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A Day in the Life of Someone With Health Anxiety

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Editor's Note

If you struggle with health anxiety, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

I’m sitting in a hospital waiting room, on one of the hottest days of the year so far. I’ve already taken two beta-blockers today and my palms are so clammy I can barely hold onto my phone. My foot taps irritatingly on the ground and I feel like the most worried person in the room, as everyone around me flips through magazines without a care in the world.

I’m here for an X-ray on my ankle, after complaining it hurts first thing in the morning. I’d assumed it was something simple like a sprain or potentially a small case of arthritis until I spoke to my general practitioner (GP) who was concerned it was “something sinister.” Throughout the call, the doctor used the word “sinister” three times, each time jarring me out of my nice, comfortable bubble and catching me off guard.

I spent the two days following that phone call panicking, crying and visualizing the diagnosis that lay ahead, repeatedly scaring myself with the notion this scan would reveal a large tumor in my ankle. I was now facing chemotherapy, amputation, radiation, iodine treatments, losing my hair, losing my leg… What I’d imagined was a small amount of pain was actually hiding a much larger problem, one that no amount of physiotherapy could cure. I was terrified.

As I’m called into the X-ray room, my heart is pounding and there’s a good chance I might be sick. I explain to the nurse medical situations make me anxious and she’s very kind and warm about it. She takes the first photo and all I can imagine is what the next 30 seconds of my life will look like. Being walked down a corridor, being told the prognosis, being shuffled off for more tests and more scans and more anxiety. I’m not ready for it.

Obviously, my ankle was fine. In fact, the X-ray team was only checking for fractures, which is what I imagine the GP was referring to. But in my head, I was already facing cancer.

Health anxiety is a painful, frustrating, panic-inducing and irrational condition that drives the individual to imagine the very worse health conditions imaginable happening to them. A simple stomachache can become colon cancer, a headache becomes a brain tumor and a fast pulse rate is the onset of a heart attack. My health and my physical body have, over the past year, become my obsession and it often feels like there is no way to stop it.

When I was in school, I used to view my health as something I could use to grab people’s attention. The most popular kids were the ones with bandages on their arms, who had to take time off school when they were sick, who had frequent bumped heads and dentist appointments. Whenever I was ill, I would milk it for all I was worth. I’d take all of the sympathies and use them to boost my own self-esteem, never once worrying anything serious might happen to me.

Now, it’s a very different story. Every, single day, I wake up and my brain tries to convince me I have cancer. It infects my every waking thought and I can spend hours lost to the hypothetical hospitals of my mind, in hysterics, crying because my chest felt different that day.

For those around me, it’s an exercise in irritation and confusion, as they’re greeted less by “hello” and more by, “Can you check this mole for me?” I know I’m being annoying, and I know I’m being irrational, but that need to be reassured just won’t stop. There are places on my body I cannot touch. There are places on my boyfriend’s body I cannot touch. I have an inane fear when I hug someone, they’ll feel a lump in my breast that will turn out to be cancer. It doesn’t stop.

Throughout the pandemic, health became topic number one in daily conversation. And whilst COVID-19 itself didn’t frighten me, the long-term backlog of other health conditions treated in hospitals became a growing concern. There were stories of people missing their cancer treatments due to overcrowded ICUs or GPs cancelling appointments that could help diagnose a tumor. People were dying and the death toll was rising and then the whole world seemed more concerned with health than ever. For someone like myself, this was dangerous.

Distraction is the best antidote to an intensely anxious brain. Finding ways to take your mind off your body is vital to staying calm and balanced on a regular basis. But with everyone trapped inside their homes, and work slowing down, the distractions I needed were becoming harder and harder to access. My focus had shifted from the rest of the world to the inside of my living room, pacing frantically as I thought about all of the things that could go wrong in my body. It frightened me, the idea I might have to live the rest of my life being this afraid of every small change or shift inside me. How would I be able to move forward with this, grow older, have a child with this level of anxiety plaguing me all the time?

Health anxiety is sometimes lost amongst the more common mental health conditions, but it’s all too real for many of us. There’s no easy way to break your cycle of obsessive thoughts and it can take years to undo the reassurance-seeking habits you so readily picked up. Learning not to body check, not to Google, not to over-examine and not to panic is a lengthy and difficult task and it’s something I definitely have not mastered yet.

I know through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), exposure therapy and thought reexamining, change is possible, but it can feel like the anxious behaviors have taken root inside me and even getting to the point of admitting, “I might not have cancer” is difficult. When everything in my mind and body feels like it’s screaming at me to pay attention, sitting down and saying, “Actually, I’m OK,” can be a mighty task.

There are many hurdles and barriers and mental obstacles to overcome in the journey away from health anxiety. It can mean facing some of the very things you’re most afraid of, encountering your worst fears in real life and pushing your mental health to the very edge to get there, but I think it is possible to get better. I mean, it can’t get any worse, so it’s always worth a try.

Getty image by Aleksei Morozov

Originally published: July 10, 2021
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