Mind the gap - my experience of health anxiety
Posted Thursday 23 August 2012
I have had health anxiety for years but I’ve only spent the last one trying to overcome it. Largely because I didn't know how to. I knew that reacting as if death was inevitable after having just the slightest pain wasn't a normal thing to do, but despite this I didn't feel the need to rectify the problem.
After I started receiving Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for panic disorder over a year ago, it also materialised that I had 'hypochondriasis,' which made perfect sense; I'd always considered myself a hypochondriac but never really considered it to be a form of anxiety – even though it caused me great anxiety. Everyone knows anxiety isn't rational...
Anyway, following talks with my therapist and reading 'Overcoming Health Anxiety' by Rob Willson and David Veale, I realised that my problem was actually quite common and not just a case of me being an annoying hypochondriac. Therapy and the book have certainly helped ease the condition, and I would definitely recommend both.
But one of the main problems I still have is thinking catastrophically about health. In other words, believing any pain or discomfort will result in something life threatening or, in many cases, life ending. I'm now more equipped to deal with this thought process, but the ultimate aim would be to not have the thought process at all.
Is it possible, having thought in a specific and (because it causes pain) dysfunctional way for basically all of my life, to change the process in a proportionally much shorter amount of time? The idea of experiencing pain and not going into autopilot is almost intangible. Indeed, if one were to not have health anxiety, one may not even notice the pain in the first place.
Let me give an example:
Me of old:
I have a pain in the shoulder. Imminent heart attack. Panic attack because I believe I'm about to have a heart attack. Panic symptoms feel like a heart attack. Heart attack thoughts emphasised...etc.
I have a pain in the shoulder. Imminent heart attack. Implement techniques to try and control the feelings, such as breathing, mindfulness, rationalisation, punching myself in the face to distract me from the source of the pain (OK, I made this last one up. Please do not accept this as a reasonable method of overcoming health anxiety).
The gap represents me not noticing I even have a pain in the shoulder, therefore for no issue to arise in the first place. I appreciate how far I have come to be able to rationalise better, but I also wonder how I would respond if a particularly severe pain came about whilst I was out of my comfort zone... the two scenarios haven't crossed paths for a long time, so it'll be interesting if they do. Well, not particularly interesting for me I would wager, not until I'm able to reflect on it at least.
CBT is all about altering thought processes, and the therapy I had certainly helped do this in a positive way. But it's amazing how difficult it is to change a thought cycle, especially one triggered by a tangible force (i.e. pain) that has been embedded into us for so long. And that's without analysing why we have said thought cycle in the first place...
Health anxiety can be a debilitating, and quite simply a horrible experience; it can dominate your life. CBT was certainly the way to go for me in terms of overcoming it, but if you go down this route be prepared for a lot of hard work.
Al has a blog that he updates regularly.
If you would like more information on anxiety visit our information page or call the Mind Infoline on 0300 123 3393
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