Dead Man Walking – Health Anxiety Strikes Again!


Health Anxiety

This cartoon is the best way I could describe a discussion between me and one of my staff last week. It shows thoughts that I haven’t experienced in a long time. I even posted recently on this blog that I don’t seem to fear death any more. But I have been tired lately (not sleeping) and feeling pretty down about work, finances, and life in general … I guess that all increases my vulnerability to deeper bouts of anxiety and depression.

10 years ago now, after a series of health scares, I started being like this. My doctor called it health anxiety … a more palatable term today than hypochondria.
I have plenty of faults, but some of my personality strengths are caring and sensitivity. People know that about me and even praise me for it. I admit to being a proud INFJ. But what others do not see is the selfish prick that I see when it comes to dealing with their health issues. My mental response (more often than not) is … “WHAT ABOUT ME?” Sometimes it is just a brief thought that passes … but at other times, like in the cartoon, it lingers and festers.

At My Worst
I could tell many stories, but my lowest point was when I convinced myself I had breast cancer. I won’t amuse you with the details of my symptoms and self diagnosis here. Use your imagination!

The trigger was this: My mother-in-law was diagnosed. She had lymph nodes and one breast removed and was undergoing an exhausting course of chemo. A very difficult and scary time for my wife and her mother, made even worse for my wife as her father had just recently passed away. Physically, I did my best to be there and offer support … I would say all the right words … but mentally, all I could think was “WHAT ABOUT ME!?!” I felt sick with worry … but also was angry at myself because a rational part of me still cried out at times and accused me of not caring for others and being selfish.

How It Feels
When a thought of illness first hits me, I usually feel the blood rush out of my body (shock). I then feel weak, faint and physically sick. This is where I try to stop it and I am becoming better at that.
If I can’t or don’t stop it, I lose my ability to concentrate and cope, as thoughts of terminal illness consume me. Eventually the worry and thoughts of pending death heighten my depression and re-engaging in life becomes a hell of a lot harder.

Pet Hate!
I don’t care if it is true, but I can’t stand it when people say, “Worry and stress WILL make you sick, so try to relax“. Kind folk, I know you mean well, but that nugget of wisdom actually only gives me more reason to worry and makes me even more convinced that I am a Dead Man Walking.

Managing My Health Anxiety
1) I see my doctor first, rather than letting worry linger and grow. But it doesn’t help all the time, as I can still be convinced I have a rare case of a particular ‘illness’ which normal tests can’t expose. In addition to breast cancer, I’ve convinced myself I had a brain tumor, heart disease, oral cancer, and several freckles have been turned to melanomas in my mind.

2) No use of the internet AT ALL to diagnose my symptoms – even the most reliable and reputable sites.

3) Avoid watching medical shows on television. Reality shows and hospital dramas are full of illnesses I have the potential to imagine symptoms of. Also … I am learning more recently to be careful about blogs that I follow and posts I read.

4) CBT. I am hoping this will help reduce the need to be so vigilant with items 1-3. A large NHS trial has recently been completed and I am very interested in the results (but they won’t be published until 2014). I apply my own form of CBT, through forced logical thinking and rationalizing actual probabilities.

For simpletons like me, here is article regarding the study:
2010 Article from The Guardian

For the technically inclined, here is a more detailed brief:
Latest update on the Research Project

I would be interested in hearing from anyone else who has similar issues with health anxiety.

© Lunch Sketch and A Canvas Of The Minds 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Lunch Sketch and A Canvas Of The Minds with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


24 thoughts on “Dead Man Walking – Health Anxiety Strikes Again!

  1. I think the “No use of the internet AT ALL to diagnose my symptoms. . .” is the wisest thing you can abide by. I don’t generally have ongoing issues (anymore), but this does bring to mind a rather hysterical night spent on the phone with a good friend. I had drug-induced Parkinsonism as the result of a medication (not going to mention which one, as it isn’t very common and the med can be quite helpful). Additionally, I also have a benign essential tremor, but it’s atypical in many respects (unequal on both sides, doesn’t improve with alcohol, etc.). I was in a highly unstable mood state, add some, ahem, severe anxiety to that, and I was absolutely convinced that I had actual Parkinson’s disease. Which, of course, I did not. But it was a very long night, and a very long couple of months before I believed that it was completely medication related. And of course my symptoms did all remit. Well, except for the tremor, but it improved, and I know it’s there for the long haul.

    Try not to be so hard on yourself. You’re doing what you can to control the pieces you can. As for the rest, you aren’t being selfish, these are thoughts that are a result of anxiety, things that truly are beyond your control.

    • Parkinson’s … yes, I can relate in some way and see how easy that would have been to go down that path.

      Thanks Ruby. The thoughts of selfishness come from the honesty that I am only imagining fear about something that is real for others. But as you advise, I do try not to be too hard on myself. I know there is a big part of it that I can’t control.

  2. I’m similar to you. I also had a breast cancer scare when I first got sick and I convinced myself that the biopsy was going to come back as positive. But it didn’t. However I still have pain there and am still convinced that something is wrong!!

    Wishing you well and healthy!! Xx

  3. ohhhh – I hate the “worry and stress will make you sick…” – I hate it. Yes, hate is a strong word, but, I am only being honest. I will be honest again in saying that I was not aware of this particular anxiety trigger (I apologize if I did not phrase that correctly – no disrespect intended) – however, I believe I have seen this in one of my close friends. Anxiety just friggin’ sucks. It seems like anything can be a trigger. Geez, if I went through a series of health scares, I would be anxious, too. Just like Ruby Tuesday said – “try not to be so hard on yourself”. But even that phrase is hard to digest (like the worry, sick thing). I guess all we can do is the best we can do at any given moment. i tell myself that though i am not always able to subscribe to it. (btw- i love how you draw your little cartoon ‘people’ – they may consist of a few shapes and lines, but they have quite a personality of their own.) kimberly

    • Hi Kimberly, you are right that it sucks! It is part of my generalized anxiety … the strongest component for me by far and has the most potential to take me down. Most other worries and thoughts I can manage before they get out of hand.
      Glad you liked the cartoon of me disappearing as the thoughts darken. That is about the only likeness though … my head really isn’t that big and round 😉

  4. OK, first what is an INFJ? I don’t get out much, you know. Second, I also have everything that comes whizzing by my mind. I will never forget the day in med school when we had a whole-day seminar on breast cancer. My then-husband came home to find me in a full blown state of panic, screaming, “I want them off NOW! They’re just a pair of ticking time bombs!!!!”

    On the other hand, I am “half in love with easeful death” and every time I think I have some lethal condition, I immediately feel a sense of relief that at last something socially acceptable has come along to usher me out of this not-so-tolerable life. Lame, huh? But that’s the way it is. My luck, I will probably live till 100 in poor mental health, with various annoying ailments but otherwise healthy.

    And I can’t sleep either:

    • INFJ is a Myers Briggs personality type. I don’t subscribe to putting people in boxes, as I think life and age can change us a little (the whole nature and nurture thing). But for as long as I can remember I have pretty much been a textbook case of INFJ, with a strong I for introversion.

      I bet your story about medical school is not an isolated one. Needless to say, I would make a very bad med student.

      Hmmm … 100. Imagine how wise (and a little cranky) we’d be by then!

      • Yeah, every med student identifies with the diseases they’re studying. All professors know this. Unfortunately, this only makes it even more difficult when the med student actually do have a real illness cause they don’t believe you.

  5. I appreciate your story…especially right now. I was just diagnosed with stage one adneocarcinoma of the esophagus and started photodynamic therapy to treat it. Then I was rediagnosed. Now, the official word is stage 3 metastatic breast cancer….seems the esophageal cancer cells are breast cancer cells after all. At times, I feel so overwhelmed with anxiety and fear, yet that is tempered with moments of a peaceful calm knowing that somehow this too shall pass. Thank you for letting me know it is okay to feel the fear and anxiety. It is okay.

  6. Thank you … and it will pass.
    My mother-in-law is fine now BTW – back to doing what mother-in-laws do to their daughters husbands.
    Fear and anxiety are okay in proportion to reality. I don’t doubt at all you feel overwhelmed with anxiety and fear following such a diagnosis. I truly wish you more of those moments of calm and every success with your treatment.

  7. I don’t react like this that much, but occasionally I do. I’m the sort who doesn’t like to go to the doctor because I’m sure it’s nothing really bad . . . so occasionally I worry that I might get some problem that I don’t find out about until much later than I should since I don’t rush to the doctor all the time.

    A few months ago, though, I kept reading these stories about young people who’d died of heart attacks and the signs that you might be getting one. One day, I thought I was showing the signs of having a heart attack, and I betook myself to the ER, panicking because I thought if I didn’t go now and I really was having a heart attack, it would be too late soon and I’d die. Well, nothing was wrong with me, so they told me I was having an anxiety attack. Boy did I feel stupid.

    • Yup. Have done similar to that before, convinced a surgeon to remove a large portion of my lower lip (as I was convinced I had a cancerous lesion) – fortunately friends and family urged me to get a second and more professional opinion from a Dermatologist before proceeding. Once the anxiety settles you do feel kinda dumb. Am actually quite embarrassed about the ‘breast cancer’ thing and would never talk to anyone about it IRL! Only included it here, because I knew it would be read with more understanding.

      By the way, you wrote a great post on Introversion and Mental Health last year. I read it previously, but re-read it again last week. I always score very high as a Myers Briggs Introvert and can relate to your post completely.

      • Yeah, I wouldn’t tell anyone in real life about my heart attack story either . . .

        I question this surgeon’s approach to things, lol. I’m glad you were able to get that sorted before you took such a drastic step.

        Thanks for the kind words about that post. I appreciate it. 🙂 If someone like me scores at the 89th percentile for introversion, I wonder how introverted those other 11% are, ha.

        Weird. I just retook that Myers-Brigg test, and my intuition and judging scores are quite different. My introvert and feeling scores are the same, though. Funny, I’m pretty sure I always score an 89 on introversion.

        I think my answers with the other three sometimes vary depending on my mood.

  8. Fortunately for me, I don’t suffer from health anxiety. Otherwise, my life would be extremely difficult since I am a medical doctor. Going through med school was a special kind of hell as it was so I am extremely grateful for that little piece of mercy. I am only writing here to show my support because -other than my medical expertise, I don’t really have any advise.

    I am sorry you have to deal with this. I can only imagine how terrifying and frustrating it must be. CBT should be of help for you. And as it’s been already mentioned, you are absolutely right, staying away from internet sources to self-diagnose is the best thing you can do. And tell your doctor/therapist as soon the thoughts come, before they settle in. You have a very good plan to manage your anxiety

    • Most the time I do okay and the plan works. But was surprised the other day when I found myself overwhelmed again.
      For the past 2 years I have been able to dismiss the thoughts pretty swiftly … not sure what made this one take hold. It’s gone now though, so I won’t dwell on it more.

      Thanks Doc 😉

  9. Unfortunately, my self-diagnosis accuracy rate is somewhere between 91%-99% accurate. Doesn’t help with preventing the health anxieties, I’ll tell ya…

    • Oh … well yes, a history of being right would not be good for me! My self-diagnosis accuracy rate is 90% inaccurate.

      Happens when you always go with worst first!

      Over time, knowing I have a solid history of inaccuracy has helped me to manage my health anxiety better these days.

  10. This brings many things to my mind. But I will not elaborate lest I trigger myself. Needless to say, I have had a form of health anxiety quite badly to the point of, according to my Pdoc, psychosis. Quite different than the heart attack, cancer, and other typical health anxiety, it was mostly all related to the central nervous system …… trigger…. Bye! Hahaha.

  11. Glad you are able to go to the doctor and check these things. I think the advice about not using the internet is very good advice, otherwise you can convince yourself that you have a whole load of fatal diseases etc. when in reality it could be nothing, or something a lot simpler (and less dangerous). Look after yourself! And thanks for sharing this 🙂

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