Hypochondria: Searching for the Cure

When I sat down to write this piece a few months ago, I was in the middle of a panic attack. It happens pretty often actually. I find myself in the midst of suffering. I panic. I fight to break the cycle of scary thoughts running through my head: You are going to die. Your heart is going to stop. You’re going to stop breathing. You’re going to pass out. You’re all alone. No one will find you until it’s too late. My heart is fluttering, my hands and feet are tingling, my chest is tight. I keep forgetting to breath. I’m terrified. I want to scream and cry and run into the arms of someone, anyone, to avoid being alone. I want to drink until I don’t feel anything anymore and can get my mind to shut the fuck up. I hate this.

I have suffered from anxiety and panic attacks for as long as I can remember and I know I’m not the only one. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that up to 18% of the population (almost 1 in 5 people) suffers from anxiety disorders. These disorders cost the U.S. up to $42 billion each year, about half of which results from repeated use of health services — people with anxiety are three to five times more likely to go to the doctor. I am one of those people.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America lists a number of anxiety disorders on its website, but what I suffer from is not listed: illness anxiety disorder (more commonly known as hypochondria). It is a mental condition by which one constantly worries about becoming seriously ill. Physical symptoms of some sort may or may not be present.

Living as a hypochondriac is exhausting. I can’t do much to avoid my “phobias” because they live in my own body. I’m scared of blood clots, I’m scared of infections, I can’t sleep if I hear my heart beat in my ears because I’m waiting for it to stop. I’m a healthy, well-educated woman and I know these fears are not based in reality, yet I can’t out-smart this disorder.

I used to think that drinking was the “out”; after all, it has been the “go-to” solution for a few too many family members. I spent the last two years of college drinking until I blacked out up to six nights a week. I couldn’t stand being sober or alone with my own thoughts. But when I graduated and started working full time, I couldn’t keep it up and I started feeling the panic more and more intensely. I finally started therapy at 22 and have been in and out for the past 8 years. I’ve done cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), learned how to use breathing to stem panic, and have also had numerous discussions about medication options. While many people benefit from medication, I have never taken it. I’m too afraid to. I am terrified of side effects.

I’ve recently decided to apply what I do for work to my own anxiety. The solutions I have tried are just not working consistently enough. When I started exploring the root cause of my hypochondria, I figured that I would discover that it stems from a fear of dying, as this is a very common belief about hypochondriacs. I learned that what I’m actually afraid of is being dismissed, of being looked over, of no one caring about me. I’m scared that if I ever really needed help, or even just really wanted someone to be there for me, no one would come. I’m scared that my husband will get sick of my “whining” and leave, or that my doctor will stop paying attention to me because I’m “just paranoid.” I’m scared of being told “get over it” or “there’s nothing wrong with you” when maybe, that one time, there really is!

While the panic still comes on often and strong, this realization has helped me already. Knowing more about what I’m afraid of has surfaced a very promising solution: articulating my fears and needs to those around me. I can now tell my husband that I don’t want to hear “you’re okay, there’s nothing wrong with you.” I want to hear “let’s see how you feel in the morning and if you have an infection, I’ll take you to the doctor and we’ll deal with it together.” I can talk to my doctor and express that I just need to know that I can make an appointment if I need to. I might not even go because once it’s made, I usually feel better (and a bit silly). But maybe I will go sometimes and she can listen to my concerns and respond with compassion. No matter how “irrational” I may sound, feeling heard and respected gives me hope that I’m getting closer to the cure I really need.

Originally published on Struggle Out Loud at http://struggleoutloud.me