In the beginning part of my therapy, I was pretty much focusing on controlling my compulsions. I would estimate that I saw about a 70% improvement in my Health Anxiety OCD thoughts in the first 4-6 weeks simply by controlling those compulsions. I thought I was well on the route to being “cured.” I no longer Googled my symptoms, I no longer touched or pushed the spot that was aching me. I even experienced several small “wins,” where I wasn’t freaking out about a weird bodily sensation when I knew I previously would have.
The Collarbone Pain
I had done very little else at first other than controlling my compulsions in my battle against health anxiety OCD to get better. But then, one day, I started to get this strange ache in my collarbone. I had had this same pain before on several occasions, so although I didn’t Google the symptom this time, I had remembered the results of what I had Googled the previous times I had this same pain. I remembered reading that pain around the collarbone could indicate some sort of infection around the heart.
I tried telling myself that I had had this collarbone pain on several other occasions and that nothing ever came of it. (Clearly I was forgetting that I learned that rational explanations do not help ease anxiety).
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Adding to my anxiety this time was that the collarbone pain was different from the previous times I had it. The times I had had it before, the pain was usually gone within an hour or two. This time, I had it all day. The pain started shortly after I woke up, and by the time I was eating dinner, I still had it.
That day of collarbone pain was torture for me on a few levels. One, of course, was the worry that there was something seriously wrong with me. I mean, it could be a HEART INFECTION. Should I go to the ER? I had been implementing the techniques I had been learning at therapy over the previous several months. I wasn’t engaging any of my compulsions. I was practicing deep breathing. But nothing seemed to be helping.
That brings me to the second reason of why my collarbone pain incident was especially unsettling.
I thought I had been getting better! I thought my anxiety about my health had been starting to ease! I had experienced at least three overwhelmingly positive experiences so far, where I actively realized that therapy was helping with my health anxiety. But here I was, seemingly right back to square one. Obsessing, worrying, catastrophizing.
With this single collarbone pain incident, despite all the progress I had made in several months of therapy, I concluded that I was hopeless. That I would, for the rest of my life, be doomed to worry about all these health “problems” I had.
I went to bed that night feeling downtrodden.
When I woke up, the collarbone pain was gone. And, I hadn’t died overnight. I didn’t have any further “symptoms” of a terrible heart infection.
I had spent the entire previous day worrying for NOTHING.
Discussing my Setback at Therapy
A few days later, I had my regular weekly therapy appointment. I brought up the collarbone pain incident. I was really emotional as I was describing it, telling her that “I thought I had been getting better!”
Dr. Lindo went on to explain, “Sometimes, the brains of people with high anxiety become so programmed to going into “lizard brain” mode, that when they start to seek treatment and don’t have those same overly-anxious reactions, the brain can sometimes freak out. She said that my brain was now in the mode of trying to get me to overreact again, simply because that is what my brain is used to. She explained that my brain was now “confused” that I hadn’t been overreacting recently to these bodily sensations the same way I had been reacting for the past 10 years. And now, my brain was going into overdrive, sending even extra signals of “danger danger danger” to the rest of my body, causing excessive anxiety. She explained that I just needed to stick with what I had been doing, and that my brain would eventually adjust its faulty wiring and stop sending such dramatic signals to my body when they were not needed.
She reminded me that, during my first therapy appointment, she said that when people seek therapy, sometimes things get worse before they get better. That’s because therapy is bringing to the surface a lot of the emotions that OCD sufferers tend to learn to hide over time. She told me that I was not hopeless. That I’d continue to get better.
A few months later, I had another minor setback. This is a bit of a weird story, but I want to tell it in its full detail. It’s hard to explain exactly what happened, but as I was preparing dinner, I was using a cheese grater. It’s one of those rotary graters that like they use at Olive Garden to put parmesan cheese on your meal after it’s been served. Somehow, the grater broke and I didn’t realize it. So, as I was grating my cheese, I was also grating little tiny bits of plastic from the grater itself. Since I didn’t know what had happened, I grabbed a little bite of the freshly grated cheese, and could tell as I was eating it that something tasted “off.” Don’t ask me why, but that prompted me to take ANOTHER bite. Within a minute, I realized what had happened, and that in addition to the cheese, I had also been eating tiny bits of grated plastic.
I immediately felt my face get hot with panic. It’s like I could “feel” the plastic poisoning my insides. I was imagining the little bits scraping up my esophagus and stomach lining, “no doubt” causing irreparable damage. I called over my husband to the kitchen and showed him what had happened. I said, “Do you think I should make myself throw up?”
“No!” he said. “It’s food grade plastic.” And while I shouldn’t attempt to eat the whole thing, the plastic certainly wouldn’t poison me.
I was trying to do everything I had learned in therapy up to that point. Deep breathing. Reciting to myself, “these are irrational thoughts.” But I was still so damn mad at myself. I had become better at being calmer in response to normal bodily sensations. But this weird scenario was making me overreact again. I forced myself to continue on with making dinner, and eating dinner, even though I had completely lost my appetite. Continuing on with my plans is something that I know was a good decision based on what I had learned in therapy. Previously I probably would have laid down in bed to calm down and maybe even fall asleep.
When I told my therapist about the plastic eating story, she concurred that my reaction was irrational. I told her that I had already been a bit “on edge” that day. My sister and I had gotten into an argument earlier in the day, and I was still reeling from it. I surmised that if I hadn’t been previously stressed about something else, maybe I wouldn’t have reacted so negatively. But, it’s really impossible to draw that conclusion. It’s also impossible to tell if, perhaps, had I NOT been in therapy up to this point, maybe my reaction would have been even worse.