Here Is A Lifeline To Interrupt Health Anxiety

by | Jun 28, 2020 | Uncategorized | 19 comments

Photo taken via drone by my son

In my early twenties, shortly after my first panic attack unleashed the underworld of everything I had squashed down for the first twenty-one years of my life, I became highly sensitized to every tingle, bump, and ache in my body. At one point, my hyper-focus on a sore spot at the top of my head escalated to the point of obsession and I was convinced I had a brain tumor.

This was 1995, pre-internet, long before I knew that “health anxiety” was even a “thing”. When I contemplated seeing a doctor, I vacillated between terror that they would confirm my worst fear and hope that perhaps I would receive a clean bill of health that would allow me to move on. Ambivalence about seeing a doctor is a hallmark of health anxiety, but I didn’t know this at the time.

Eventually, my need to know won out and I booked the appointment. I was terrified, for anxiety was constantly convincing me of the catastrophic scenario and, as anxiety is wont to do, I found evidence to confirm its diagnosis and prognosis everywhere. But what the doctor said, other than assuring me that I didn’t have a brain tumor, has become a mantra that I’ve returned to many times in my life and have shared with countless anxiety sufferers. He said,

“If there’s a problem, it will become obvious.”

Years later, after my first son was born, I received similar advice. My baby had his first cold and the symptoms seemed to be worsening. I asked a wise elder, “How do you know when to take your baby to the doctor or the ER?” She said, “It will be obvious. You won’t be asking, ‘Should I go or not go?’ You’ll just go.” She was right. While I’ve been scared every time my kids are sick (anxious mind always imagines worst-case scenario), a wiser part of me has been able to watch and observe to discern the severity of the illness and make a choice based on wisdom instead of fear.

This has saved us many unnecessary trips to the doctor’s office, and hopefully has transmitted a message to my boys that their bodies are brilliantly designed to heal and often know just what to do to return to homeostasis and health. And when our son was twenty months old and bounced off an air mattress only to land just in the wrong way that led to a cry I had never heard come out of him, we didn’t hesitate to rush him to the doctor. (As it turned out, he had a broken collar bone.)

We have a choice when health anxiety wants to assign worst-case interpretation to every symptom, whether it’s your own, your partner’s, your child’s, or your pet’s (I’ve been prone to having bouts of health anxiety with our cat). If you attach onto every bump or ache and run with the cancer baton, you’ll either be calling your doctor constantly or you’ll start yet another round of healthy anxiety with the constant checking.

Remember: Whatever we water, grows. This applies to all forms of anxiety, but to health anxiety in spades.

But if you can discipline yourself and meet the initial symptoms or perceived symptom with the wise and loving parent who can say, “If there’s a real problem, it will become obvious”, then redirect your attention to something creative, connecting, or life-enhancing, you will save yourself weeks or months of agony.

In order to do this, it’s essential to be willing to free fall away from the seductive vine of worry that convinces you that if you look in the other direction you’ll miss an “early sign” and instead be willing to leap into the unknown of a new direction, one that is informed by trust instead of fear and the illusion of control. You have to be willing to say, “If there’s a problem, it will become obvious but for now I’m okay,” and rest in an awareness of your body’s innate health.

Anxious mind calls this “denial” and will tell you that you’re being irresponsible. It will throw lines at you like, “But what if there is a real problem. Isn’t it better to catch it early?” You can’t argue with anxious mind; it will always win. The best you can do is acknowledge that fear is in the driver’s seat and experiment with what happens when you step onto a new pathway.

It’s very difficult to let go of the rope of worry, control, and checking and instead free fall onto a new path without trusting that there’s something to catch you when you land. This something is a spiritual practice: the soft cushion of a personal, meaningful, relevant practice that connects you to something bigger than you.

For some people, this may be a religious practice, but for many others it’s other time-honored practices and healthy rituals that anchor them into the sustaining current of energy that is powered by love and trust, instead of fear and control. This might be a nature practice, a dance practice, a yoga practice, a gardening practice, a prayer practice, a poetry practice. What matters isn’t the container so much as the mindset behind the container. We find what speaks to us, and then we commit to practicing while watching our minds and dropping both into our hearts and into the deeper soul realm that contains all of us.

Note: Another powerful way to interrupt health anxiety in the moment is to ask, “What else could it be?”  I wrote about this in more depth here

Second Note: My 30-day course, Grace Through Uncertainty, which addresses health anxiety at the root, started yesterday and there are a few spots left. Click here to learn more and sign up.



  1. Thank you. Your of posts are a lifeline. I’m curious how this works when you have a new scary diagnosis. The health anxiety sufferer’s worst fear – the worry comes true.

    • Sending you a big hug, Julia. You reach out for support and call on your source of spiritual guidance. It’s often when we’re brought to our knees in fear that we reach most fervently for human and non-human support, as we know that we can’t get through hard times alone.

  2. Thank you for this. More than you know. I know everyone always says how wonderful and insightful you are and how timely your posts come to them, but really…IT’S TRUE!
    From the tingle/bump, to the worse case scenario, to the cancer baton, to the constant checking, to the early sign, to the denial and being irresponsible. It is just so exactly me I can’t even. It’s like you’re taking a walk around my brain.
    It’s just one seductive vine of worry after the next for me. I’m constantly working toward building that soft cushion upon which to fall. I want to believe in something bigger, and I want to connect to it. I want to develop a ritual that I know I can maintain and that will be meaningful to me. I’m not there yet, though. So how else could we ease out of the fear mind, fall on that soft cushion, and appreciate the joie de vivre while we are actively looking for a ritual or practice or connection that will work for us?
    Thank you again so much!

    • It’s noticing even the small moments and places that bring you a sense of “it’s all okay.” For many people, it’ s a place in a nature, and even a place you can travel to in your mind. If you grow still, you will know what this place is for you.

  3. Hi Sheryl,

    I took your advice and read The Wisdom of Anxiety. What a book! If I didn’t know about sensitivity, I’d swear you had been inside my head. I have experienced just about everything you mention. Even down to the first episode of health anxiety at college.

    Since that time, my anxiety has all been about relationships. I’m now practicing dropping down into the body as I really want to know what is behind very persistent thoughts of an ex. I have to believe it is a projection of something, although I don’t yet know what. The thoughts have lasted over 30 years despite being married to someone else for 28.

    At this age, I now also miss my children being small, so I suspect (having read your book) that it is all linked to my awareness of time passing and the sadness that everything ends and people leave our lives. Death itself must be the root cause – why wouldn’t it be!?

    I also read Recipes for a Perfect Marriage. I loved it (my mother’s family are from County Mayo) and I totally related to Bernadene’s experience.

    I’m really committed to healing, especially now at mid life when everything has bubbled up to the surface. and I feel sad all the time… I hear your call!!

    Have a great week everyone!


    • I’m so glad you read both books. Next recommendation: The Middle Passage by James Hollis. I’ll look forward to hearing your thoughts!

      • Indeed I will, Sheryl. Thank you.
        I ordered it on Monday along with The Highly Sensitive Person 🙂

  4. I really appreciate the wisdom of this post and seek to practice it in my life (still a work in progress). And, as someone with a chronic illness that took 5 years to diagnose, also feel it’s important to say: if your true intuition (not anxiety) is telling you that something is wrong, listen! Particularly for women and people of color, whose symptoms are still too often minimized and under-diagnosed. There are some conditions (e.g. many autoimmune diseases) where early diagnosis can make a big difference.

  5. Sheryl,
    I know my request is not on the subject of the article, but could you write an article about the issue of “pleasing” others? My point is, I am with a loving partner, but there are times when I’m scared that I’m with him because others (my family) expect me to… on the other hand, I don’t want to leave him! (Yet maybe it’s just fear of being alone?) And now I’m having a hard time figuring out what my TRUTH is…

  6. The only thing I’ll be checking repeatedly is your blog / this post when my anxiety spikes around the virus fear. Thank you so much for speaking truth with love

    • I’m so happy to be a place where you can come to find comfort ;).

  7. I know I’m off topic here, but is anyone watching The Sinner? The character is going through a massive (and dangerous) dark night of the soul!
    I’m gripped but kind of freaked out too as I’m feeling pretty dark this year.

  8. My husband and all three of my adult kids have anxiety-I do not. I believe it is real but just wish I could help. Do you have any thoughts on why as a society so very many people have anxiety more than ever before? The food we eat…….fast paced world, etc. just curious. I keep thinking I did something wrong while I was pregnant with them—has to be the mothers fault, right? Lol

    • It’s NOT your fault! I have a hundred thoughts about why there’s so much anxiety today, but my simplified answer is that it’s a response to the disconnect of our culture: we’re disconnected from ancestral rituals/lineage, from community, from the earth, nature, healthy eating, from our life purpose/path/meaning, from creative expression. Also, we struggle to know how to raise highly sensitive kids, so the sensitivity often morphs into anxiety. If you haven’t read my book The Wisdom of Anxiety it may help.

  9. i feel so terrible. i havent seen my boyfriend in 6+ months and i finally saw him today. but the first thought when he came was not rlly so much excitement (i was very excited days before) but the anxiety asking me what if he had covid. what if he brings it to our house. i was so scared, its horrible. i know what u would say i just needed to rant. we ended up having fun tho. but the anxiety… it’s here again! i thought i already got rid of this for months!

  10. Your articles have helped me to escape the anxious hamster wheel more times than I can count. The past few weeks I was pulled under in the worst somatic wave of anxiety I think I’ve ever experienced – couldn’t sleep or eat or work because my mind had latched on to an intrusive fear thought around something being physically wrong with me. Allowing myself to lean into the darkness with kindness has been one of the keys that is allowing me to slowly start coming out of it and understanding that it was coming from a place of grief.

  11. Monique: Being pulled under with somatic anxiety is awful, but I’m so glad you’ve found solace and a lifeline in the blog, and mostly that you were able to identify the grief underneath. There’s so much power in this awareness.

  12. I am struggling with knowing the difference between if something is really wrong with me or if its just anxiety. I recently had a fainting spell,. in which the doctors said there was nothing to be concerned about. However, now every little move or ache or racing heartbeat my body/mind take as a sign that something is wrong. Its hard to tell when something has actually happened to you.


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