Before we dive into this post, I just want to take a moment to let you know that no matter how much you may be struggling with health anxiety right now, no matter how hellish your days may feel as you obsess and worry, that I promise you, you are not alone.
I mean this.
When I was going through my worst days with health anxiety, I felt so isolated.
My friends and everyone around me seemed so “normal” and I felt like there was something seriously wrong with me, in more ways than one!
I felt “different” and “weird” and I also believed I had every disease under the sun, and I couldn’t seem to stop obsessing over every single symptom or sensation I experienced.
It’s hard to do anything when your mind is fixated on every symptom, every scary thought.
Just when I finally made some kind of peace with one symptom, another one would arise.
There are way too many health anxiety physical symptoms to name but here are a few of the more common ones I’ve experienced:
- Checking for moles
- Feeling lymph nodes
- Worrying about any lumps, bumps, or bruises
- Thinking the worst when it comes to pains anywhere in the body
The things we obsess over are different for us all, but something I think we can all agree on it this…
A feeling of being on edge; anticipating the next symptom, having it completely take over your life!
I know because that was once my reality.
What is health anxiety?
If you aren’t sure, or perhaps you are here to learn more to support a loved one struggling, health anxiety (formerly known as hypochondria) is a mental health disorder that involves obsessing over your health.
People who struggle tend to analyze every single bodily sensation and believe it’s something serious.
They may also constantly feel and check their body for lumps, weird moles, and so on, to the point where it creates a lot of pain and turmoil for the person afflicted.
If you’re like I was, you may also find yourself in a pattern of constantly seeking reassurance (also known as excessive reassurance seeking) from those around you.
Remember, even though to you health anxiety symptoms seem so real, to those around you, they know you’re okay.
Because of this, they may not quite understand your need for constant reassurance, or may dismiss your feelings altogether; leaving you feeling isolated and not wanting to seek help at all.
I understand because I was once there.
How health anxiety fuels OCD
Being in control allows us to feel some semblance of calm, so we constantly try to find ways to gain the upper hand on our health anxiety.
Of course, this may feed OCD tendencies, and when you realize that it’s a cycle that never ends, you may find yourself sinking into despair.
Let me give you an example…
To try to be more in control I would run through a checklist in my mind.
More on that in a sec.
I used to have an obsession with my moles and would check them constantly to make sure they weren’t skin cancer. My grandmother had lost a friend to melanoma and knowing this sent me into a complete panic.
There was one particular mole on my back that looked pretty dark, and to my mind, “sinister.”
But I could only see this mole if I twisted my neck around and looked at it with a little handheld mirror.
I checked it so many times a day that I actually ended up with awful pain in my neck and shoulder from the constant repetitive twisting motion (I’m not even kidding).
Okay so back to that checklist I mentioned…
I would look at a mole (I’d do this with any other symptom or physical thing too) and I’d ask myself a few questions to put my mind at ease.
- Have I shown my mole to anyone and received validation that it looks okay? Yes, I showed my mom and my girlfriend and they thought it was fine. This gave me temporary relief and I’d move on to the next question.
- Have I worried about this specific mole (or symptom) before? If yes, especially if it was a while back I’d feel temporarily calm, because I figured “if it was serious I would have known by now.”
If you are reading this to support someone and haven’t struggled yourself you may be shocked at how all-consuming this actually is.
If you suffer you’ll understand.
It wasn’t just moles I was worried about either.
I became paranoid over my lymph nodes, always thinking some felt swollen and I would feel my body constantly for swollen lymph nodes or other lumps and bumps. It got so bad that I would think regular muscles are lumps and feel them so often I would actually bruise.
I don’t know why I would feel the same thing over and over again, I guess I was hoping it would feel different or I would all of a sudden would have an “aha, it’s okay!” moment and be able to move on.
It never ends.
You will feel temporary relief, but that fear will creep back in, whether it’s 5 minutes later or a few days later.
This graphic perfectly illustrates the anxiety cycle of fear I just mentioned:
When I was a teen, my mom had a big medical book that I used to browse whenever a symptom came up.
Looking back now, it was the worst thing I could have done, but I couldn’t stop myself.
I remember one day I had a twitch that started in my wrist and into my fingers. I knew I had to look it up right away.
I felt sick to my stomach as I browsed the index and waited to read more about twitching.
My heart was pounding, my hands were shaking, it was awful.
I ended up seeing something about degenerative disease, the words kind of blurred in front of my eyes and I started crying because I was now convinced I was dying.
This became my new obsession for the next few weeks/months, and of course, the more I focused on it, the more intense the twitching became. Not only that, I now noticed twitching in other parts of my body too.
This only intensified my fear.
I could go on and on.
There was a time I went to the doctor convinced I had breast cancer, another time I thought I had lung cancer, I could write a whole book on my personal experience with health anxiety alone.
Along with health anxiety, I suffered from GAD (generalized anxiety disorder) OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), and panic disorder. I also struggled with bouts of depression, sometimes severe.
How to manage health anxiety
I get so many questions from people asking me what the one thing is that I did that made coping with health anxiety easier.
I wish I could give that solution to you right now.
I wish I could say, do this one thing today, and tomorrow your health anxiety will be gone.
But to be honest, there wasn’t really one specific thing I did.
When I started to change my lifestyle for the better, and my anxiety and panic started to lose its intensity, so did my health anxiety.
This is why I am so passionate about sharing everything I did in regards to nutrition and other lifestyle factors, I wrote a whole book about it!
Every single thing you eat and everything you do or expose yourself to every day will either fuel your symptoms or help them.
When my health anxiety and panic were at an all-time high, I felt permanently stressed out but wasn’t finding ways to manage the stress in my life.
At that time I was…
- Eating unhealthy, processed foods, and anxiety triggers foods on a daily basis
- Not exercising
- Waking up and going into a job I hated
- Doing nothing good for myself
It’s when I started to put myself first, when I started reassessing my lifestyle, that’s when things started to shift and I started to move forward in my healing.
The following are four lifestyle changes I put into practice that over time, helped me a lot in overcoming daily health anxiety.
1. I stopped Googling my health anxiety symptoms
I cannot stress this enough!! Google was my best friend (or should I say, worst enemy, we had a highly dysfunctional relationship).
Seriously though, Googling your symptoms constantly is the one major thing that is going to fuel your fear and intensify your symptoms.
You WILL come across scary conditions and diseases when you are constantly trying to seek validation for your symptoms on the internet.
Google will naturally send you to sites where your symptoms possibly mimic serious conditions, and it will send you into a spiral.
When I stopped allowing Google to be my doctor, I experienced major relief.
It can take a while though because that urge to just quickly look your symptom up can feel overwhelming. Try and immediately do something else when the urge arises.
After enough time, it will become that much easier to avoid, avoid, avoid!
The only site that I do recommend for anxiety symptoms that brought me major relief is this one.
You can also check my Instagram page as I’ve covered a range of anxiety (including health anxiety) symptoms.
Update: Since writing this article, I’ve written my second book which is called “Anxiety A to Z” and will serve as your “new Google” without the scary results that Google tends to bring. Learn more here.
2. Stopped my anxiety medication and changed the foods I was eating instead
In no way am I telling you to stop your meds cold turkey here if you are currently on any kind of prescription medication for your mental health.
I weaned off mine under the supervision of a doctor and I recommend you do the same should you choose to stop taking them.
Always consult with your doctor, don’t mess around with meds on your own.
I have to be honest though, even though I wasn’t on a high dose, and even though I weaned off slowly, my withdrawal was a nightmare.
Once I was finally past the withdrawal and started learning about the incredibly powerful link between the foods I was eating and my mental health, I started making major changes in my diet.
I cut out the anxiety trigger foods and started eating more nutritious foods that would actually help my brain not hurt it.
3. I started taking magnesium for anxiety
If you have followed me for a while then you may skip reading this because I am sure you are tired of hearing me gush about my savior supplement, magnesium glycinate (use code TAMRYN to save), because that is truly how I feel about it.
If you want to know all about magnesium and why I love it then read this!
4. I started yoga for anxiety
Yoga saved me, truly.
I had tried it in the past but felt no connection to the teachers I had found on YouTube until I found “Yoga with Adriene.”
I found yoga when I was withdrawing from my meds and dealing with the worst insomnia. Within 2 or 3 days of daily practice, I was able to sleep and that was it for me. I am proud to call myself a yogi!
If you want to try the same yoga that I tried at the very beginning then see the 30-day challenge I did here.
Keep in mind that these are just a few things I did that already made a huge difference for me. I also went for therapy, stopped working a job I hated, and started making myself more of a priority.
What’s next for you?
Leave a comment and let me know if you can relate to this blog post and the stories I’ve shared in it.
And, to help you along your journey, I’d be honoured if you: