Wait, Watch, Worry
March 30, 2021 6:12 PM   Subscribe

I'm hoping I can get some direction on a very specific type of anxiety I've been struggling with. It revolves around the health of my family and those in my care.

First, and foremost, I do have a therapist that I'll be discussing this with at my next appointment which is a few weeks away.

This particular anxiety that I'm dealing with (and it's not the only anxiety I'm dealing with), surfaces when my spouse, my children, my parents/siblings, and pets are ill. For example, my teenage son has the flu (2 negative covid tests) and while he is sick I don't do anything but worry and check in on him constantly. I am afraid that I'll miss some telltale sign that he is terribly ill and needs doctor/medical intervention. I literally do nothing all day, except be hypervigilant at any little thing that crops up and then I overanalyze and wonder if this is it and I need to rush him to the hospital.

My dog threw up today. Now I'm following him around, wondering if I'm missing something and he's actually on death's door. Never mind that he's got an appetite, regular energy, and drinking water just fine.

A few months ago my 81 year old father had to have his gall bladder removed. I flew out to help around the house and to be a support to my parents. While I did do things like grocery shop and visit with my parents, I was a mess internally. I lost 8 pounds in 2 weeks, couldn't eat, was hyper focused on every little thing my dad did or any little hiccup or perceived hiccup. I worried incessantly. I hardly slept. I had terribly anxiety attacks.

I have a ton more examples, but those are the most recent. It wouldn't be that big of a deal, I guess, if I were still somewhat productive during these times. But it seems I'm so paralyzed by fear or anxiety and hypervigilance, that I do nothing. These past few days where my son has been sick, I've done nothing but sit on porch in between checking in on him and asking him about any new symptoms.

All this fear and anxiety lead me then to just not want to do this anymore. And by "this" I mean be a parent, a spouse, a daughter, sibling. I don't want to be responsible at all. I don't want to deal with any of it. I'd rather live a life alone with absolutely no connections with anyone than to be dealing with this awful sense of responsibility and vigilance.

So, I guess my questions are: is there a specific name for this anxiety that maybe I can research and learn about? Do you have any general advice or input about this type of anxiety or perhaps there's something that's helped you? Is leaving my life behind for solitude a viable option (I jest, sort of)? How can I not be so overwhelmed with this so that I can enjoy people I'm close to without wanting to flee when things get a little rocky/scary?
posted by Sassyfras to Health & Fitness (12 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I used to have a lot of medical anxiety (not sure if that’s a formal term but that’s what I call it). Honestly, what helped me the most was taking anti anxiety meds. Huge game changer for me. I used to spend so much time being so hyper vigilant about medical stuff and it is extremely freeing to not use so much mental and emotional energy on that anymore.
posted by bookmammal at 6:43 PM on March 30, 2021 [5 favorites]

So, I gather from your question history that you are female, and I just want to tell you that this type of hypervigilance, although distressing, is incredibly common in women and is one of the main reasons for the continued survival of the species. Obviously it can be debilitating at times. I went through a period of about ten years where this response was ridiculously heightened and looking back I absolutely think it was hormonal. Do you think it might be in you? If so, that might give you an avenue to pursue.
posted by HotToddy at 6:52 PM on March 30, 2021 [10 favorites]

Is leaving my life behind for solitude a viable option

No. You already know that you're prone to anxiety.

Paralysing worry is the problem you need to solve, not the availability of whatever happens to be triggering it right now. Because until you do solve it, you'll be carrying it with you wherever you go and whoever you live with, even if it's only you.

That said, time out from all responsibilities but self-care can certainly be a healing thing. I think we all need a certain amount of that. Far better to build periods of solitude into our lives than leave them behind in pursuit of some illusory purity.
posted by flabdablet at 6:59 PM on March 30, 2021 [9 favorites]

Apologies in advance for an idiosyncratic analogy.

My anxiety occasionally causes obsessive thoughts. When I'm trying to quiet an unhelpful thought pattern I like to remind myself, "The call is coming from inside the house."

What I mean is - events that trigger anxiety feel charged with danger, like a tiger waiting to pounce. I often think that if I am very crafty, I can spot the tiger and fend him off! But the tiger does not reside in the external world. The tiger is inside my head. There is literally nothing I can do except be kind to myself until he pads away.

In your case, your brain is attempting to manage your anxiety about your ill family members (trigger event) with compulsive checking behaviors (failed tiger combat strategy). But as you've discovered, monitoring their illnesses doesn't resolve your anxiety, because the anxiety lives in your brain, not in your loved ones.

I don't have any foolproof suggestions for banishing anxiety or obsessive thoughts. But you may consider the stress cycle completion strategies from this wonderful episode of the Feminist Survival Podcast.

In the medium-term, I hope therapy and perhaps medication is helpful. All the best.
posted by toastedcheese at 7:36 PM on March 30, 2021 [11 favorites]

Health anxiety is absolutely a thing and it can apply both to yourself and your loved ones. It’s an aspect of GAD and I’m dealing with my own version of it right now! The hugest best thing that has helped so far is a prescription for sertraline, which I’d been on a few years ago but had stopped. It’s one of the first SSRIs you’ll get suggested if you want medication for anxiety. The other thing that helped was I got prescribed a small number of hydroxyzine tablets which is an antihistamine that basically zonked me out whether I was spiraling with health anxiety or not and I got a few nights of like, ten to eleven hours of sleep which really helped me manage my physical symptoms while awake and stuff like my short term memory got back up to snuff. I only needed a few nights of blessed relief from my own brain to get enough of a grasp on things to start taking the real steps for long term management of my condition (like finally getting that sertraline rx again).

The tertiary thing that has helped me is, I am not kidding, deep breathing inhales through my nose four seconds, exhaling through my mouth eight seconds, for rounds of three to five minutes at a time. The website xhalr is extremely valuable. It doesn’t seem like it will help but it’s a really good practice to have in your pocket, and just today I was freaking out in a doctor’s waiting room and used it to stop spiraling. I have also begun exercising, very basic stationary bike stuff, but it’s made a clear difference in my physical anxiety symptoms and like, awareness of my own body. Dissociation is one of my anxiety symptoms, sounds like that’s what you’re doing on the porch. These kinds of small techniques combined with pharmaceuticals have really increased my stress threshold, so now I’m not freaking out about freaking out earlier today!

I would caution you against too much research. It’s kind of like scratching at an itch - it will likely make things worse or cause a secondary infection, like, you’ll read something scary about some percentage of some study and look that up, and then look up stuff from that, and soon enough your anxiety is full of fun statistics about death rates and rare cancers and it’s just a bad scene. Most of the advice I’ve gotten and read about health anxiety is that to get through it a lot of it is allowing yourself or the person you’re worried about to take the perceived risk, to trust in other respected people’s lack of anxiety about a troubling situation instead of your own experience of it. So yes, being proactive about your mental health is wonderful, but if you find yourself half an hour of searches later wondering if you have Alzheimer’s or DID, get yourself offline.

So if you’re not comfortable with long term medication you can still talk to your doctor and therapist about short term help for this crisis you are having right now. If that’s not something you want to pursue for whatever reason, a lot of the typical GAD advice stuff can apply - minimize stress, engage in healthy coping techniques to stop rumination and spiraling, exercise, eat as well as you can, prioritize sleep, see if you can call in additional help for your life whenever possible. Get in touch with your therapist as soon as possible and ask for their recommendations. If you have people who you would trust to handle a crisis, tell them you’re feeling the way you do and just having someone like that know you’re struggling can be a good step to relief. You can also call the Samaritans for someone who will just calmly and empathically listen to you, especially if it’s the middle of the night and you are really white knuckling it.

Later when I catch myself starting my own cycle of hypervigilance I’m going to think about you and send you good vibes. You’re not going to be like this forever. We have many wonderful techniques for healing from trauma and effective management of a lot of anxiety. Be as kind to yourself as you can be right now.
posted by Mizu at 7:41 PM on March 30, 2021 [9 favorites]

I don't want to be responsible at all. I don't want to deal with any of it. I'd rather live a life alone with absolutely no connections with anyone than to be dealing with this awful sense of responsibility and vigilance.

I mean, do what you feel, but I ultimately don't think this will solve anything as it seems to me you are using external things as loci for your own internal anxieties about, maybe, failure, or loss. Those anxieties can be attached to anything living or dead or to which you are attached or not.

Have you ever gardened? If so, how do you feel about the plants?

Sounds like a sympathetic ear attached to the head of somebody who can write prescriptions for medication might be the way forward for the immediate moment. Best of luck!
posted by turbid dahlia at 9:15 PM on March 30, 2021 [3 favorites]

Oh gosh, my mom is like this. I don't want to give you something more to worry about, but I do want to say take this seriously and do something about it, please. Not just for yourself (though that's reason enough) but also for your kid.

My mom's health anxiety seriously messed with my ability to recognise and act sensibly towards actual illness. The constant checking of my temperature and monitoring my poop and the regular hushed "how are you feeling???" for every minor thing like I was at death's door left me the choice of worrying about how deadly sick I obviously was or refusing to accept that I was sick and lashing out angrily. I still have a hard time reacting apppropriately.
posted by Omnomnom at 10:25 PM on March 30, 2021 [2 favorites]

Having been a nurse for 15 years, you realize that you physically can't be there for everyone all the time, and you absolutely must learn to be there for yourself!

We also learn that we human beings are self-healing, for the most part - and that if all you do is provide someone with a therapeutic environment that is calm and meets their physical and emotional needs, it's often better to leave someone alone for periods of time to rest - as constant checks can be intrusive and unsettling for someone who may find it painful to hear noises, or to form thoughts to respond to questioning, or to simply feel as though they are being 'watched'.

There may be a time that an emergency arises and you are not able to attend to the individual immediately - or don't see it until you walk in the room with someone - but that is not your fault! You may want to check more often until you know someone is out of pain, or until you know they've been able to use the toilet after a meal... but once settled, it is very important that you take time for YOU - so that you might be able to handle something unexpected when you walk in the room.

Also, TRUST what your family members tell you. They know themselves better than you may realize. When they say that you should go out for a walk or take a bath, (or they might just say that they're good for now - why not ask them how they feel about you taking a break for an hour, or two?) - then do those things! Self-care is vital to stay healthy, and it is the balance in your life that will allow you to feel like you can BREATHE again.

It is perfectly OK to take a yoga class, to read a book, to go for a bike ride... whatever helps you to relax and enjoy being *in the moment* with yourself. Set a timer, if you like. Sometimes, the release one can get is so great that one can get carried away in just a few minutes alone - and then panic that you've been inattentive for too long! The timer thing really works if you are worried. Set it for 5 minutes at first. Close your eyes and take a cat nap, if that is what you need. Increase your timer by a minute each time you realize that everything was all right with your charges in the time that you took for yourself, and do it again later. It will save your life, and the frazzled nerves of those trying to heal around you as well.

All the best in your personal and familial healing journey!
posted by itsflyable at 11:09 PM on March 30, 2021 [7 favorites]

I just wanted to say that I could have written this post on exactly the same issue today. My husband was ill the other day and I am still feeling extremely anxious and hypervigilant even though he's pretty much back to normal. I felt responsible and was catastrophising everything. I'm on citalopram, which definitely helps, and I've learned that I just need to ride out the waves of fear and the dreadful thoughts about losing him. With the medication the terrors will recede more quickly than without, so I've got a couple of days of watching and listening to him like a hawk to get through before I start to relax, rather than weeks.

I really am very sorry you are going through this - it's horrible for you to experience and so overwhelming at times I can absolutely understand the desire to be free of the responsibility. Health anxiety is the term I use and when it's really bad, sometimes I go to a website called No More Panic, where people with various forms of anxiety and panic discuss those fears - HA has a forum on there as I recall and I took some consolation from finding I was very much not alone.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 1:42 AM on March 31, 2021 [1 favorite]

This sounds like OCD to me, and I would talk to a healthcare provider about meds.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:36 AM on March 31, 2021

Definitely look into medication for anxiety if you're not already on it. If you're at the point of losing 8lbs in two weeks, you deserve some serious intervention to help you feel better about life. Sounds like you're already seeing a counsellor (though it doesn't sound very regular - can you afford to do it more than every few weeks?) and I think throwing some medication into the mix will also really help dial down the scale of your anxious reaction.

I'd agree with everyone above that in many ways, the thing that your anxiety chooses to focus on (in this case, your family's health) is almost irrelevant. It's not like you can change your family's health, and I'm sure you know all the rational stuff around what the actual risk to your family's wellbeing is from flu or surgery, so it's not like there's anything someone can tell you about health that will help there. it's more that your brain is in a state of hyper-reacting to stressful stimulus, and that's what you need to deal with as an overall problem.

I've sometimes found CBT useful when I'm ruminating on things (the David Burns book Feeling Good is the classic MeFi recommendation for this).

I also found the audiobook of Dr Claire Weekes' Hope and Help for your Nerves really helpful. (That's a link to the Audible version but it's available elsewhere, too. I think either the audio or print version may go by a slightly different name in some countries). In some ways it's very dated - was written in the 60s and so refers to 'nerves' and suggests that women are likely to suffer from agoraphobia because of their work in the home while men suffer from stress because of their work outside the home. But it's worth overlooking that, because she was way ahead of her time in her approach to dealing with anxiety. She was talking about a lot of the things we see now in the modern mindfulness movement and other places, albeit using her own language to describe it. Having it as an audiobook made it easier to get through, and it's read by Claire Weekes herself, who was a brisk but kindly Australian doctor who I enjoyed listening to.
posted by penguin pie at 7:04 AM on March 31, 2021

I don't want to be responsible at all. I don't want to deal with any of it. I'd rather live a life alone with absolutely no connections with anyone than to be dealing with this awful sense of responsibility and vigilance.

I hear you. I, too, am an anxious person, my anxiety often revolves around health issues and one of the things that was helpful for me, in a kind of goofy way was thinking "Why do I always want to run away from it all at the EXACT TIME I CAN'T???" (and then answering myself, that it was the feeling hemmed in by my own anxiousness and feelings of hypervigilance that made it all so terrible).

Things that might be helpful for googlin' before you can see your therapist

- intrusive thoughts
- perseverating

But really, anything you can do to just tamp down the anxiety before you can see your therapist will help. This means basic stuff like staying as fed as you need to be (hunger exacerbates anxiety as you've probably found), finding something distracting even if it feels unimportant or not what you should be doing right now, talking to people who can help (friends, "warm line," someone else in your loose group, a family member who is not struggling) so you can get some attention on you. Spending time caring for people is hard but it's especially hard because we don't get enough inward attention on ourselves. You'll be okay but it's ok that this is hard.
posted by jessamyn at 6:01 PM on March 31, 2021 [1 favorite]

« Older Citation: 1999 article in Modernism magazine on...   |   ASDF JKL; Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.