At the Root of Unwell
When I was 10, my grandmother and primary caretaker passed away from a heart attack. She was 67 years old, and she had seemed “old” my whole life.
She had a pacemaker, severe heart disease, diabetes, emphysema, lived on an oxygen tank and many medications that she constantly complained about.
Through therapy and loads of self-reflection, I was able to realize that a lot of my worrying about health began when I was young, and it began because my environment was that of a sick person.
I had a close-up view of bad health and how it could ruin life for more than just the person suffering illness.
Not only was I scared of becoming ill, my perspective was skewed toward understanding illness: Medical terminology, symptoms, pharmaceuticals, What does that do? Why do you take that pill, Grandma? Does it taste gross? Does it make you feel better?
In fact, just as I’m writing this, I’m realizing that Grandma’s aversion to medicine — her assertions that medicine never made her better, coupled with the fact that she died despite taking what the doctor ordered — is at least part of my fear of medications and distrust of doctors.
Having Health Anxiety
I’ve known for quite a while that watching Grandma be sick and die was the beginning of Health Anxiety, but I wasn’t able to see how each element came into play in designing the life I came to lead as an adult.
I first wrote about Health Anxiety (HA) on Medium after more than a year of silence.
Ruminating through discussion with others had taken me down a rabbit hole where, at the bottom, I became a one-dimensional image of anxiety.
I had no identity outside of my experiences with HA and shutting up about it was really the best decision I’ve ever made, even if it was painful at first.
But before I could be quiet about HA, I had to talk about it. A lot. And I needed to read about it from others who were struggling. I’m speaking up now with hope that this underdiagnosed issue can begin to be addressed by those who are dealing.
I went to therapy, which wasn’t entirely successful due to the invisibility of this illness — it masquerades as real symptoms of physical illness or dismisses itself as an unreasonable obsession with being sick.
I was even mistaken as having Munchausen syndrome (factitious disorder) — very simply explained as “faking serious illness for attention”. Like people with HA, those with factitious disorder tend to know a lot about the illness they claim to have.
The difference is that people with HA don’t want to be sick. They don’t want to be diagnosed with something tragic. They want to be told they are healthy — even if they have trouble believing it for long.
Noting the Absence of Sickness
I was just discussing with my partner that we have gone two full winters without cold or flu. (Writing about it is just asking for it, right?) This is a huge feat for me — and it is not because I have been avoiding being around children (like I did for several winters) or because I washed and sanitized my hands religiously (I mean, I do still wash my hands at all the important times, don’t freak out!)
I honestly believe I am feeling better and avoiding illness because I am less stressed out about avoiding illness.
I have no scientific proof of this. It’s kind of difficult to prove why something doesn’t happen. But in realizing how much stress and anxiety played a factor in creating and worsening other symptoms for me, I’m almost certain that some of the “viruses” I came down with were mere mimics of true illness.
I also have to hand it to Western meds. I was terrified of medication for so long. Didn’t want to spray anything up my nose. Didn’t want to take a pill for allergies or even admit that I had them. Guaranteed, many of my colds were actually seasonal allergies run amok leading to ear and sinus infections, a cough that lasted four months, and dizziness that made me too anxious to leave the house.
When I realize how much better off I could have been if I weren’t so scared to try new things to make myself better…
But this is Health Anxiety. It’s a journey. I still haven’t reached the point that I’d allow myself to be anesthetized. I have digestive issues and I need diagnostics — I’m not ready. I will get there, though, I believe that now.
Struggling with Health Anxiety can mean spending weeks, months, years worrying about becoming ill…worrying about that diagnosis that will wreck life as we know it. The worry can manifest symptoms, make minor illnesses worse, and blind us from accepting and enjoying good health.
Accepting wellness must become a daily devotion...
Accepting wellness must become a daily devotion if we are to function well with Health Anxiety (or even without it, I think). Below are some acknowledgements I had to make in order to let go of the fear that ruled me:
All of existence, all states of being are inconstant, transient, temporary. I have had to make it a point to let the bad things wash over, move through, and flow out of my life. The sickness will move on or at least change in its presence.
At the same time, it’s critical to observe, embrace, and be grateful for the good. The goodness will dim or flicker at times, there will be days it is difficult to find that light, so we have to give it space and appreciation in our lives when we notice it there and benefit from its presence.
Journal the good even when you’re feeling sick. Note how much better it feels when the symptoms that scared you go away. Dwell there, in that fresh place, but don’t cling. Imagine waves of wellness washing over you between tides of illness — this is what life is.
Death is Inescapable
Being aware of health is healthy. Eating well and exercising when you’re able, visiting the doctor for illnesses that linger or worsen over time, getting checkups even in good health, and avoiding vices that are known to cause serious health conditions, are all good rules of thumb.
However, no matter how conscious you are of your health, eventually, life will end. You cannot predict when this will be, and there is really, truly, no sense in dwelling. This sounds obvious? Well, tell that to me a few years ago. I wouldn’t have heard you.
My grandmother had a great deal of unhealthy behaviors that contributed to her death, but some of the issues, like her heart condition, were related to illness she suffered as a child. I spent many years unconsciously trying to avoid what happened to Grandma, when I had already avoided it by not experiencing rheumatic fever as a kid. Everyone’s health journey is unique. Comparison can be worrisome.
Trust your body.
Your body is designed, evolved, to survive. This doesn’t meant that they don’t malfunction. It doesn’t mean that every bodily process works perfectly.
Regardless, the body generally will do what it can to continue moving and we must try to trust it.
Body-trust extends from “working properly to keep you alive” to sending signals that cannot be mistaken.
In most cases, fatal pain will be severe enough or prolonged enough to inform its owner that something is very wrong. Symptoms that are life-threatening most likely won’t go away, will worsen, and be hard to ignore.
Get your check-ups. Address symptoms that don’t go away. But trust that you will know when something is truly wrong. Or that someone around you will.
It is here that I remind you, I am not a doctor. See one if you think something is wrong. I am speaking from my experience with Health Anxiety and the knowledge that many people who struggle like I have, have visited doctors countless unnecessary times. The temporary reassurance can feed anxiety, and it’s important to stop that loop where you can.
Trust your doctors.
Once you’ve decided to see a doctor, advocate for yourself by speaking clearly of your symptoms and their severity. Answer questions truthfully. Take the tests that the doctors highly suggest and try to trust the results.
Again, this is coming from the Health Anxiety angle — I’m not being shortsighted. Doctors can be wrong. Give symptoms time to resolve and if they don’t or they get worse, see a different doctor if you must.
Even after seeing a Cardiologist and multiple ER doctors who told me I have nothing wrong with my heart and am a low heart-attack risk — and even after seeing a Gastroenterologist who explained that I do in fact have acid reflux, and possibly a hiatal hernia, both of which can lead to chest pains — every time I would get chest pain I’d hit the ER.
Eventually, I’ve had to learn to trust my body and the doctors the best I can on any given day. And so far, I’m still alive.
Lastly, Do Something you Love Whenever You Have the Chance
Whether you are sick or well or something in between, spend time every day doing something you can be happy about when you go to sleep. It can be as simple as loving someone, loving yourself. It can be watching a funny video, catching up on social media, enjoying the sunshine for a few minutes. Do it, and take note of it.
If you are alive today, you have Health. It may not be total health, but it’s still something to marvel and cultivate however you can. Begin with something that brings you happiness.
To read more about my journey with Health Anxiety, check out these articles and feel free to follow me: