Back in 2012, I achieved my personal best in the marathon. It was when I first met Loki, our Siberian husky. However, the days succeeding my achievement were tainted with constant worrying. It wasn't about Loki, bless his playful soul, but the pain in my chest and rapid beating of my heart. It felt different from the exhaustion right after running those miles. I found myself in a doctor's office fretting about a possible heart condition. An important point to note is that I am not sharing this story for you to arm yourself with worry. It is a situation many of us find ourselves entangled in and more often than not, is nothing more than health anxiety.
Health anxiety is a reality for many. It feels like falling into a never-ending abyss of worry about one's health, often interpreting normal bodily functions or non-serious symptoms as a sign of grave illness. It circles around the persistent fear of admitting yourself to a hospital or constantly looking over your shoulder, dreading a serious illness ambush. Health anxiety is not labeled as “crazy”, nor is it about making initial mountains out of possible molehill symptoms.
Picture this. You're sitting on your couch, enjoying a peaceful evening with your spouse. Let’s call her Edna. The television is whispering updates from the news channel, Loki's dozing on the carpet, and suddenly, there's this sting on your back. Instead of brushing it off as a minor spasm, we jump to the conclusion of it being a symptom of something dreadful. The trigger could be a simple physical sensation, news about a health issue, or even a movie where the character suffers from a certain medical condition. An important factor that influences the predisposition towards health anxiety is the traumatic experiences associated with health problems, especially as a child.
But this is not about turning a blind eye towards symptoms. Rather, it's about finding a balance, quelling the panic when common issues emerge, and understanding when professional advice is needed. A prolonged cough is different from occasional bouts during changing weather. Frequent, skull-crushing migraines are not to be shrugged off as work stress. But a sharp intake of breath as you pull a heavy box is not a sign of lung disease, friends. It’s just you punishing your body for not hitting the gym enough, like your spouse Edna has been nagging you to.
Our mind is an amazing, powerful tool, capable of convincing us about the worst possible scenarios. It is no surprise, then, that health anxiety doesn’t just stay in our heads! It affects our everyday life, relationships, and most importantly, our actual health. You might find yourself frequently checking your body for irregularities or avoiding places and activities that could potentially cause illness or injury. Obsessive-compulsive disorder could creep in, as much as we would want to deny it.
Health anxiety can also lead to strain in relationships, mainly because it might be challenging for others to relate to the constant fear that smothers those with health anxiety. You could also find yourself losing sleep, with your mind mulled over with "what if" scenarios, impairing both your physical and mental health. It is indeed a self-fulfilling prophecy – but don’t tell Edna, she would hate to hear “I told you so”! Plus, this affects Loki too. A worried face does not make an attractive playmate.
All that being said, it is essential for us not to let health anxiety eclipse the beauty of living. The road to overcoming health anxiety involves boosting confidence, managing stress, restructuring the way we think about symptoms, and implementing practices that encourage peace of mind.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is considered effective in treating health anxiety. This interactive therapy helps identify negative thinking patterns and teaches coping strategies to overcome anxiety-inducing situations. Relaxation techniques such as meditation or yoga can also be beneficial. Regular exercise, keeping a health anxiety diary or even sleeping enough and eating right could help. For example, I noticed that just spending time exercising with Loki not only helped me physically but also lifted my spirits. The race to overcome health anxiety is a marathon with no finish line. But, don't be disheartened; think of it as a lifelong process of self-improvement instead.
Dealing with health anxiety can often be a lonely road littered with constant worry and fear. But remember, there's no shame in seeking help. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is not a magic pill, but a tool, and psychologists are skilled artisans who can help us wield it effectively. Edna was instrumental in my journey. Her relentless support provided me with the strength to take steps towards managing this issue. So, do not hesitate to seek emotional support from your loved ones. It's a battle that's best fought with an army behind you. You're not alone in this fight.
Similarly, online forums and support groups can provide a sense of community and help reduce feelings of isolation. You could also take comfort that you are not the only one who perceives a sprain as the first step to paralysis or who feels a cold sweat breaking at the mention of an outbreak on the news. Your feelings are valid, friends. And there are countless others who feel the same way. Stand on the frontline with them, Loki at your side, and Edna waving her pom-poms. Together, we can overcome health anxiety.