“How to live with health anxiety” was a frequent Google search of mine earlier this summer. There were a lot of definitions about what health anxiety is and a lot of recommendations to see a therapist, but there wasn’t much about how to live with health anxiety from people who actually had health anxiety. The very few articles I found from actual people living with health anxiety were far more beneficial.
Here’s my story and how I learned to live with health anxiety.
I was convinced I had melanoma.
I noticed a few moles, Googled melanoma, and decided I did, in fact, have melanoma. I called several dermatologists in the area searching for an appointment that wasn’t two or three months into the future because I had melanoma and needed to be treated right away. I got in on a cancellation, waltzed into the office a few days later, and told the doctor my suspicions. She smiled and politely said “let me be the doctor.”
She took her fancy light scope thing, scanned my body, and let me know beyond a shadow of a doubt that my moles are normal and, humble brag here, I have “perfect skin.” A little sun damage on my shoulders from the Great Sunburn of 2008, but otherwise? “Flawless.” Her words, not mine.
Deep down, I knew I didn’t have skin cancer, melanoma or otherwise. I have had those six moles since forever and they look just like they always have. There wasn’t any real reason to worry. The doctor didn’t even recommend skin checks every year, but every other year. Yet I saw the moles, obsessively Googled, and was convinced I was dying until told otherwise.
That’s how health anxiety works.
According to my therapist, health anxiety can be a form of OCD. It certainly plays out like that for me. I stayed awake until nearly 2am googling melanoma on a Friday night. I lost an hour on Monday afternoon doing the same. I kept checking and checking and checking again, using new phrases, just in case I missed something. Some people with health anxiety may obsessively check for breast lumps or swollen lymph nodes. They may scan their bodies daily for a change in an existing mole or a new mole. I Google.
It’s as annoying as it sounds.
I have the unique ability to sort of step outside of myself. I can see myself losing it down the google wormhole, but I’ve felt powerless to stop it. I needed the hit that googling my symptoms would give me.
I have general anxiety that I’ve managed well for years. The kidney stone that showed up in June triggered my health anxiety. It was a perfect storm, given the COVID of 2020 when anxiety was already high and life was derailed. I found myself questioning my doctor, wondering if she missed something, if I really had kidney cancer or pancreatic cancer or or or or. Never mind the perfect CT (minus the stone) or the clear ultrasound or the clear chest x-rays (five of them total).
I got over the kidney stone just in time for h.pylori and a probable ulcer to come roaring in at the end of August. Want to really go down the rabbit hole? Google stomachaches.
Between my soaring general anxiety and rampant health anxiety, I started seeing a therapist. Together, we tried several techniques to combat both general anxiety and my health anxiety. Here’s what works for me:
Judge and Jury.
This is my go-to. I work in fact. It took awhile for that to become clear to me, but it shouldn’t have – I’ve always liked facts. And so, when my health anxiety is ramping up, I play “Judge and Jury.” I make my case and then argue the facts for and against it. I play both prosecutor and defense attorney. So with my moles, I presented the facts:
- I have a few moles.
- I’ve had several clear scans and blood tests in the last few months.
- My moles haven’t changed.
- They don’t itch or ooze.
- I don’t have a family history of melanoma.
Facts on paper say I don’t have melanoma and I try to rest in that until someone – a doctor with far more expertise than me – tells me otherwise.
Worry on a Schedule
When it was 2am and I was still scrolling Google results on my phone, I realized I was way down the rabbit hole. My therapist, aware that my enneagram 3 nature lends itself to planning and schedules, suggested I give myself an allotted amount of time to worry. So after that 2am spiral, that’s what I did. I gave myself 10 minutes to google the scary things and then I had to stop for an allotted amount of time. I made that time period four hours. At the end of that four hours, I could google for 10 minutes or not. Whenever I implement “worry on a schedule,’ I tend to not need to go back to googling. It feels structured and like I have some control. That’s what I need when I’m in the grips of it – control.
Square breathing is a go-to move for me. I can do it sitting down, out walking, lying down… I breathe in for four seconds, hold for four, breathe out for four, hold for four, repeat. Sometimes I might change it up and breathe in for seven seconds, hold for six, breathe out for five. I also work to pull in air through my nose and out through my mouth. Focusing on my breathing gives my brain something else to pay attention to, and it helps calm my nervous system.
Sometimes, I just need to distract myself. I need to get off my couch, away from my laptop and iPhone, and do just about anything other than sit there and search for scary terms to pinpoint whatever is wrong with me. For me, that tends to need to be something active. I’ll go for a walk, workout, clean my apartment, run errands – anything that might get my mind away from moles or stomachaches or kidney stones.
My therapist often says “be kind to yourself.” I struggle with this sometimes, but as I’ve progressed through therapy and learning how to manage my anxiety, both general and health, I’ve learned that sometimes I just need to “feel the feels.” That may look like tapping out of life for a few hours, going to bed early, or taking a hot shower. It may even look like ugly crying on my couch. I always feel better when I give myself grace and let myself to feel whatever I’m feeling.
Living with health anxiety isn’t a picnic. It comes in waves. I may go months upon months without so much as a niggle. I may go on a few month run like I did over the summer. That’s usually how it works with me – I have no signs of it for a long time, only to crash and burn. It’s a wave that crests and falls. I’m currently riding out the fall and hoping it lasts for a long while. In this case, it was brought on by actual health issues that were overall minor, but my mind decided to blow up into big, scary things.
I’m no expert on living with health anxiety. What works for me may not work for you. But I do understand being absolutely convinced that you have some sort of horrific disease, that you’re going to die of said disease. I get the frantic googling, the fear in the doctor’s office, the anxiety of waiting for tests results. I get wondering if your doctor was wrong and she missed something, if she should have ordered this other test or checked this other thing.
Living with health anxiety isn’t fun. But it can be managed. While the above techniques work for me, there are so many I tried that didn’t. I cannot recommend talking to a therapist enough if you’re struggling. Your doctor, too, can be a source of comfort, if you’re able to be vulnerable.
And finally, acknowledge it. People who suffer from health anxiety are often told “just stop googling things” or “it’s all in your head.” It’s not all in your head and it’s not easy to just turn off the urge to google or check for new bumps and lumps. You’re not “going crazy.” You’re experiencing a very real thing. Don’t allow others who may not understand to dismiss it.
Again, I’m not expert. But I do understand and my inbox is always open.
I am not a medical professional. Please speak to a qualified professional if you are struggling with your mental health or have concerns about your physical well-being.