Why do you freak out so much over normal bodily sensations? Are you just being a drama queen?
For years, I couldn’t figure out why I was freaking out over any little bodily sensation. Tingling hands, sore leg, twitching eyelids, slight headache. Nothing was too small to drive me into a downward spiral of catastrophic thoughts. In my opinion, I don’t think I was being a “drama queen.” I kept all my mysterious “ailments” to myself, so it wasn’t like I was looking for attention or pity. The only one I confided in was my husband. So, no, I was not looking to create any drama.
As I learned in therapy, the reason I was freaking out over bodily sensations was simply because I had “trained” myself to do so. It was a gradual process of becoming aware and increasingly worried about the sensations. It got to the point where I would immediately panic.
Why don’t you just “think about something else” when it’s happening?
Man oh man, I wish I could. But, when I think I’m dying, unfortunately that’s all my brain can focus on. I did force myself to do things to distract myself when I was feeling overly anxious about my health, but that worry was always “there.” I was never able to shed it no matter how much I attempted to distract myself.
I don’t know, I think you may actually have a health problem. You describe feeling so many aches and pains at such a relatively young age, but I don’t get those. I mean, chest pains? That sounds really serious!
You probably do get those aches and pains, but they just come and go so fast that you don’t even pay attention to them. I will freely admit that mine are rarely “bad”pains or long lasting pains. However, as I learned in therapy, I had “trained my brain” over the course of nearly a decade to become hyper aware of these mild sensations and to pay far more attention to them than needed. So, even the tiniest, quickest of sensations was enough to make me worry.
Your story sounds just like mine, but I don’t think I can ever ease my anxiety.
Oh friend, there is hope! Seeking therapy was the best decision I had ever made to ease my health anxiety. I had tried many “at home” treatments prior to seeking professional help, like meditation or deep breathing, but nothing helped in the slightest. Once I had my diagnosis of an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which I was pretty resistant to accept, I was finally able to get treated properly, both during my therapy sessions and outside of therapy.
Aren’t you basically disrespecting the people who have real, legitimate illnesses?
I can see how some people might think this. I don’t really know what to say other than that I certainly don’t mean any disrespect. In fact, reading about others with real illnesses causes me to over empathize with them!
Did you really stop Googling your symptoms?
Yes. Cold Turkey. I have not googled any symptom since September 2016, about one month after I started therapy. Even if I think it’ll “make me feel better.” If I have a symptom that I’m worried about, I’ll make a doctor’s appointment. Don’t get me wrong, the temptation to Google symptoms is still there. In fact, just recently, it seems like my eyelashes have been falling out at an alarming rate, and I have been tempted to Google that a few times. But, I wont’ Google it. If it persists, I’ll go to the doctor. So yes, the temptation is still there, but it has gotten better as time has progressed. I find that giving up googling my symptoms has been one of the biggest improvements to my hypochondria / Health Anxiety OCD. (Update: I did have a bit of a slip up in early 2019, but I’m back on the No Googling Wagon).
But how do you trust the doctors?
Really, there’s no easy answer to this, other than to just do it. I learned in therapy that an anxious mind is not receptive to rational explanations. So, if you’re anxious about having a brain tumor, telling yourself that “my doctor ran all sorts of test and said it’s not a brain tumor,” might not actually help ease your anxiety. Instead, taking steps today to ease your obsessive thoughts and worries about your health will, eventually, help ease your anxieties.
The way I see it is that we all have to die someday, so why worry so much about getting sick or dying when you’re alive and well?
I really, really wish I could have this attitude!
Why is your blog called Hypochondriac Tales? Isn’t hypochondriac an old-fashioned term? And doesn’t that imply that your ailments are all imagined?
I learned about this during therapy. However, I had spent years trying to seek help as a “hypochondriac.” Even though the term might be old-fashioned or not entirely accurate, that was how I had referred to myself for nearly a decade, and I think others might refer to themselves as the same.
And, let’s just be real here for a second, most of my ailments WERE imagined. No, the pain and aches and twinges weren’t imagined, but sincerely thinking that I had a brain tumor simply because I had a headache is, frankly, still an imagined ailment.
I think I just have health anxiety, not OCD. Why were you diagnosed with OCD?
For years, I just thought I was a “hypochondriac” or had “health anxiety.” Those were really the only two terms I understood. I always thought I was sick, hence, I was a hypochondriac. But, after a few appointments with my therapist, she diagnosed me with an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I told her, “Of all the things I ever thought was wrong with me, OCD was definitely NOT one of them.” But, the more she explained about OCD, and the more I learned about it in the books that she recommended, I started to realize that my “health anxiety” had OCD written all over it. Think about it. When you’re anxious about your health, don’t you have obsessive thoughts about your health and all the consequences that come with having health problems? Well, that was already one part of the OCD equation. Then, once I started to realize that I had “compulsions” that I never even paid attention to, it all started to fall into place.
Are all your weird bodily sensations just imaginary?
Nope, definitely not imaginary. Sure, I might blow them out of proportion, but I definitely feel weird aches and twinges.
Have you ever tried deep breathing or meditation?
Prior to starting therapy, I was EXTREMELY anti-deep breathing. Mostly because I had tried it many, many times in the past, and I never found it helpful. In fact, sometimes I found that it made me even more anxious, because sometimes abdominal pains would become more pronounced while I was breathing deeply. Once I started therapy, deep breathing was one of the therapist’s recommended exercises. I told her about my aversion to deep breathing. She explained that deep breathing is not always meant to help in the moment (although it definitely can help for some people). She explained that, when I was feeling anxious, deep breathing would slowly “re-wire” my brain to have calmer reactions to stressful situations (such as feeling an unusual bodily sensation). So, she explained, even if I thought the deep breathing was “making things worse,” I should do it anyway.
I have tried to get into a regular meditation and mindfulness routine. However, I haven’t found anything that has stuck yet.
I definitely am anxious about my health, but I don’t think I have any compulsions though.
This is why it’s important to consult with a mental health professional. I swore up and down that I also did not have compulsion. There was no repeated, ritualistic behavior that I engaged in. However, I learned that compulsions do not always have to be the same behavior repeated over and over again. Sometimes I’d stop and push on the spot causing me pain. The vast majority of the time I would Google my symptom. Other times I’d lay down, or sometimes I’d pour myself a glass of wine. In cases where I could, I’d almost always stop what I was doing to focus on the pain. I learned that these are all types of compulsions, and just because I wasn’t repeating the same type over and over again, doesn’t mean they’re not actually compulsions.
Did you take medication to help your OCD?
No, I did not. The discussion of medication to treat my OCD came up after my first few therapy appointments. One of the many annoying things that come with suffering from health anxiety is reading too much about the side effects of medications. This had been a problem for me with any medication I’ve taken in the past, from simple antibiotics to when I needed to start medications for my high blood pressure. I told my therapist that I wanted to try several months of talk therapy before committing to any medications. If the therapy wasn’t working on its own, then I’d consider her recommendations for medication. But, that was never necessary because the talk therapy and at-home treatments (like “imagined exposure”) were enough to help!
What about Yoga?
I’ve never really been able to stick to a dedicated Yoga routine in order to find out. But, I definitely feel calmer after a Yoga session, even though I suck at it and it really hurts my wrists.
Would you consider yourself cured of your Health Anxiety OCD / hypochondria?
Cured? No. But, I’d say that I’m 90% more relaxed about normal bodily sensations than I was before starting therapy. And, I have to constantly be mindful about not falling back into my old habits that I learned just “fed” my anxiety instead of easing it. On a related note, I also found that therapy helped significantly with my fear of flying.
What ever became of your XYZ symptom? I’m having that symptom too and am trying to figure out if I should go to the doctor.
In therapy, I learned, among many other things, that instead of worrying, take action. If you’re worried about a particular symptom, stop Googling it, stop trying to interpret your own symptoms. Go to the doctor instead. Take action.
How did you find your therapist? I’m having trouble finding ones that accept insurance and/or are reasonably priced.
First, I’d recommend checking the website of your health insurance company. They should have a list of providers, and you can likely filter by speciality (like Psychiatry or Psychology). Or (and this is how I found mine), I asked my primary care doctor office for a list of mental health professionals they recommended, and narrowed down the ones that took my insurance.
How does your husband handle your hypochondria / Health Anxiety OCD.
He is extremely supportive. The OCD workbook that my therapist recommended actually has sections in each chapter for family members of those with OCD. The sections describe how to “handle” that person’s OCD, which is good, because honestly, sometimes I don’t even know how my husband should react. Most health anxiety sufferers know that simply being told, “Oh, I’m sure it’s nothing,” is NOT reassuring, despite the partner’s best intention of being helpful. But, I also learned that “reassurance seeking” is a classic OCD behavior, and should not be encouraged or fed. This talked about one assurance-seeking scenario in a separate post here. Long story short, tell the people in your lives that when it appears you’re trying to seek assurances, they should put the question back on you.
Did you have any symptoms of depression along with your OCD?
No. According to several studies, between one-quarter to one-half of OCD sufferers also suffer from depression. But, I was not diagnosed with any depression. I find that forcing myself to continue with hobbies and other things that I enjoy is probably a huge contributing factor to this.
How long did it take for your health anxiety symptoms to ease? I’m desperate to stop worrying so much.
Don’t expect any quick fixes to your health anxiety. If you’re worried about having multiple sclerosis today, despite repeated assurances from your doctor, you’re probably going to continue to be worried about it for the rest of today. And tomorrow. And the next day. It took me about eight weeks before I started having noticeable improvements in my health anxiety symptoms. That included one 1-hour therapy session per week, and about 3-4 hours per week of work outside of therapy (completing workbooks and worksheets, reading the books my therapist recommended, etc.). I did have some setbacks along the way, but I am leaps and bounds better now compared to pre-therapy.
Should I do the same things you did to help your health anxiety?
No. Do not listen to things you read from strangers on the internet. Instead, seek therapy from a mental health professional and get your own diagnosis and treatment plan.