Advice from Claire: How to Handle Health Anxiety
Do you worry that every headache you get is being caused by a brain tumor you’re sure you have? Claire gives you some tips on how to grapple with health anxiety. Plus, she answers a question from a listener who finds herself exhausted and struggling eight years into her husband’s young-onset dementia.
Claire Bidwell-Smith 00:00
It’s cancer, isn’t it? That weird pain in your abdomen? Definitely cancer. Or maybe it’s just that burrito you ate for lunch and you’re freaking out for no reason.
Claire Bidwell-Smith 00:15
I’m Claire Bidwell Smith. And that’s what we’re talking about today on NEW DAY. Health anxiety is no joke. I know it well, myself. And I’ve worked with hundreds of clients who have anxiety about their health. And I’ve seen health anxiety spike even more over the last couple of years as our entire world deals with this effing pandemic. Health anxiety is pretty simple. It’s a series of obsessive and irrational thoughts and worries about having a serious medical condition. And it’s totally normal and okay to worry about your health. It’s just not okay, when you’re constantly worrying about it. It’s not okay, when every time you get a little ache, you’re sure you’re dying. It’s not okay to spend hours googling symptoms and reading about rare and horrific diseases that you probably don’t have. The problem with health anxiety is that it’s easy for this kind of anxiety to get out of control. We’re bombarded with stories on the regular about people dying and getting sick and getting in terrible accidents. The news loves to hype up potential threats like monkey pox or some other terrifying new disease. Or maybe you had a friend or loved one go through a serious illness recently, and you can’t stop thinking about it. Health threats are lurking around every seeming corner. Look, I get it. I lost both of my parents to cancer. I spent 10 years watching them go through surgeries and chemo and radiation and it really fucked me up. I’ve spent my entire adult life worrying that I’m going to get cancer at any moment. But who wants to live this way? I know I don’t. So here’s some ways to manage health anxiety. First, start becoming aware of when you’re experiencing it. Is it happening all the time? Take note of whether it’s brought on by certain triggers, like news stories, or random physical symptoms, or just anything and everything. Next, get serious about how you react when you have those anxious thoughts about your health. What do you do? Do you start Googling symptoms and diseases? Do you start playing out scenarios? Have you on your deathbed? Do you rush into the doctor’s office for tests? These are actually pretty common reactions to help anxiety.
Claire Bidwell-Smith 02:08
But let me tell you, they’re not helpful, they’re actually harmful. Letting yourself spiral into black holes on the internet or racking up medical bills for visits you don’t need are only serving to exacerbate the anxiety and keep you in a heightened state of stress. So here are a few things you can do instead. First, recognize when you’re having the health anxiety, and then properly assess the actual threat and potential that you have something serious, you might need help on this one if you’ve gotten yourself worked up. I personally like to call up the most rational people I know. And ask them if they think I should be worried. Almost 100% of the time, I start to feel silly before I’ve even finished telling them what I’m worried about because it sounds so crazy. Obviously, if the rational people think you should be concerned, then go ahead and get yourself into the doctor. But it’s likely that they’ll remind you that you’re probably just overthinking things. You also really need to work on staying away from the internet seriously, it never goes well. If you’re not a medical professional trying to diagnose yourself through a Google search is pretty pointless. Plus, you’re going to uncover a whole bunch of stuff that freaks you out even more. So don’t do it. Don’t Google symptoms and illnesses. If you’re truly worried, go to your doctor and let them figure it out. But know this we’re often drawn to searching out symptoms and reading about illnesses because it makes us feel like we’re doing something preventative, but we’re not. We’re really just freaking ourselves out. So don’t do it. When we let ourselves go down these rabbit holes in our minds and on the internet, we give a lot of power to the hold anxiety has on us. We are essentially letting the anxiety know that it’s in control. And we’re listening to get serious but having boundaries with your anxiety. Anxiety is always here to tell us something anyway. Maybe you’re obsessing over having cancer, but what’s really going on is that you’re in an unfulfilling relationship or you hate your job. And unconsciously you feel like you’re not living your best life, which makes death really scary. One of the last pieces of advice I’ll offer you is what I love to do for myself. Every time I start worrying that I have cancer and I’m picturing my life ending and having to say goodbye to my kids and all these other awful things. As soon as I catch myself doing it, I hit pause. I have a moment of self-compassion. Like it’s okay that I’m scared. And then I make myself picture a totally opposite scenario. I’ll force myself to imagine myself 20 years from now healthy and happy and like dancing and one of my kids weddings. Every time I do this, it makes me feel better and it takes all the power away from the anxiety that was trying to take over. For more on this kind of stuff. Check out my book anxiety, the missing stage of grief. And there’s also a great work book out there called the Health Anxiety workbook. Okay, your turn, start working on taming down this irrational obsessive fears and start living.
Claire Bidwell-Smith 04:52
Today’s listener question involves extended grief over health diagnosis. I’d love to hear from you. Do you have a question for me? That can be about me Mental Health relationships, aging whatever’s on your mind, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or fill out the online form at bit.ly/newday ask. That’s how I got today’s question from Laureen in Palos Heights, Illinois, she writes, please share tips for how to handle ambiguous loss and extended grief. My husband just turned 60, yet he has an end stage young onset dementia. He was diagnosed at 52 years old after a few years of challenges. He lives at home with the help of a 24/7 caregiver. Our youngest is only 19. I’m grateful that my husband still has a heartbeat, but stressed and exhausted after eight years of witnessing him die a brain cell at a time. Oh, Laureen. That’s really broke my heart. This is so hard. I can only imagine that this is not the life you or your husband or your kids. Imagine for yourselves. And I can only imagine how exhausted you are and how much this has just completely taken over your whole life. I imagine you must feel frustrated and angry, resentful, jealous and anxious. I know that’s how I would be feeling. I think it’s great that your husband has a caregiver. But I’m sure you’re still bearing a large part of this work. And it sounds so hard. I hope you’re doing everything you can to take care of yourself and finding healthy outlets for all the emotions you’re experiencing. I’m sure you’re caretaking your kids through this too. Even though they’re moving into adulthood, you’re still their mom and their parent, I want to acknowledge the grief that you must be experiencing as well. There’s got to just be a lot of very real grief over your husband’s situation and the life changes to your family. And I’m sure you’re experiencing anticipatory grief as well. Not to mention caring and supporting all the grief that your kids are carrying. For all this grief, I think it’s really important to find a balance of letting yourself feel it and grieve and process but also take breaks and not get consumed by it.
Claire Bidwell-Smith 06:55
Meditation and mindfulness can be really helpful here. Mindfulness in particular is a great way to give yourself emotional breaks from everything you’re feeling, just getting really present in the here and now. Because when we’re grieving, we’re often dwelling in the past, what things look like, and we’re dwelling in the future, how things aren’t going to look the way that we thought they would. So anything you can do to just get really present and focus on today will be helpful. I also think it’s probably really important to add a lot of joy to your life as much as you can. It’s not that you have to stop grieving or struggling. But just add in extra joy and pleasure so that you can have a balance, read books, take naps, start some kind of creative project, go out with friends, travel, if possible. soak up all the good parts of life so that it doesn’t feel sad and hard all the time. Lastly, Laureen I’m really thinking about how lonely you must feel. I imagine it’s got to be really lonely with the kids out of the house, and you’re home with your partner who isn’t really there anymore. There’s no one else to do this for you. And you’ve just got to be lonely. I can only imagine that you really miss having your husband and the kind of husband he once was. And you’ve got a miss just having a companion in life and romance and a partner to go out in the world with. I know that there’s no replacing him. But I think it might be important to really try to fill some of that void. I hope you’ve got good friends that you can lean on friends that you can have fun with and people that you can just have be part of your broader life journey. If you don’t have a lot of that, then I think it’s important for you to seek it and cultivate it for yourself in any and every way. Even joining a support group. For other spouses who are in a similar position to you, it’d be great. You could check out the website caregiver.org. For some more resources in this area. I’ll be thinking about you, Lorraine, thank you for writing.
Claire Bidwell-Smith 08:52
Before I go, our world needs more grief support than ever. If you’ve ever considered working in the field of grief and loss, I’d love for you to consider joining me for my grief certification training course. This program is designed to help deepen your understanding of grief and end of life work. And it’s open to students, counselors, therapists, nurses, even yoga and art teachers. Anyone working in a professional setting, use code NewDay15 for 15% off registration and visit my website ClaireBidwellSmith.com. To learn more. Okay, see you Friday from my conversation with Rebecca Wolf. She’s got a new book out talking about what it was like to feel relieved when her husband died of cancer. You will not want to miss that show. So make sure you’re subscribed a NEW DAY, and that episode will be in your feed when you wake up on Friday morning.
NEW DAY is a Lemonada Media Original. The show was produced by Kryssy Pease and Erianna Jiles. Kat Yore is our engineer. Music is by Hannis Brown. New Day is produced in partnership with the well-being trust the Jed foundation and Education Development Center. Thanks for listening.