Living With Health Anxiety Has Me Worried Sick

worried woman

Last week, I had a canker sore. Big deal, you're thinking. Everyone gets canker sores. They hurt, and then they go away. And this is true, except if you have health anxiety. Because if you do, then something as small and insignificant as a teeny-tiny sore on the inside of your mouth makes your brain feel CERTAIN that you have oral cancer.


And so you lie in bed, staring at the ceiling and wondering who'll take care of your kids when you have to undergo surgery and go through chemo.

And then you feel like a total a**hole because how dare you worry about getting sick when there are people who actually ARE?

Welcome to the world of anxiety, which is a lot like being on a triple-loop roller coaster where everyone around you is laughing and holding their arms up in the air and you're screaming your head off, convinced you're going to die.

I'm actually in great health -- except for my worries about getting sick. Part of it can be blamed on family genes. But it probably hasn't helped that as a freelance writer, I frequently interview doctors about illnesses and tell the stories of people who've battled terrible illness.

The good news, of course, is that they all survived. And many are thriving.

But for someone prone to worrying, the last thing you need to hear -- multiple times a day -- is riffs on:

"I was in great health and everything was going awesome and then ... boom."

Because "boom" is the sound of your life imploding.

If you have anxiety, you worry about the future and all the things barreling toward you that you can't control. (Car accidents, burglars, salmonella, earthquakes, etc.) And when you have heath anxiety, that worrying is concentrated on your body, and how although you inhabit it -- and always have -- it could break down at any f***ing moment and leave you stranded.

(Or paralyzed, on a respirator, unable to speak, etc.)

If you do NOT have health anxiety, this will seem, understandably, quite selfish to you. You might feel a little irked right now, assuming I'm self-centered or must have a hella lot of free time to get so caught up in my head.

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But anxiety doesn't work that way.

It's not narcissism. It has nothing to do with ego. (Although there is a lot of guilt and shame that goes along with it.) And it definitely has NOTHING to do with having extra time.

How I've come to understand it -- in my lifelong pursuit of an "off" button -- is that the anxious brain's a little glitchy. There's a little too much activity going on over here (in the threat detection area) and not nearly enough over there in the rational territory, where neurons are all like, "Keep driving, ma'am. Nothing to see."

Ironically, it can be physically painful to be so fixated on your well-being all the time. And then physical pain makes you feel -- now you're getting the hang of it -- kinda sick.

When you become a parent, your health anxiety also extends its tentacles into your family. I dread when anyone in my house is laid up with a bad cold. Although I cheerfully offer fluids, benevolently allow extra screen time, and keep assuring, "You'll feel better soon. You just need to rest," inside my heart is racing. I'm worrying, "What if....?" And can't stop surreptitiously googling things like, "congestion sore throat when should I worry."

Although I'm going to, regardless. I don't need a timetable.

There are upsides to health anxiety, I suppose. I don't eat crap, for instance. And I get a lot of exercise. And don't even bother to ask if I go for annual checkups, because please. My H.A. (ha) also makes me a pretty empathetic person. If you tell me that you're sick, I will try my f***ing hardest to imagine just how you feel.

But this is certainly not something I'm proud of. There are so many more important things going on in the world than my feeling that I might get sick and die. (Because spoiler alert! We all do.)

And that's why over the years, I've struggled to find a solution to my H.A. Some have been more efficient than others. When I was younger, it required drinking. A lot. Or moving from city to city in hopes of sort of outrunning my fears. Antidepressants helped for a while.

Now my strategies of choice are mindfulness. Therapy. Yoga. Acupuncture. Long walks with friends that include me laughing, "Okay, so here's today's Big Worry...."

I don't quite buy into the idea that my health anxiety is just a part of me that I should embrace and stop attempting to change. If you're starting the #Anxietypositive movement, I'm really not interested. (Unless you're planning a comic strip, because I have a lot of ideas for THAT.)

So then why am I writing about my health anxiety in the first place? Maybe part of me secretly hopes that owning up to my worries will cause a few of them to slink away.

But I'm also hopeful that reading about the health fears that run through my head every day -- Zika virus, acute myeloid myeloma, multiple sclerosis, and that was just this morning -- can possibly help you face up to whatever is in yours.



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