you can’t do it publicly. Don’t worry about what other people are doing or thinking – that is not your worry or concern.
When you face the panic head-on, it won’t get worse. It will get better.
As your anger, determination and confidence grow, feel the symptoms continue to subside.
Know that when you don’t stoke the fire, panic has nothing to feed off.
As your panic is almost gone, smile. Thank anxiety for keeping you safe. Reassure it, and tell it, on this occasion it wasn’t needed. It was simply a false alarm.
Keep doing the things and visiting the places that cause you to panic, and keep telling your brain you’re OK. No need to panic.
With time and practise, watch as your anxiety and panic triggers ease each time you do these things – until you reach the point you no longer panic.
Choice #5 comes with its challenges. Facing up to a bully isn’t easy. But I can assure you of this: it is no more of a challenge than facing the prospect of being bullied by panic attacks for the rest of your life.