Living with health anxiety

Living with health anxiety

Anxiety is getting a lot of attention within the world of media at the moment. More and more celebrities and iconic figures are opening up about their own battle with anxiety. There are numerous articles written on the subject, and you only have to quickly scroll through Facebook before coming across one. This is great. But seriously, where was all of this help, advice and support when I thought I was going crazy back in Sixth Form?

I’ve heard, and read, a lot of negativity surrounding anxiety, as it has been referred to as becoming a trend of sorts and is over glamorized by the media. Anxiety is not a trend. Yes, more people are seeking help with the illness. Yes, it is nothing to be ashamed of. But I wouldn’t describe anxiety as ‘trendy’, implying that it can be taken on and off like the lastest fashion trends. We all go through anxious periods in our lives, and everybody has good and bad days. The difference is that anxiety takes over every single thought, every single day. 

There are many different forms of anxiety. Some people experience just one form, others experience multiple. Many people are aware of general anxiety, social anxiety and panic disorders, but health anxiety is not discussed as often.

Growing up, I was always extremely nervous and worried constantly, about everything. I always put it down to being a shy individual, and thought that maybe, that’s just who I was and there was nothing I could do about it. But that’s not true. I’m not as shy as I think, nor do I want to hide away from life and its opportunities. It never occurred to me back then that I was suffering with anxiety. Before starting Sixth Form, I experienced panic attacks, back to back for a whole week. As you can imagine, I had no idea what was happening to me. All I knew was that I couldn’t breathe, and someone had to help me, fast, before I collapsed to my death. Very extreme, but that is what is so scary about panic attacks.

You would think that hearing the reassurance of a doctor tell you that you are absolutely fine, and it’s nothing more than anxiety, would help to settle the mind. It does – for about 5 minutes. The after effect of having a panic attack then leads to many unhealthy habits, all of which still affect me today, causing further physical symptoms. As a result of that, I was back at square one, experiencing further attacks because of the symptoms I was having, and also just from living in fear that another attack was bound to happen.

I couldn’t tell you what triggered that first attack, but for two whole years I felt vulnerable and embarrassed. I hated that I had to leave classrooms crying because I felt as though I was falling apart, let alone imagine what everyone else was thinking. Now, I really couldn’t care less whether or not someone was to judge me, or the fact I suffer with anxiety. If someone thinks I am just an overreacting hypochondriac, I’ll let them think that. Who are they to tell me how I’m feeling or what is going through my mind? Only I know those answers.

The panic attacks did not always last. I was taking a gap year when suddenly, I didn’t feel so worried or breathless anymore. During that time, I was brave and challenged myself, throwing myself into things I would never have done before. I was truly happy and started university as a far more confident person. The best thing about meeting new people was that they didn’t know the insecure, panic stricken me. But that person was never me; never will be.

Of course, this is when I tell you that the panic attacks came back. They were there, lurking behind my shoulder, just waiting until I was vulnerable enough to let them consume me once more. I knew exactly why they had come back but I fought so hard to keep them away. It wasn’t until last December, as I was sitting in a three hour workshop, that I thought I was having a heart attack. For three hours I sat there, holding a hand to my heart. The pain was so real, so intense and so very frightening. It was unlike any other panic attack I had experienced in the past and of course, this led me to believe the worst. The attack lasted for a good couple of days, as it had done previously.

In some ways, I’m glad it happened. I had to accept that it was happening to realise I needed help. Grief played a major role in my anxiety returning; deep down I knew that. Everyone experiences grief differently, and for me, it hit me over the head with a hammer and I’m left with gigantic scar that will never fade. Watching a loved one pass away changed me somehow. I had a choice whether to be there or not, and I chose to be. But I had no idea of the lasting impact it would have on me. I saw what cancer could do to someone, as all of us have, and it terrified me.

“Most of us worry about our health from time to time, and some of us have to manage serious medical conditions. But for some people, health worries become overwhelming and a problem in itself. Hypochondria (health anxiety) is excessive worrying about your health, to the point where it causes great distress and affects your everyday life.”

– NHS definition

Since then I have developed a fear of getting ill, or seeing other loved ones get ill. Everyday I think there could be something wrong with me. I spend hours reading symptoms online and have diagnosed myself with nearly every disease out there. It is extremely tiring. Health anxiety causes those suffering with it to consciously look for anything abnormal with our bodies. I have become so aware of the way I feel, and how it differs from day to day because I am constantly on the look out for anything potentially life threatening. Many times have I had a headache or stomach pain and so on, and have thought it might be a tumor. It’s all well and good to be aware of your body or anything unusual, but to the point it becomes obsessive and intrusive, it takes over and affects your quality of life.

The problem with health anxiety is that I have so many plans, aspirations and things I want to see and do in life that I’m afraid I never will. That fear then escalates, resolving in a panic attack. It is so easy for those who do not suffer with health anxiety to say, well just don’t think about, live in the present and be grateful for every second you are here. I am. I really am. But it takes more than just a pep talk to feel better. Worrying about my health every day is not how I want to spend the rest of my life; giving in to irrational thoughts and forever worrying about the future. No one has control over what is thrown at us. That itself scares me.

Over the last month or so, I have decided it is time to attack anxiety. Not only have I educated myself on health anxiety in order to understand how I’m feeling, I have sought help from professionals, and am currently waiting for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy sessions. But i’m not going to sit back and let anxiety control my life whilst I wait.

Health anxiety makes you feel as though you are falling apart. It makes you feel as though you are going mad. You think you are seriously ill, only to be told there is nothing wrong and dismissed. Everyday we face death, illness, trauma and so on. We hear it on the news and read it in papers, we watch it on tv, we learn of innocent people killed in an act of terror and statistics are thrown at us from every direction. 1 in 2 people will develop cancer. Heart disease is the UK’s biggest killer.

There’s no escaping it. 

No wonder I, and many others have developed an unhealthy obsession towards our health.

Right now I am learning to accept that is where I am at this moment in time. I’m learning to accept that everything I am feeling is a result of trauma and grief. I’m learning to distract myself and retrain my thoughts. As I am naturally inquisitive, I can’t stay away from google for too long. However, instead of googling illnesses, I am learning more about anxiety and the different symptoms it can present itself in. Sometimes I worry about ‘what ifs’. What if it really is something serious? What if I’m missing something and it’ll go unnoticed?

It’s hard to recognise what is real and what is imaginary, when everything feels very real. But I am refusing to let health anxiety swallow me whole. Life should not be wasted worrying about what could happen. I’m determined to not let that happen.

To anyone else suffering with health anxiety, or any other form of anxiety, it’s ok not to be strong all the time; to allow yourself to feel intense waves of fear and panic. It is not a sign of weakness. We are all human and to feel is a part of being alive.

Love Georgie 

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