I would like to stop feeling and living like this.
May 21, 2015 8:24 AM   Subscribe

How does a constant hypochondriac and anxiety sufferer just live and feel like a regular person?

I have been a hypochondriac all my life to various degrees, I already suffer from anxiety and panic disorders (I am currently not on medication but am seeing a therapist), and it’s starting to impact my mental health to the point where I just want to curl into the fetal position and cry.

Long story short: the panic attack chest pains started when I was 17 and I have been in and out of emergency rooms for them a lot in my life (I am in my late 30s now). So tests have been run—the most recent one in late September 2014—and everything is tickety-boo. I am currently having them now, but then it's been very nuts in terms of life changes--starting school at my age, new job, new house, etc. I have no physical health issues, no family history of anything heart-related, but oh it doesn’t stop there! I am constantly secretly convinced that I am always having one of the following: cancer (doesn’t matter what kind), brain tumors, aneurysms, etc. Essentially if I even read/hear anything about diseases or maladies, my brain immediately adopts the panic/stress/worry of it.

I have a super supportive spouse who is often able to bring me back down to earth in terms of what we call my “Crazy Brain” (this is very much my term for me; I realize it is not flattering), but I have reached the limits of my desire to live like this. It is exhausting and stressful and I just want to be a normal person.
So what do I do? What can I do? Does anyone else live like this?

(For advice, know that I live in Canada, have access to healthcare, and am in pretty good shape. I wrote this anonymously because I also feel tremendous embarrassment and shame about this.)
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Is there a reason you aren't on medication? That seems the obvious first step to me.

Please don't be ashamed. This is not your fault.
posted by something something at 8:32 AM on May 21, 2015 [16 favorites]

I used to be like this and now am mostly not. I have irrational health worries sometimes, but they are much closer to "normal" minor worries that I can dismiss. Here are some things:

1. NEVER read the internet about health things. NEVER. If I read about something, it triggers the same kind of somatized symptoms that you describe - chest pains, twitches, etc. This helped me a lot. Remember - NEVER. Not sometimes, not when there's an interesting article on metafilter, never. After a few years of "never" I've gotten to the point where "sometimes" is all right.

2. Telling myself "if it's a fatal illness, it will get a lot worse and then I'll die; I'm not going to worry about it unless it gets worse". This doesn't help as much with heart stuff, but it helps with other diseases. I tell myself "If I really have [awful degenerative condition], then in a few months I'll definitely have much worse symptoms and then I can worry".

3. Thought-stopping. I don't think about these things anymore. I have taught myself to blank my mind when it starts. I think of nothing at all for a minute and then think of something distracting.

4. Starting to resolve some of the things that made me unhappy. For me, a lot of the hypochondria was because I was very unhappy with my life and was not doing anything that I felt was worthwhile - my unconscious was very much "my life is awful, I don't know how to fix it, maybe I will just develop a Wasting Illness and that will give me focus and direction and also an end-point". In therapy, I addressed some lingering childhood/young adulthood bad stuff and I also did a few more things that made me happy, so I no longer have as much of a strong unconscious feeling of a wasted and miserable life. I'm not saying that my life is totally perfect and fulfilling or that I don't still have issues, but I did clear away a LOT of the painful old stuff. If you're just doing CBT/anxiety treatment, see if you can do some deeper therapeutic stuff.

5. I got older and my mother became very ill. Honestly, now that I've started to really realize how bad end-of-life stuff can get for the elderly, I have much more calm about other stuff. It's not that I don't fear getting cancer or having a heart attack, but I can also look at it more positively - if something bad happens to me very young, I will miss out on being that bedbound 75-year-old in a charity ward with bedsores getting abused by the underpaid staff.

Now, my main problem was death/the unlived life. So I mostly fear fatal illnesses that come on gradually. Maybe you fear something else and worry about disability or chronic pain. Figure out what illness represents for you and deal with that*.

*Obviously real physical illness doesn't "represent" something for actual sufferers. I'm not saying that people get e.g. cancer because of an "unlived life" - that would be a monstrous and stupid thing to think. I'm only saying that anxiety about illness can represent something else in your life.
posted by Frowner at 8:39 AM on May 21, 2015 [9 favorites]

Hypochondriac - Obsession with the idea of having a serious but undiagnosed medical condition.

You don't have cancer, you have anxiety. Anxiety can be as fatal as cancer. Please get treatment immediately. Medication and therapy can work wonders. It's best to do them together. Sometimes, people will start medication without therapy. The medication will lift them out of their fog enough to feel things that they had been ignoring, and, without therapy, the pain can be devastating. It's better to start with therapy and then add the medication.

This is a real medical condition and nothing to be ashamed about. And you should be concerned- anxiety is not good for your heart or your immune system. If you do not get treatment, your hypochondriac thoughts could end up being a self fulfilling prophecy.

You can do this. Your husband is supportive. Ask him to make the first calls and to drive you to your first appointment. You are going to feel so much better by this time next year. You can do this.
posted by myselfasme at 8:42 AM on May 21, 2015 [4 favorites]

I went on a low dose of zoloft for this and it changed my life immeasurably for the better. I was characteristically very worried about starting the medication but personally I had no real adverse side effects (gained about 4 pounds, but that is a small price to pay and may not even be related). My only regret with respect to the medication was not starting it sooner.
posted by sockermom at 8:43 AM on May 21, 2015 [8 favorites]

I have suffered from both at different times of my life - YMMV, but here is what helped me the most: Regular cardio exercise (for me, it was running a few miles 2-3 times a week), getting enough sleep, and eating well and stay hydrated. Taking better care of myself eventually leveled my mood and made it much easier to both cope with the things in my life that I was struggling with, and to deal with the emotional consequences.

Nthing that it's worth speaking to a professional as well, just to cover all of your bases.
posted by ryanshepard at 8:54 AM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

My only regret with respect to the medication was not starting it sooner.

Yep, this. For me, 10mg of fluoxetine every day keeps the grinding, suffocating anxiety demons away. The exhaustion of constantly terrorizing myself with worst case scenarios just... lifted, like a curtain or a caul. I know it's just brain chemistry, but it honestly feels like magic.
posted by divined by radio at 8:56 AM on May 21, 2015 [10 favorites]

I just want to be a normal person.

I wrote this anonymously because I also feel tremendous embarrassment and shame about this.

You are already a normal, regular person. Woody Allen famous for his hypochondria deals with it by joking about it. He tells a story about when he convinced himself he had cancer, but because visiting the doctor caused him so much anxiety he couldn't do it so he suffered his self-diagnosis in silence.

And then one day he runs into a guy, Fred, with exactly the same symptoms as he had. Allen (thinking he can get whatever he has diagnosed) convinces Fred that he's got something serious and that he shoud see a doctor immediately. He schedules an appointment for him the next day.

The next day he anxiously waits for the appointment to be over and he calls Fred. Fred's wife answers the phone in tears "Fred's dead" is she all she says.

Woody Allen becomes panic sticken and immediately checks himself into the hospital for a complete battery of tests - all come back normal.

Unconviced because of the death of Fred he checks into another hospital and has the same tests run - again all come back normal. But he was still convinced he was going to die because Fred had exactly the same symptoms as he.

So Allen calls Fred's widow to find out what he had. She says "All of his tests were normal too. Fred was killed by the bus that hit him on the way home from the hospital."
posted by three blind mice at 8:57 AM on May 21, 2015 [7 favorites]

I took medicine and it fixed most of my shit. And then I decided maybe I wasn't that afraid to die. I mean dying wouldn't be my choice, I would not enjoy that, but it beats living in constant fear of maybe contracting something that would eventually lead to my death or disability. I decided (for me, ymmv) that I was being a weird narcissist deciding that worrying about me getting cancer was the most important thing all the time every day. People get cancer all the time. It's not great but they live with it and are fine and don't have to be quivering balls of tension at all times. This is what helped me, along with medicine (sometimes medicine, not even all the time medicine).

So, stop reading the internet. Work with your partner so they are not your emotional support with your irrational stuff. They can say "I'm sorry you are feeling anxious about your health" but they should not be reassuring your irrational concerns (No "You do not have cancer, here is why" If you are like me you set up arguments with your SO about how you are SO SURE you have cancer and they are being jerks. Don't do this, it's not a good way to be) and help you with boundaries of letting the bad thoughts creep in and making sure you're taking care of yourself in a normal way.

You don't have to live like this, I know it's so very awful.
posted by jessamyn at 9:02 AM on May 21, 2015 [8 favorites]

Figure out what illness represents for you and deal with that*.

For me it was the fear of losing control. Something to consider, and maybe a new angle from which to approach this.
posted by chainsofreedom at 10:09 AM on May 21, 2015

While I'd like to throw in the regular (and enthusiastic) plug for the Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, I'm also nthing medication, so wholeheartedly. For me it's 400-600mg gabapentin per day, and the squirrel/tornado that used to whirl away constantly in my brain is calmed. I still get worries about certain things but I'm able to face them with a clear head and see things in perspective.

Like divined by radio says, it really does feel like magic.
posted by DingoMutt at 10:13 AM on May 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

Like others have said, it's probably worth looking into medication options. The most serious aspects of my anxiety were largely situational, and medication helped me get through the roughest bits mainly unscathed.

There's nothing to be embarrassed about. I totally understand why you're embarrassed and I am not invalidating your feelings here. There is a terrible social stigma around mental health issues, and it's perfectly normal to feel shame and embarrassment around them. I'm suggesting that perhaps these feelings of shame could be contributing to your anxiety by amplification; you feel anxious, then ashamed for it, then you feel anxiety about that, and down the spiral it goes. It might help to unpack those feelings with your therapist, and possibly to reframe 'mental health' into 'health.' Few people, I suspect, are embarrassed that they have diabetes, for example. It's just a fact of life.

CAMH has a wide variety of programs, both in- and outpatient, for helping with anxiety and mood disorders. They might be an avenue to explore. You'll need a referral from your GP. The program I did there is called AIM (Alternate Inpatient Milieu), and it is very much focused on distress tolerance, dealing with anxiety, and generally finding what you need to feel like you have improved your life. And remember, 'improve' is a small steps kind of process; if you're panicking, an improvement is panicking a little less. And then a little less than that.

The distress tolerance pieces of DBT (there's a post right now on the Blue; TW discusses suicide) might also be very useful. The first that come to mind as possibly being useful for you purely as an "I'm panicking right now and would like to come down" are the TIP skills. If you're using cold as a skill, be aware of your physical health, especially heart health and possible allergy to cold. Bear in mind that TIP is an in-the-moment coping skill, not often effective as a long term strategy.

How much have you unpacked these feelings with your therapist? If you haven't, or haven't much, it might be effective to print out this question for your next session.

I've heard (and am not a therapist and to my knowledge am not someone with hypochondria) that hypochondria can be about feeling a lack of control. Being able to point at a symptom and say "yes I have that thing" is a way to assert control, even if what you're asserting is a terrifying possibility. Naming demons, even demons that don't exist, can be a way to impose order on chaos. Perhaps the idea of control might be something worth exploring with your therapist.

Frowner is absolutely right: if you see something that is medically-related--an article, news story, what-have-you--don't read it. Don't watch House or Grey's Anatomy or whatever. Stay far, far away from WebMD. Try not giving your brain things to feed on. Try, also, not seeing that as any failure or something worthy of shame on your part; to return to diabetes as I mentioned above, people with diabetes need to be mindful about what they eat. In the same way, it's likely to be effective for you to be mindful of the things you put into your brain right now.

tl;dr: start with looking into medication options, via a psychiatrist referral from your GP. Get your therapist onboard with the psychiatrist so they can work together to help you build the toolkit you need from multiple angles. Look into more intensive therapy either through CAMH or your local equivalent. Consider looking into distress tolerance skills. Best of luck.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 10:34 AM on May 21, 2015 [6 favorites]

At one point someone reminded me that the number one thing to learn from my past medical anxiety is that I have a track record of being very bad at diagnosing myself.

It helps a lot, when the anxiety starts creeping up, to use that as a mantra: "I am very bad at diagnosing myself."
posted by 256 at 10:38 AM on May 21, 2015 [4 favorites]

I have a happy little bottle of Lorazepam that comforts me when this happens.

My health anxiety episodes are similar to yours, and pretty extreme -- but periodic, with spans of "fine" of varying length between them. I've learned to notice when a stray headline or TV episode plot or thought is going to take me down the rabbit hole, and take a pre-emptive pill to short-circuit it.
posted by kythuen at 10:41 AM on May 21, 2015

Breathe. I know it sounds simple but when my hamster wheel starts up, this is what I go with first.

I tried to white knuckle my anxiety for too long. What really helped me was therapy, cut caffeine, exercise, meditation and I take Ativan for certain high arousal situations. Dental appointments, medical tests, crowds, etc. Therapy helped me figure out my triggers, and helped me figure out what I needed to feel ok. Just being able to learn and advocate for myself has been really helpful. I wish you well, and hope you find what works for you.
posted by dorkydancer at 10:48 AM on May 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

I read about Dialectical Behavior Therapy, and that came immediately to mind.

I do know worrying about things that are not necessarily real, often masks real concerns that are seemingly insoluble, or overwhelming. Something a practice, or therapy, that helps you effectively rearrange priorities and engenders positive sense of self, is better than drugs if you can find it. Running your own show is the best way to make sure it is your show, and good for you.
posted by Oyéah at 12:10 PM on May 21, 2015

Ha - I so could have written parts of this question :)

Alongside the great advice above, I think it's really important to find health care providers that you trust, who can communicate with you well (and maybe who you click with well enough).

The thing about panic is that education's a big part of it. You are interpreting your somatic responses to certain triggers and situations as signs of illness. And a lot of them, Google will tell you, may well be signs of illness, in someone. (Maybe not you, but someone.) You don't have the medical background to know if that's true or not. You might not trust the information you're getting from your care team, because you're still having these somatic experiences. And maybe one reason you're still having them is that you and one or some of your health care providers are not a fit, and communication isn't as good as it could be.

I'm a little anxious in general. The health anxiety I feel has been substantially informed by a three-year odyssey in which six (6) healthcare professionals (specialists) were totally ineffective wrt diagnosing a chronic MSK problem that left me housebound for extended periods. It has since, thankfully been diagnosed and successfully managed by a 7th. I have many, many feels about all of it.

But finally finding this one physiotherapist who knows her shit meant that I could relax about MSK stuff, at least. I came to this conclusion because she went to the top schools (not always an indicator of competence, obviously, but in this case, yes, it seemed to help inasmuch as she just did know more than other physios); she explained her diagnostic rationale to me in ways that made sense; she pointed me to further reading, understanding my need to understand; she actually listened to me explain my pain and functional limitations, which I know better than anyone (scans be damned); and finally, she reduced my actual pain, using (what I learned were) evidence-based techniques.

I have yet to find a GP who's as good at communicating as my physio (or maybe who's as good of a match with me). But I think it's an important piece of the puzzle.

Something else that might be worth mentioning and discussing with your care providers (with apologies for maybe giving you more to sear ch :/ ) - some research is suggesting that at least some people with anxiety might be extra sensitive to interoceptive stimuli, and may also have different pain thresholds than people who don't have anxiety. You may not only be interpreting your body signals as worrisome, but perceiving more of these signals.
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:43 PM on May 21, 2015

Zoloft + klonopin worked for me when I was in a similar spot. My dad used to say that with today's medications, nobody has to be miserable.
posted by jabah at 3:12 PM on May 21, 2015

Just another thought: when I was at the Doctor's office, I said, "I wish I wasn't such a basket case." He shook his head and replied (something like...), "This is a medical condition, which we treat like any other medical condition." Kind of took the pressure and uncertainty off.
posted by jabah at 9:29 AM on May 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

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