What It's Really Like to Live With Health Anxiety
Editor’s note: If you struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or health anxiety, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. To find help visit International OCD Foundation’s website.
I spat in the sink again. And again. And another fifteen times.
Each time I examined my spit, my heart sank while anxiety rose. Blood. The most chilling thing you can possibly see resting inside your saliva.
I flung myself outside and had a “hair gripping,” “back against the wall,” “slowly sliding to the floor” kind of panic attack.
The only way I managed to get myself up again was by giving myself a small task to concentrate on. This strategy can be pretty rock solid for getting over a panic attack. However, because of the circumstances, it was definitely the worst idea imaginable for me, because said task was to go and Google: “Reasons for coughing up blood.”
And that is exactly what I did.
Straight from the floor to the computer, I found myself clicking link after link, all of which provided more disturbing news than the last. Positive I had a hybrid diagnosis containing both throat cancer and an advanced stage infection, I went back to go spit in the sink a couple more times.
There was no blood. Only clear stringy saliva stared back at me.
As I was standing there looking at my empty spit bubbles, reason hit me over the head like a hammer. I had eaten tomatoes two hours ago. The red solution in my spit wasn’t blood — it was residue left over from lunch. I stood there as the seconds ticked by, and watched my drool slowly creep towards the drain. Still reeling from the fact I had just lost my shit over absolutely nothing, I was forced to think back and ask myself, “How did I get here?”
One week earlier:
“Wait, you haven’t taken a blood test in seven years?!”
“But how do you know if you are healthy and that there’s nothing to be concerned about?!”
“I guess I don’t know.” Please drop it.
“So then, why don’t you go?!”
Because I know I’ll have developed some sort of rare health condition no one has found a cure for. I’ll be told there’s no hope, that it’s too late, and be forced to face my impending doom way too soon. “I don’t know.”
The conversation was dead at this point. I knew we weren’t speaking the same language; the words were the same, but the intent behind them might as well have been foreign. I went around for days with a feeling of unsettlement. Even though time was passing since that burdening conversation, I still felt no more distant from it.
Despite repeated attempts at suppressing those thoughts, I could feel them resurfacing. The pressure to do a blood test was thickening in the back of my mind, and I could feel the hot breath of a mental breakdown breathing down my neck.
Identical to any other time I have had health anxiety, I started to hold my chest constantly.
I just need to make sure everything’s working. One heartbeat. Two heartbeats. Three heartbeats.
I saw someone from behind giving me weird looks, so I switched from clutching my chest to checking the pulse in my neck.
Four. Five. Six.
With one hand busy inspecting the efficiency of my heart, it makes doing two-handed projects pretty damn impossible. However, every time I chanced letting go, my heart felt like it was trying to escape from my chest cavity.
When health anxiety is on the rise, day-to-day life can be a gruesome experience. For me, it’s a snowball effect. The thoughts start out periodically, slowly gain more traction over time, then leaving the end result an intense drilling in my brain that ultimately impacts my life.
When did those red spots on my arm start showing up? My thigh just twitched unintentionally, what does that mean? Did that mole on my neck get bigger? My leg fell asleep after only a couple of minutes, that can’t be good. If the control of circulation in my body is worsening, then what does that mean? Is more hair coming out than usual in my hairbrush? Does that mean I’m deficient in vitamins? Could it be possible I’m losing my eyesight? My left eye feels a little bit blurry. I close my right eye and start trying to read the letters on a book cover from across the room. After successfully reading them, I still remain unconvinced. (As I’m writing this, I just submitted myself to yet another eye test. As of recently, they’ve been quite a frequent occurrence.)
The anxiety over my heartbeat had gotten worse.
I started to become overly aware of my heartbeat at all times. I could feel it pounding on every surface of my body, from scalp to toes. Even as I’m writing this now, I’m hunched over the computer in an unnatural and uncomfortable position, arms stubbornly crossed over my chest, relentlessly monitoring every single pump of my heart.
As far as could be understood without taking a blood test (because that’s not happening), there was no valid reason for me to be anxious about my heartbeat.
For instance, one day when I was sitting by my desk at work, I was sure my heart was beating double the speed than normal. Certain I was coming down with a stroke, I forced myself to check my heart rate. I counted the number of heartbeats I had in fifteen seconds, and felt stunned when I got completely average results. From a logical standpoint, this should have comforted me. It didn’t.
It had gotten harder to concentrate in meetings. And to pay attention when my husband was speaking to me.
Sometimes, I could lie in bed for up to four hours before drifting off to sleep, regardless of how tired I might have been. Sleep was toying with me as if we were playing a game. I was constantly running to try and catch it, but the faster I ran and the more I exerted myself, the faster sleep ran away and became impossible. Then once I did manage to fall asleep, I would find myself waking up because I couldn’t feel my heart pounding anymore.
I realize being afraid of my heartbeat is irony at its peak.
The very thing that’s keeping me alive has become unbearable to me. It’s not as if I can wish for my heart to stop beating. Why do I fear that of which I cannot live without?
In the midst of all this, I took the plunge and scheduled a blood test. Fooling myself for a week that I was fine with it, I pushed it to the back of my mind.
Two nights before the upcoming blood test, I woke up at exactly four in the morning with an alertness that was sharp. Immediately, I found myself on my feet and pacing back and forth across the room. Then and there, at the most irrelevant and unexpected time, the worst panic attack I’ve ever known had washed over me.
How long was it? I don’t know. Looking back, I can’t remember what I was thinking, if I ever stopped pacing, or how long I was in that state. The next thing I remember is my husband waking up alarmed, and pulling me back into bed. I didn’t end up going to that appointment. Since all of this ensued, I have managed both to schedule two more blood tests, and find excuses not to go to each one.
It’s not the needle that frightens me.
I’m not scared of needles. I’m not even scared of pain. The cause for the mind-numbing, panic-inducing terror that serves as a barrier between me and a necessary medical procedure is actually very clear.
My biggest fear is not a blood test, nor a stroke, insomnia, cancer or anything that appears as if it instills panic inside of me. I fear only one thing: I fear fear. The blood test only represents a window of opportunity for fear to break in disguised as an illness. And fear is felt the most through the heart.
My heart wants me to live, and works without tire to keep me alive. So why am I afraid of it? The heart is the essence of life itself. The only thing that can be marked as completely doubtless in life is the fact that the heart will be there constantly beating from before birth, up until the last breath.
Many things can be taken away in life, but the heart is not one of them.
Life and fear are linked together — they both sustain each other. Both serve the same purpose and can’t exist without each other. Fear is a tool to protect life, and life is only a treasure because the loss of it is worth fearing. In reality, life is fear and fear is life. So, knowing this, I have to ask myself a difficult question.
Do I fear life? Yes, I think I do. I don’t want to, but I do.
The next step for me is to change my relationship with fear. If I accept fear, I will change my relationship with life. If I accept life, I will change my relationship with my heart. Oh yeah, and if I accept my heart, I guess I will have changed my relationship with blood tests.
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Getty Images photo via Tharakorn. Image in article via contributor.