I repeat the same tiring ritual every morning. I take the dreaded first look in the mirror, check for odd bumps or any out-of-place sensations. I continue my scrutiny throughout the day, in a way that’s nearly impossible not to find something out of the ordinary. A razor burn. Skin cancer? Night sweats. I’ve contracted HIV somehow. Or I could have lymphoma.
The truth about health anxiety—formerly referred to as hypochondria—is that it goes far beyond a crammed medicine container and searches of random symptoms on WebMD. In fact, oftentimes there are little to no chemicals in the picture as putting chemicals in my body often worsens my symptoms.
My health anxiety gives me the sensation of being held hostage by my own body. As though my cells, tissues and organs do not belong to me. Instead, I must do as they please, whether it is through exercising, eating or absorbing a precise amount of sunlight. Protection of my physical body is not so much a healthy choice, as it is an uncontrollable, addictive survival mechanism.
Realistically speaking, nothing would happen to me health-wise if I set my worries aside and stopped my daily inspections. My rational side occasionally reminds me of that. However, worrying has become habitual. The hardest part is deconstructing this pattern—a skill I have yet to perfect.
I’ve lived with this condition for as long as I can remember, enough to grow accustomed to it and learn how to manage it. Though my anxiety is still there, I can assure you I’ve significantly improved. Here are some personal tips and conclusions I’ve gathered over the years.
Make Sure You’re an Expert at It
If you have health anxiety, you most likely can’t help but research your potential diseases online. Right? Then why not google the one you know you have?
Yes, health anxiety. Gather every possible piece of information you can. Revel in reading the symptoms and finding a mirror within them. Especially when you feel like you’ll die from that headache that you’re certain is brain cancer. Then relax for an hour or two knowing your disorder is to blame for those extreme thoughts. This might require repetition in the beginning, especially because people with health anxiety often need reassurance.
The more you acquaint yourself with something, the more comfortably you can deal with it. That’s no secret. Imagine a project you’re very anxious about. If you learn the subject and have a deep understanding of it, you’ll most likely be less panicked. Because it’s a part of your being, anxiety won’t go away completely. But you can lessen its grasp through understanding and self-awareness.
Find What Works for You
It’s natural to feel overwhelmed when countless people share their particular way of dealing with a situation and they turn out to be contradictory. It goes without saying that not every solution works well for every single person. This happens simply because each person is affected differently. You’ll want to find what fits your specific situation, which may require a bit of trial and error.
For example, after years of reading about how I’m not supposed to check my body repeatedly and power through my anxiety instead, I found that avoidance wasn’t helpful in my case. Therefore, I began letting the little monsters inside. I give them what they want. I check as many times as I need, until I think “You know what? This won’t do anything for me.” Because deep down, I know it won’t.
Stop Blaming Yourself
The circumstances, neglect and traumas you’ve faced throughout your life play a role in how your brain functions. These experiences helped create and mold your own personal “anxiety pack.” And while you may think you are to blame for whatever is triggering the intrusive thoughts—you’re not. You did not build your “anxiety pack.” The negative thoughts you experience are symptoms. You are not telling yourself to have these anxious thoughts, just like you cannot tell yourself to simply stop having them. However, just because it’s not your fault doesn’t mean it’s okay to deliberately avoid necessary treatment or seeking help.
Don’t Rebuke Treatment Because of Stigma
Health anxiety is a type of anxiety disorder. Some people forget that anxiety and depression have various branches within them, which must be treated accordingly with specific medications, therapy or a combination of both.
Remind yourself that you are the one going through this. Not your family, not your friends. They have no idea how it feels. They should not be a barrier to you getting better. I’ve met people whose insurance covered mental health services, but the shame around it was so strong that they would rather struggle in silence. This is unfortunate, since consulting a professional is a very important piece of managing your specific condition.
I can’t stress enough that treatment with a professional is key to recovery. Before I finally started seeing a therapist, I thought I was the only person who felt this way. I never realized there was a medical term for my condition, and that it’s more common than I thought. Getting help made me feel like I belong, and maybe that’s all I needed to get started.
Even with the suffering health anxiety can make me endure, my fear of death has taught me a lot about living. I’ve reached a crucial point in my recovery where I realize I can acknowledge my fear, but also acknowledge that the time I spend with my worries is time I could be using to improve my life. I’m unsure if my anxiety will ever go away. But now that I know how to live with it, I’ve accepted my anxiety as a part of my life, and I’m on the road to recovery.
Laila Resende is a 20-year-old student from Brazil, pursuing a degree in English. Writing helps her cope with the pesky disadvantages of an anxiety disorder. She blogs at The Thought Inventory, where she shares pieces on writing, life and passion.
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