Accepting Health Anxiety
Accepting health anxiety: You often hear that you should “trust your gut instincts”. It’s probably true for most of the time. But what if those instincts are rooted in fear? Does it then mean that those fearful instincts are distorted and will cause havoc if you follow those gut instincts?
You can appreciate that sending for the emergency fire services each time that someone lights a match because of what might happen to that small isolated fire would be a blatant over-reaction. But when suffer you have excessive fear, your reality is dominated by your emotion; the situation will be catastrophic. With excessive fear, this reaction feels right and the fearful person is unable to “normalise” how less fearful people might dismiss it.
Health anxiety (also known as hypochondriasis) is a condition in which you are preoccupied with the fearful belief that you have or will contract a serious illness. You struggle to enjoy life because you are convinced that all of those bodily “noises” (sensations, feelings and discomforts etc.) that normal healthy people learn to live with is something far more serious. With health anxiety, you are convinced that this small match fire is attached to something highly flammable and needs the fire service to extinguish it. In addition to this, when it has been extinguished, you’re convinced that it will keep relighting and cause another major fire.
Accepting health anxiety: Feared illness or actual illness
The internal systems of the body are constantly making normal “noises” that can affect heart rate, breathing patterns, changes muscle tone etc. Many of those sensations that you feel can alter according to your emotional state. Heart rate slows when relaxed, but increases when you are anxious. Your digestion rate can change with emotions and create many noises along the way! Some of the bodily sensation changes can be uncomfortable, startling and even undesirable, but they are not dangerous. When you are convinced that they are symptoms of a serious illness, your anxiety can exaggerate those sensations, and trigger more of them. When you feel these changes, they are not fabricated. The sensations you feel are real but the fearful beliefs and emotions that underpin them are false. The sensations deceive you because you or people close to you usually have suffered a retrospective medical trauma.
Confronting this internal deception is an important part of your return to health. It means acknowledging that the medical illness you fear is not the medical illness that you have; instead, the fear is the illness.
Accepting health anxiety: From denial to acceptance
Accepting that you have a mental health disorder can be a difficult path. Denial, embarrassment, guilt, shame, frustration, anger and self blame are likely to be just some of your emotional obstacles en route. As you continue your journey, you can then understand what your health anxiety means for you and the options available to cope with it.
Your survival mechanisms can include rituals of exercise, dieting, self care programmes all of which are generally good for your long term health. Some of those rituals can become compulsive and indicate that you are avoiding or struggling to deal with the core issue. This is not your fault as you are driven by your emotions, trying your best to minimise that moment of discomfort.
Your journey of change may initially involve looking back on how it originated. Did you make the retrospective link to childhood values that “taught” you to be fearful of your health? This is not about blaming others, more about understanding your foundation layers of belief. Understanding how you “did it” can relieve some of your mind’s confusion. Some of those learning situations were traumatic and in the same way certain phobias are formed, you were hyper-reactive to the “object” of your fear. Typically, with health anxiety, it involves a close member of your family suddenly falling ill. A massive heart attack can give no warning for you to prepare your grief.
When you are a young child it’s difficult to understand what has happened and how your emotions are affecting you. The mark it leaves on your emotional development won’t show itself for some years to come. It’s likely that authority figures who were coping with their own grief may have shielded you from this trauma without involving you in discussions of your grief. What they may not have realised is that you had already made your own (misplaced and often illogical) associations of health anxiety-learning and this is now taking its hold on you.
So the heart attack trauma and all that you then learn about heart functioning becomes a focus of your attention. Before you understand what stress and anxiety is, you are already convinced that this rapid heartbeat (caused by a panic attack) is a major cause for alarm. Will you also have a heart attack like your close relation? If something does happen to you, will it be your fault if your family go through yet more suffering?
What about other types of family traumas that can exacerbate health anxiety? It is well known that when parents go through acrimonious separations, this creates deep insecurity in children who may struggle with anxiety in the future. This can reinforce the health anxiety “seeds” from a family bereavement or be the start a deep feeling of helplessness when symptoms of anxiety (like a racing heart beat) present themselves. If the excessive attention given to a sick child diverts the family rows, the “emotion gain” can be a trigger for health-related attention-seeking behaviour when the child feels unwell in the future (Munchausen Syndrome).
When you bring health anxiety symptoms into teenage hood, the shift towards a socially-oriented value system brings additional pressure to appear “normal” to one’s peers. Feelings of embarrassment when you get attention are likely to heighten your struggle with excessive anxiety symptoms. You want to remain invisible but the tightness in your chest will surely be noticed and be judged by your peers. You fear looking as if you are having a heart attack and the irreversible damage this will have on your frail social esteem. So you avoid presentations, you suffer panic attacks with exams and your school attendance may suffer as a consequence of your anxiety.
You are still convinced that your palpitations are more than just anxiety. Then there’s the dilemma about admitting these issues to your peers. Will they mock you? Will it make the symptoms worse if they know about it? Afraid to speak out about it, you go through a period of silence, stifling your social confidence and avoiding situations that might trigger your anxiety.
When you are tired of running away from it, you finally speak to your family and they offer their reassurance that it will probably just disappear with time. But how do they know? They aren’t doctors so maybe they’re just trying to distract you. You pluck up the courage to see your doctor who wants to refer you to a cardiologist just to make sure that there is no underlying medical issue. This is helpful that someone has heard you but the appointment is months away. During that period of anticipation, it seems like an eternity. You are convinced that it must be serious to have to see a consultant. Your imagination creates any number of catastrophic scenarios of needing major heart surgery, or that you are untreatable or even worse.
When you finally have your medical consultation, you are told by the consultant that all is clear and it’s probably anxiety. Momentarily, you feel reassured; then you feel betrayed. What if they have missed something? The symptoms are still there and you are not ready to fully accept the diagnosis. “What I am feeling can’t just be anxiety!” The symptoms are too real.
Determined to prove the reality of your chest sensations, you research your symptoms with Dr Google. This is a bit risky because during your research, you are likely to only accept what you already believe. You feel tense during your research and it causes your symptoms to become active just reading about the traumas of heart conditions.
Feeling desperate, you let down your guard and go back to your GP who prescribes some medication for your anxiety. You are not elated about taking medication; you have never had to take medication before. Is it safe to introduce something unnatural into your body? Will it have any side effects? When you research the possible side effects, you read that it could actually cause palpitations. Why was this medication prescribed if it can cause the very problem that you want to resolve?
Feeling betrayed by your doctor, you take matters back into your own hands. The next line of attack is trying untested natural remedies by people who seem to be going through the same situation as you. If it works for them, it could help you too! And when you read the reviews, they are fantastic! You haven’t considered the placebo effect just yet.
Sometimes by coincidence, those natural health remedies help, but the racing heart beat still has its moments. Then, a friend opens up and tells you about their anxiety symptoms. They mention that they have had a similar traumatic background with a relation dying suddenly of a medical condition. You are ready to confide in them and the conversation moves to the topic of health anxiety. In that moment, everything adds up. It takes a while to sink in but when you research “accepting health anxiety”, more of it makes sense.
Now you can get the help that you need. You are not seeking treatment for a medically-based condition; you are seeking treatment for a mental health condition.