One of the most common questions we get in our inbox goes something like this: “Sometimes I get overwhelmed with anxiety because I truly believe that I have some form of cancer or another illness. I google my symptoms and that makes it worse. Am I the only one that has this?”
Anxiety Sisters with this issue reach out to Mags and me every single day. You are definitely not alone if you find yourself obsessing over health issues. There is even a diagnosis for this (I know since I have it) called Illness Anxiety Disorder (IAD), which used to be known as hypochondria. My diagnosis remains “obsessive hypochondriasis” but, if my psychiatrist were to update my records, I would have IAD. It is closely related to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
Here are some of the hallmarks of this anxiety disorder:
- A preoccupation with having or developing a serious medical condition
- Disbelieving negative test results or a doctor’s reassurance that you are not ill
- Excessive worry about a specific health condition
- Hyper-awareness of every bodily sensation or twinge (as I write this, I am noticing a sharp pain under my left breast—what could cause this?)
- Inability to think or talk about topics unrelated to your health
- Constant googling of symptoms and causes on the internet (apparently, it’s gas)
- Compulsive “checking” for signs of illness
- Hanging out in medical chatrooms
- Avoiding places, people or activities for fear of health risks
- Making frequent medical appointments (in order to receive reassurances you will then ignore)
- Searching for “specialists” and field experts to accurately diagnose what other practitioners have missed
- Avoiding medical appointments for fear of discovering that you do indeed have a serious illness
All of this obsessional thinking and irrational behavior can wreak utter havoc on your life. It certainly made a mess of mine: for months, I was unable to leave my home for fear of having a heart attack in public—despite tests that showed over and over that I have a healthy heart. I constantly checked my pulse and even stopped exercising for fear that it would cause my heart to beat too fast. When I finally did leave my house, I made sure I was within 5 miles of a hospital. I knew all the local cardiologists and the names of specialists I would call when the big event happened. And I had so much difficulty falling asleep at night due to unbearable worrying about whatever symptoms I had that day. Did I mention the ER visits? There were a few…IAD can be very expensive!
Mags and I gently remind our suffering sisters that what they are feeling is indeed anxiety. We say it again and again—not because we have the patience of saints—but because we understand from experience that it takes a very very long time and lots of repetition to chip away at that anxiety loop. Therapy alone was not enough. For me and for many others, that loop can be interrupted only by medication. Sometimes a brief stint on anti-anxiety meds can be enough to allow rationale to enter the picture. Oftentimes, this type of OCD requires a long-term commitment to an SSRI or similar drug. I look at it this way: I take my Prozac every day so I don’t have to take my pulse every day.
Once the illness anxiety loop is disrupted, you can then pursue other techniques such as saying mantras aloud (for example, “This too shall pass” or “I am not dying”). Diaphragmatic breathing is also really helpful as are other distracting activities like grounding and yoga.
What helps you manage your health-related anxiety?