I Have An Anxiety Disorder You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

 

 

Anxiety disorders are not, in the grand scope of life, relatively uncommon. According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 13 people suffer from anxiety globally. It the most common mental illness in the US, affecting over 40 million Americans. Anxiety is also known to disproportionately affect women, due to increased risk factors such as gender-based violence and unremitting responsibility for the care of others. 

What most people are unaware of, however, is that there is a myriad of types of anxiety disorders, such as Panic Disorder and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I have three anxiety disorders: General Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and a third that virtually no one is aware of, Health Anxiety. 

What is Health Anxiety? 

Have you ever felt a pain in your chest and automatically feared that you have stage four breast cancer? Or are in the middle of a heart attack? Have you ever stood up too fast and your vision turned spotty, and you immediately thought you were going to faint? Have you ever Googled your cold symptoms and felt sick to your stomach at WebMD’s terminal diagnosis? Health anxiety is living in this constant state of mind. This anxiety disorder exists at the confluence of GAD and OCD (which is why I have limited symptoms of both). Essentially, health anxiety is exactly like it sounds: anxiety about your health. It should not be confused with hypochondria, though, which is a term that many people in modern American society like to throw around without acknowledging that hypochondria is a very specific mental disorder with a certain set of symptoms. 

Why Should I Be Aware that Health Anxiety Exists? 

Awareness is knowledge, and knowledge is power. Acknowledging that the person who scoots away from you on the subway might just be paranoid, fearing contagion during flu season, helps the world become a kinder and safer place. Aside from that, Health Anxiety quite commonly affects women and frequently goes untreated. Knowledge about Health Anxiety = more women recognizing their illness and receiving proper treatment. 

Personally, I lived with Health Anxiety for over a year before I sought treatment. I didn’t make my discovery until I developed a terrible stomach problem, due to the effects of my undiagnosed mental disorder. I fell underweight. I started having heart palpitations. I had to try different medications for IBS and other digestion issues, miss classes repeatedly, and visit both a gastroenterologist and a cardiologist. That cardiologist told me to seek therapy, and upon seeking therapy, I discovered the term Health Anxiety. As soon as I read about it, everything clicked. If someone had mentioned the term to me beforehand, if someone out there had known, things might have been a lot easier for me. They could be easier for a lot of other people out there, too. 

How Do I Know If I Have Health Anxiety?

You won’t know until you are diagnosed. You might have ideas or inklings, just as I began to suspect that maybe I had some sort of anxiety, but a psychological screening at a counseling center, therapy office, or with a psychiatrist is the best way to tell. I was in denial for a long time about having any sort of mental illness. I remember the exact paragraph I read on a therapy website that finally changed my mind, which I’ve pasted below, from Cognitive Therapy of Staten Island’s website: 

“A 20-year-old female had spells of dizziness, shortness of breath, heart palpitations and tingling in the hands and feet. These episodes upset her so much that she feared going anywhere alone, worrying that she might have a heart attack or die. After numerous trips to the emergency room and being told by her medical doctor that she was experiencing panic attacks, she sought treatment.” 

I remember reading this and thinking to myself, “That’s me. That girl is me.” 

How Do You Deal with Health Anxiety?

There are a few different tactics that have helped me with my disorder: 

1. Therapy

I will admit that yes, therapy has helped me the most. I know some people think therapy offers no real benefits besides someone saying, “and how does that make you feel?” In actuality, that is the least accurate representation of therapy possible. It’s physical therapy for your brain. When you have a physical issue or disorder, you go to physical therapy; when you have a mental issue or disorder, you go to cognitive therapy. They employ the same principles of practice and exercise to help you improve. But there is one thing I believe more people should know about therapy: it will be easier for it to work if you want it to work. Think about how badly you want to get better, think about the people around you who would benefit, who you are doing this for. This will give you the confidence to tackle the often fearsome obstacles one might face in therapy, such as vulnerability and exposure to the things that make you anxious. 

2. Exercising and Meditation

I acknowledge that therapy is a luxurious option that many cannot afford. Thankfully, it is not the only option. I cannot accurately express the plethora of benefits I have experienced from physical exercise and meditation. You don’t have to be a gym junkie to exercise; go for a jog outside, do some crunches on your bedroom carpet. You don’t even have to break a sweat, just do anything that can release those endorphins. The feeling of contentment and clarity following your workout will permeate your life with repeated practice. I use the app Headspace for meditation (it has specific guided meditations for Anxiety and Stress), but there are endless options on YouTube of meditations of various lengths and styles. Again, you don’t need to have the mindfulness of a Tibetan Monk. I started by meditating for five minutes three times a week, which eventually built up to ten minutes every day. I fall off the wagon often, but that’s okay. Acceptance is part of the journey. 

 

3. Noting and Acceptance

Separating yourself from the thought. Allowing yourself to be engulfed by your anxious thoughts, or even doing the opposite and trying to vehemently push them away and deny them, will only make it worse. Instead, allowing yourself to be present with the thought and accepting it is key to lessening your anxiety. Next time you catch yourself getting lost in an anxious thought or feeling, tell yourself “I notice that I am having this thought. That’s okay.” For example, when I feel a heart palpitation and begin to fear a heart attack, I might think, “I am having a heart attack.” Instead, I could say, “I’m noticing the thought that I could have a heart attack.” See the difference? It lessens the intensity of the thought greatly, strips it of fear, which allows me to return to the present moment with the thought drifting away in the background. 

 

All of these tactics are not just applicable to Health Anxiety, but can be used to improve anyone’s mental state, to remedy any stress or anxiety one might experience. I hope my story can help bring awareness to the prevalence of this health issue and make others more understanding, compassionate, and enlightened this Women’s Health Week.