In addition to minor bodily sensations throwing me into a tailspin of catastrophic thoughts, there always seemed to be a few additional causes of my health anxiety obsessions. You already know about one of them. Back when I read about a friend of a friend who was diagnosed with a rare type of leukemia, and then I subsequently convinced myself that I had that same type of Leukemia.
In other cases, I would obsess on behalf of people that didn’t seem obsessed.
Obsessing for other People
One day a few years ago, my husband and I went to visit another couple that we know. We wanted to see their new home, and, the wife was about 7 months pregnant with her first child. At one point during the evening, I noticed her rubbing her rounded belly.
“Is the baby kicking?” I asked.
“No. My stomach just burns so badly,” she replied.
“Oh, you mean like heartburn?” I asked, which is pretty much one of the only things I know that happens during pregnancy.
“No, like my skin burns. It’s like my skin is stretching so much over this new belly that it feels like I have a perpetual sunburn.”
I started to feel my anxiety levels rise. I was genuinely worried for her.
“Oh my god,” I said. “That sounds awful. What does your OB/GYN say?”
“My doctor? Oh, I haven’t bothered to bring it up with her. It’s not a big deal. I’m sure it’ll go away when the baby is born. No worse than a sunburn.”
I didn’t say much beyond that. But I was stressed for her. Why was she taking this lackadaisical approach toward her health? What if that skin burning sensation was a symptom of something more serious? At the very least she should bring it up with her doctor, shouldn’t she? And can you imagine, having constant discomfort all the time!? I’m glad I’ve never had to experience pregnancy.
It was like somehow I was over-empathizing, or somehow projecting my health anxieties onto other people. I was worried about her, but somehow envied her own lack of worry.
Now, after therapy, I realize that this is how non-health anxious people react to mild bodily sensations. That is, they don’t really react. They just observe and move on, sometimes barely noticing the sensation or not associating anything negative with it.
The Tragedies of GoFundMe Pages
I would also obsess when I’d see a tragic-sounding GoFundMe page. For example, when I would see someone I know post a link to a GoFundMe page for someone who has just been diagnosed with some sort of terrible disease. I would try to find out the age of the person, if it’s not on their GoFundMe page. If they’re close to my age or younger, I start to question the rationale about deadly ailments being rare among younger adults (even though I know that applying rational explanations to irrational thoughts is not helpful to someone suffering from OCD.) I mean, after all, here is this young, previously healthy person now fearing for their life after being diagnosed with this disease that was only supposed to affect older people!
What I Learned in Therapy
At some point during my therapy, I started to discuss the way I obsess when I read when someone my age has been diagnosed with a serious illness or died from something unexpected like a pulmonary embolism or a heart attack in a healthy-looking person.
I told Dr. Lindo that, like giving up Googling my symptoms, I’ve now stopped clicking on GoFundMe pages or links to obituaries of young people that friends might post to Facebook.
I thought that that was the right thing to do. Just like not googling my symptoms.
Dr. Lindo explained, “It is fine if you want to avoid reading articles like that for now while you’re learning to treat other aspects of your OCD. However, the long term goal will be for you to be able to read articles like that and to not have subsequent obsessive thoughts. It’s fine to have a normal emotional response to stories like that. It’s sad, even if we don’t know the person. So, it’s okay to be sad. However, you’ll eventually want to learn to have that more appropriate emotional response without all the obsessions.”
Hmmm. Easier said than done, I thought to myself.
My Current State of GoFundMe Page Reactions
I did continue, for quite a long period of time, to avoid reading GoFundMe pages and other pages that might “trigger” a new health worry or obsession for me. These days, I read them. Yet, I’m still not sure if my response is an “appropriate emotional response” like my therapist said should be my goal.
I almost immediately put myself in the shoes of the person who has the disease or has just died. I become overwhelmed at the thought that it probably could have just as easily been me. I empathize with their families, imagining also that the person could have just as easily been a loved one of mine.
I do think I am doing a much better job these days of not having hours or even days-long obsessions about the person, or the disease that is afflicting them or perhaps even took their life.
So, in that respect, therapy definitely “worked.” But I do wonder if I continue to overthink it more than other “non health anxious” people do.
What about you? How do you react when a loved one complains of a minor ailment or when you read a tragic story?