Like all forms of anxiety, health anxiety is on the rise. With information about our health more available than ever, the anxious mind that seeks control at all costs can easily latch onto health as a hotbed theme that invites this mind to shift into overdrive. You mean I can prevent catastrophic events from happening if I only take these actions? Nothing could make the ego happier than jumping onto a train with control as the conductor. But there is no true happiness that arises when ego becomes perseverated on a theme. In fact, it’s nothing short of hell.
Like all intrusive thoughts, health anxiety is a mental addiction that keeps you caught in a thought-loop as a way to try to gain control and certainty in our fundamentally uncertain world.
Like all intrusive thoughts, health anxiety is an arrow pointing to the four realms of Self – an invitation to connect with what is needed or off-kilter in body, heart, mind, and soul.
Like all intrusive thoughts, there are both on-the-spot practices to manage moments of high anxiety and deep dive tools to heal from the root. One of the most powerful on-the-spot practices is to ask this cut-through question, which helps grow your compassionate and wise self. Locating and connecting to this part of self is an essential element of healing from anxiety in all forms. Another effective cut-through action in moments of high health anxiety is to move your body is some way: walk, dance, go to the gym, swim, rake leaves. Shifting into our bodies not only moves energy through us but it also helps make the essential shift out of head-space and into our hearts, where the true healing happens.
Three Divergent Elements of Health Anxiety
But where health anxiety diverges from other anxiety themes is that, like the money spike, the stakes are higher. While those struggling with relationship anxiety know that answering the intrusive thought “Am I with the right partner?” isn’t a matter of life-and-death (although it certainly feels like it is), with health anxiety the ego-mind takes the presenting symptom and catastrophizes to the worst case scenario, which is death. For many people who find their way to my work, while they’ve been familiar with health anxiety since childhood (frequent visits to the school nurse is a common story), it often redoubles its efforts after working through relationship anxiety. I’ll hear, “I found your work because I was struggling with relationship anxiety, but as soon as I worked through that theme, the health anxiety rushed up like an active volcano.”
This is because each anxiety theme, while sharing common pain points, also carry their own invitations; each one is an arrow pointing to our wholeness in different areas. When the arrow first pierces consciousness, it’s red-hot and on fire. But as we learn to work with it and follow its lead into the labyrinth of self, the arrow cools and even, amazingly, becomes an ally.
Another divergent element to health anxiety is that there is often a “real” symptom that initiates a spiral. You’re having digestive challenges, headaches, or heart issues. You notice a tremor or a twitch. The pain under your ribs or in your neck won’t go away. You have a rash on your chest. Your mind then grabs the baton of fear and runs into the anxious storm. It doesn’t matter that your doctor has told you that there’s nothing urgent; your anxious-mind-gone-Google-insane is convinced that you’re going to die.
Still a third divergent element is that it’s easier to name the metaphor in health anxiety. Heart issues (which is one of the ways my health anxiety has presented) is often a manifestation of heartbreak or heartache, and the cut-through question to ask is: “What historic or current grief is settling into my heart?” If you’re struggling with digestive issues, the question to ask is, “What am I having a hard time digesting?” With an invasive rash, the question to ask is, “Where have I have been rash or impulsive?” Even in this moment, notice what happens to your tension when you ask a question that points to the metaphor instead of taking your symptoms at face value and as evidence of catastrophe.
This isn’t to say that health anxiety should only be addressed at the level of metaphor. Again, like all forms of anxiety, we must address it in the four realms in order to heal from the root. This means asking, “What does my body need regarding this symptom? Do I need to address my diet? Do I need more rest? Do I need to exercise more?” With heart palpitations, which are a rhythm issue, a powerful question to ask is, “What element of my life is out of rhythm?” But the key here is to recognize that we can ask these questions from a fear-and-panic place, which will only amplify the stress response and then amplify the symptoms (this is the vicious cycle of health anxiety), or we can ask from a clear and wise self that is deeply interested in developing a more compassionate relationship with your physical body.
One of my favorite stories that elucidates both the metaphor and the invitation in health anxiety is this one that Robert Johnson shares in his book, We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love:
“If a man or woman clings to the dominant patriarchal attitude and refuses to make peace with the inner feminine, then she will demand a tribute. When we refuse to integrate a powerful new potentiality from the unconscious, the unconscious will exact a tribute one way or another. The tribute may take the form of a neurosis, a compulsive mood, hypochondria, obsessions, imaginary illnesses, or a paralyzing depression. In his writings, Carl Jung gives a vivid example. His patient was a brilliant intellectual, a scientist. The man tried to exist without feelings, without emotional relationships, without a religious life. He suddenly developed an obsessive belief in a stomach cancer. The cancer did not exist physically, yet he suffered all the terrors of hell. The obsession terrorized him and his professional life. His orderly, rational mind could not solve the problem. He found relief from his obsessions only when he consented to integrate the feminine side of his psyche – the human values and spiritual values he had discarded many years before.”
It’s the broken system, the patriarchy, that sequesters and squashes the feminine, which is our relatedness, our “human and spiritual values.” At the core, health anxiety is an extraordinary urging to reconnect with these lost places.
Healing from the Root
This is what I teach in Grace Through Uncertainty: A 30-Day Course to Heal Intrusive Thoughts, Address Health/Death/Money Anxiety from the Root, Feel More Comfortable with Change, and Become the Source of Your Own Aliveness. My own bout with health anxiety upon finding a lump in my side in 2016 (which I share in the course), as well as the stories of dozens of clients and friends who I have walked alongside as they batted with their health anxiety, inspired me to create this course. If you would like to learn the most effective tools I know to manage and heal intrusive thoughts from the root as you learn to fall in love with life in an entirely new way, please join me for this second round, which will begin on June 22, 2019. I look forward to meeting you there.