Even in the most emotionally traumatic moment of my life, obsessive thoughts flowed through my mind. Although, at the time, I just called them my “hypochondriac thoughts” or, more generally, “my anxieties.”
My OCD diagnosis was still four years away.
But on that day. That grief-stricken day. Those obsessive thoughts still clouded my brain.
I had just received a phone call from a sheriff’s deputy that would change my life. My parents had been in a terrible car accident. My dad had been airlifted to a nearby trauma center.
And my mom was dead.
Within minutes though, my body started to react to this news. I started sweating. I was suddenly so thirsty. My heart was pounding. And I felt like I was in a strange, dream-like state.
Among all the thoughts that were racing through my mind about this tragedy, there were these annoying selfish thoughts that I could not shed.
“I wonder what my blood pressure is. Calm yourself, you might have a stroke. Your heart is pounding. Get that under control before you have a heart attack.”
Nevermind the fact that I was only 31 years old at the time.
These were not new thoughts. At the time of my parents’ accident, I had been experiencing these health anxiety thoughts for about six years. Any time I would experience an “unusual” bodily sensation, my mind would immediately jump into panic mode.
It didn’t matter how minor or “treatable” the sensation — toothache, a twisted ankle, heartburn, a headache. I was dying. I would settle into my computer desk chair or pick up my phone and begin Googling my symptoms. My eyes would widen as I made the inevitable “connections” between all my prior symptoms that no doubt added up to this one terrible disease. For example, my headache was certainly a brain tumor that had originated from the mole that I had recently discovered on my abdomen. That mole was certainly melanoma (I mean, what else COULD it be), and that melanoma had spread since it was left untreated, and the melanoma metastasized to my brain.
Hours later, I would emerge from my online searches, a frantic mess. My self-imposed diagnosis was always something terrible. An aneurysm, a tumor, a detached retina, the early symptoms of a heart attack, multiple sclerosis, or [insert your own worst nightmare disease here].
Even for my more minor ailments, like a twisted ankle, I would panic because I thought that the injury might require surgery. And of course, surgery is dangerous and would inevitably lead to my death.
By evening, my symptoms would inevitably subside. And I’d start over the next day with whatever pang I happened to feel that day.
I knew I was being unreasonable. I knew it was very unlikely that I had some incurable or otherwise catastrophic ailment.
In nearly all other facets of my life, I consider myself to be a rational, relatively intelligent human being. But that headache? That for sure is a brain aneurysm.
After suffering from health anxiety for more than a decade, I finally decided to seek therapy. This was now 4 years after my mom’s death. I knew I was a hypochondriac. I always thought something was medically wrong with me. I tried all the tips and tricks to ease my anxieties. Deep breathing. Buying all sorts of those fancy coloring books to keep me distracted. Knitting. Nothing helped.
I was just so tired of always living my life as if I was going to drop dead at any moment. I decided it was time to seek professional help. In my research, I discovered that “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy” was a promising approach to treating Health Anxiety.
I contacted a few therapists in my area, and made a decision to see one that seemed promising.
As a hypochondriac, I was always self diagnosing myself with something new.
But, of all the things I ever thought was wrong with me, OCD was definitely not one of them. As it turns out though, that is only true ailment I had.
Upon starting her diagnosis, I looked at my therapist, perplexed. Perhaps she hadn’t understood my problems.
So, I clarified. “No, I don’t wash my hands all the time or anything like that. I’m not a germophobe. Just a hypochondriac.”
She got out a thick book from her shelf, and she read aloud two definitions. One for the definition of OCD, and the other for the definition of “Primarily Obsessional OCD,” also called “Pure-O” for short.
I couldn’t believe it. It was like someone was summarizing the last decade of my life.
Although her initial diagnosis was Pure-O, she wanted me to observe myself for compulsions. She provided me with several worksheets and workbook recommendations. However, I was adamant that I didn’t have any compulsions. There was nothing I did in any sort of repeated fashion.
But, I figured, I was paying for therapy, I may as well do the stupid worksheets and questionnaires. And woo-boy, were they ever enlightening.
As it turns out though, I did have a lot of compulsions. It’s just the compulsions weren’t always exactly the same action, so it was hard for me to identify a pattern.
For example, any time my head would hurt, I would immediately raise my finger to that spot on my head and start rubbing it. If I felt some sort of strange abdominal pain or sensation, I would bend and twist to see if it made the pain worse or better. Sometimes I would also push on the spot that hurt. If my hand would “fall asleep,” I would start violently shaking it to make sure it was just asleep and not a sign of an impending stroke.
And of course, the biggie. Googling my symptoms.
My therapist said that in order to bring my health anxiety OCD under control, I would need to stop acting on these compulsions.
I was extremely skeptical. “Are you sure? Besides the Googling, I barely even notice that I do these things. And they certainly don’t bring me any sort of relief. Not once has touching my head made me less panicky about a headache. How on earth is stopping something I barely notice going to help anything?”
She gave me some explanation that I still insisted did not apply to me. But, once again, I’d give it a shot.
It was life changing.
Within about two months or so, I started seeing a dramatic improvement in my Health Anxiety OCD symptoms. Although I would have a slight initial moment of panic upon some unusual bodily sensation, I found that my anxiety subsided much more quickly. I couldn’t believe this. A DECADE of worrying and thinking I was dying, and this was all it took? Not rubbing my head when I had a headache? Not Googling my symptoms.
I did have a few minor setbacks along the way, so it wasn’t a straight path to progress. But, each week, I could talk through those setbacks with my therapist. She gave her insights on what might be going wrong, or how I could implement alternative techniques that could help more.
The Question of Medication
Medication is a catch-22 for health anxiety sufferers. We want to get better, but we are generally terrified of the laundry list of medication side effect on prescription pamphlets.
Early in my therapy, the doctor had brought up the issue of medication. She explained that medication could help calm these obsessive thoughts while working through the CBT exercises. I told her my hesitation about medication. I told her that I wanted to give CBT a good try before exploring medication. She was fine with that.
Life Changing Treatment
After about six months of weekly therapy sessions, I was feeling well enough to finally have “the talk.” I thought I might not need therapy anymore. I told her that I was struggling to find things to talk about at therapy anymore since my OCD had improved so much. She was genuinely overjoyed for me. And she said, “All without medication. Bravo.”
Upon her recommendation, I didn’t stop therapy cold turkey. I started going every other week. And then once a month for about two months. Then it was time to call it done. I had been seeing her for about 9 months. My life had changed.
I would not say that my health anxiety is completely cured. But, I would say that I’m 85-90 percent better than my pre-therapy days.
I remain completely “sober” from Googling my symptoms (2 years and 5 months now!). I attribute a strict “No Googling Symptoms” rule as being the number 1 thing that keeps my health anxiety in check these days. Just like an alcoholic can’t have even one drink. I can’t Google even one symptom without falling into a tailspin of anxiety and obsessive thoughts. So, my “sobriety” from Googling symptoms remains an important part of my OCD recovery.
For those who think they are eternally doomed to worry about the health, I’m here to tell you, Health Anxiety is treatable. If you’re scared to take medication for it, just share that with your therapist.
It is an incredible feeling these days not to have any little ache or twinge of pain or discomfort ruin my entire day. To have a mind so much clearer and freer from obsessive thoughts about my health.
My blog: HypochondriacTales.com