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.