Hypochondria is not as “Hype” as you’d think

It’s taken me a while to write this guy out. Partly because of my own insecurity, partly because I didn’t know if posting this for the world to see was even beneficial, or if the writing was just therapy for my own thoughts. But I came the realization that nearly every person in my life experiences anxiety in some shape or form. It may manifest itself in different ways, but it’s not talked about enough, and when you’re in it, you feel alone, crazy, insane, like you’re losing your mind. I know this, because once I got to college, I began experiencing anxious and negative thoughts at an exponential rate, all while allowing myself to appear ok on the outside. I got so proficient at hiding my worries to the people around me without actually dealing with them, as I believe many people in my life do as well.

I value and strive to have have complete control over my body, my health, and my actions. However, because I cannot control everything, no matter how hard I try, this need for control comes at a steep price, one that demands insecurity and feelings of failure when something happens to body that is outside of my control. And when I start to lose those feelings of control in whatever aspect of my life I want to focus on, my mental health begins to spiral into patterns of negative self-talk, obsessive and compulsive worry, and self-inflicted guilt.

I write this out not for sympathy or attention, but instead because I truly believe that nearly everyone who may read this experiences this sort of anxiety in some shape or form, especially in the middle of a pandemic when life is turned upside down and inside out. Through therapy, multiple long conversations with people in my life whom I trust deeply, and some much needed self-reflection and forgiveness and prayer, I’ve made some life-changing realizations about my thoughts and anxious-patterns in the midst of the most unprecedented period in my life.

So here we go! As with my previous posts, I ask that if you choose to read this, please read without judgment, this is me being my most vulnerable and real self. Please understand that this is my truth- not anyone else’s. We all have our own experiences and this is mine- I hope that through sharing this some people may feel less alone, more understood, or reassured that you can learn to deal with your anxiety, in whatever ways it may present itself, in a healthy way. Thus, here is my story:

As I’ve stated above, I have always valued having control and predictability in all aspects of my life. For example, if I went on a date with someone, I wanted to know where, the exact minute I’d be picked up, what we would do, what we could talk about, what shoes I should wear for optimal comfort and minimal added height (struggle is real), the weather (preferably all I’d need is a light jacket), and if you looked inside my purse, you’d find a mini survival packet comprised of tampons, advil, mini mascara, chapstick, tooth brush, granola bar (in case I got stranded), cash (in case I lost my credit card) make-up (in case I felt like covering my pimple again in the middle of dinner), and a new pair of socks (because what if they got wet? I hate wet socks!!). When I go to practice, I always have a tupper-ware of healthy snacks and medications, water, bars, anything that I would feel uncomfortable without. So yeah- I like being prepared with anything I could ever need, and I anticipate anything that go wrong. To some extent I feel like this is normal, to many it’s comforting to know that they have all their bases covered. However, for me, the need to be prepared and know what could go wrong extends past the realm of awkward first dates. For me, this desire for preparation and control has become a deep-rooted and persistent obsession with controlling my health.

My freshman year of college, I felt in control of my health and well-being. In reality, I had very little confidence in my outward appearance, but on the outside I acted fine (like we all do). I wanted to look like I had my shit together and to some extent I felt invincible, as if any bad situation that came my way could be conquered by my logical, level-headed, and new-found “mature” mindset. Nevertheless, I was extremely naive and I thought I could navigate my new adult life without consequence. As every college freshman does, I made decisions that I now look back upon, some with regret and other’s with amusement. However, I believe that at one point this year, I made a decision that resulted in a tsunami of negative emotions and self-talk that eventually manifested itself in a need to control every aspect of my health.

I put myself in a bad situation. I don’t want to go into any details, but this left me with some pretty nasty negative thoughts about myself, guilt, and anxiety. I immediately forced myself to feel guilt and responsibly for any repercussions that came with my decisions. Sadly, I believe that many people experience similar situations that trigger the same emotions I experienced, and this is why I’m choosing to mention this here. Perhaps you made a decision that you usually wouldn’t but were pressured into it. Perhaps you felt safe in a situation and didn’t even know what was happening until afterwards. Perhaps you don’t remember what happened, but you have a gut feeling that something wasn’t right. Perhaps this loss of control presents itself as the death or harm of someone close to you, or maybe an accident, an injury, an illness. There’s so many other things too- this isn’t an exhaustive list.

After this situation, I felt heavy. I couldn’t sleep well. My mind obsessed over anything that could go wrong…..and the fact that if anything went wrong, it was immediately my fault. My body didn’t feel valued or familiar anymore. I perceived myself as damaged though on paper I was 100% healthy and functioning at the level of a D1 athlete. I was filled with worry and intense guilt that I had made a decision that would cause lasting harm to my body, the health of which I idolized and valued immensely. There’s a lot to unpack here, and I have unpacked quite a bit on my own, but the point that I want to make is that I discovered my anxiety when I started blaming myself for something that was not 100% in my control- something that I think nearly everyone can relate to (and if you can’t, that doesn’t invalidate your experiences).

And sadly, though time allowed for self-forgiveness and healing from the guilt I inflicted upon myself, I had gained a new obsession with control when it came to my body and I resented myself for any decision I made that compromised my body’s ability to be “healthy” or “perfect”.

When I got mono, an IUD, and my hair started falling out, that was a whole other can of worms for my health anxiety. We’ve been over that, but I never really touched on how obsessive my hypochondriac thoughts became during these times in my life.

I remember thinking that it was my fault that my hair was falling out because I wasn’t careful enough to ensure I protected myself from mono. I remember thinking that maybe God was punishing me for my actions because I wanted an IUD to be “safe” outside the context of a marriage. Harsh, I know. But anxiety will do that, it will convince you of things that don’t make sense. No amount of other’s reassuring “Jesus forgives,” or “it’s not you’re fault, this could happen to anyone,” would comfort the guilt and anxiety I felt and placed upon myself. Physical symptoms of declining health in my body prompted obsessive thoughts about how I needed to fix my body. I had (and often still have) a need for control when it came to my body, but you can’t control life, and you can’t control your hair falling out and you can’t control a virus and you can’t control the effects that synthetic hormones have on your body once they’re in there.

However, my anxious thoughts convinced me that if I could figure out ways to fix whatever health issues or damage I perceived in my body, I could be happy and worry free again. I was (and sometimes still am) convinced that my health dictates my happiness. I joined multiple facebook groups for different varying health issues, all to research what could be wrong with me. I began charting my menstrual cycles obsessively, writing every symptom I felt each day and taking my basal body temperature each morning. I started taking my pulse daily. I spent embarrassing amounts of time and money on my own blood tests because I was embarrassed to admit to my doctors that I didn’t trust them and I knew my parents would try to intervene and tell me that I was fine and that it was my anxiety prompting these worries. Between classes. practices, and meals, I would bury my face in my phone, reading scientific studies, reddit posts, facebook groups, and any internet platform that offered information about the “symptom” of the day I was experiencing. I over analyzed my body, how it was feeling, my physical signs, my appetite, and once I convinced myself something was not normal, I developed a compulsion to figure out what was going on. It ruled my mind, my day, my happiness, and my mood. I was terrified of ignorance. I had little trust in doctors after I was told that my hair loss was in my head and that the IUD was safe for me. I actually had to go to three separate doctors to get diagnosed with mono initially (they thought I had the flu at first), and I honestly thought most doctors did not have my best interest in mind.

And so I wrote about it. And It really helped. I gained support that I never knew I had and I started going to therapy and processed and learned a lot about myself and my anxiety and all these negative feelings I had been keeping inside me for so long.

But, progress with mental health and anxiety isn’t linear. It’s like playing snakes and ladders….. You go up two ladders and then hit a roadblock and slide back down three levels. These past few months, I’ve felt that intense need for control creep it’s way back in. This summer, my health anxiety really got bad. Seemingly common and normal things sent me into an anxious frenzy to determine what was wrong with me (and in hindsight, nothing that I was afraid I had turned out to be true). Things like UTI symptoms, canker sores, hives, chest tightness, fatigue, and headaches had me calling doctors, getting blood draws, researching supplements for hours, and skipping class to get “assurance” that I was fine. For every rash/headache/bought of nausea/canker sore, my mind immediately wants to research what could be wrong, what could be an underlying cause. In my mind, everything that I perceive as a problem with my health is a symptom or clue to a “bigger” disease that I need to get checked out. Even if the logical side of me knows I am mostly likely fine, I still become obsessed with fixing something that I perceive is wrong with my health. The “I perceive” part is important- because though doctors will tell me I am fine, I still have nagging thoughts in my head that tell me that I am not ok, that they’re missing something, that it’s my responsibility to control my health so nothing bad happens again.

One thing that isn’t talked about much are the physical symptoms of anxiety. When you are constantly worried and anxious, your body think’s it’s in danger. And I’ve noticed a pattern: when I am the most anxious and my brain is thinking and hyper focusing on something, my appetite goes away, my brain gets foggy from thinking around the clock, my memory suffers, my sleep suffers, my motivation lacks, I become irritable and experience big mood swings, I get hives and heat rashes, headaches, you name it. I pee constantly. I recently learned that canker sores can be caused by stress and constant anxiety as well. In fact, you could treat anxiety as a physical disease itself- it suppresses the immune system and prevents the parasympathetic nervous system from carrying out vital bodily functions. Because I get so anxious about my health, I often mistake anxiety symptoms for illness, and then create a vicious cycle that becomes so. hard. to. break. I have convinced myself that I could have several different autoimmune diseases based on what I’ve researched on the internet, and in retrospect, during those times, I most likely was mistaking physical symptoms of anxiety for an acute onset of symptoms due to illness.

Thought some comedic relief would be nice here…. health anxiety memes did not disappoint lol

Recently, I became obsessed with controlling my diet in order to control my health. I cut out all added sugar in my diet, stopped eating gluten (****ok that actually has helped me), chugged a gallon of water a day. I did crazy things like eating tons of fiber to help “detox” my body. I ate raw cloves of garlic to “boost” my immune system. And the internet didn’t help. Once I read an article or study about a new “remedy” to try, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I had to add it to my list of things to do to support my “health”. I took so many supplements, some of which I would throw up occasionally because it was too much for my stomach to handle. I avoided drinking alcohol, and when I did, I woke up feeling guilty as if I had damaged my immune system or triggered another rash on my body. I would weigh myself, wondering if I was gaining or losing weight because of some hidden illness. For a hot moment, I was convinced I could be suffering from parasites in my digestive system or systemic yeast infections. Other times I felt itchy all over, and the more focused on it, the more intense the itching felt. But if I let myself forget the itching, It went away. I justified all of these actions and thoughts in the name of taking care of myself, of making sure I was healthy. Because in my mind, if I could finally perceive myself as healthy, as undamaged, I could finally be happy.

And slowly, I’ve learned that I cannot let my health, doctors, or any amount of supplements dictate my happiness. I’ve learned that self-care for myself should look a lot less like diagnosing myself but instead drawing boundaries with spending time on the internet researching what could be wrong me with. I’ve stopped allowing myself to spend hours on the internet, which has helped immensely (boundaries, people!). I’ve learned that no amount of sugar in my diet makes me un-worthy of feeling or being healthy. I’ve learned that a glass of wine won’t harm me, that if some chocolate at the end of a hard day or drinking with my friends makes me happy, it’s not going to harm me. I’ve learned that what I eat is not a prescription, but instead a blessing. And the truth is- I observed no difference when I ate obsessively and restrictively healthy compared to when I ate intuitively and freely healthy.

The sad reality is that when you are anxious about your health, that anxiety often manifests itself in physical ways, causing even more worry about the symptoms that anxiety causes. It’s a vicious cycle and it’s exhausting. Often times, I feel as if I am going crazy, because you can convince yourself that something’s wrong when it isn’t. I think that my anxiety is a form of self-protection, that if I catch something wrong with me soon enough, I can minimize harm to my body.

What I’ve learned for myself is that anxiety is illogical. It’s controlling, it’s not always based on reality, and most of the time, it’s irrational. And you can’t fight irrational. You can’t try and win an argument with irrationality, you can’t try and logically “think” your way out of being anxious. But what you can do is learn how to cope along side it.

And so I’ve come to think about my anxiety as a person. And with any person or relationship in your life, you need to draw boundaries. I wouldn’t allow someone to constantly bombard me with negative thoughts and guilt and dramatic “what if” questions, so why would I allow myself to entertain these things when my anxiety does it? I wouldn’t let a person shame me for eating carbs or drinking wine because it “might” feed bad bacteria in my gut, so why would I allow my anxiety to do that? I wouldn’t allow a person to tell me that I am damaged, incomplete, and unhealthy, so why do I believe myself when I think that? I wouldn’t allow someone to blame myself relentlessly for things that are outside of my control, so why would I listen to the voice in my head that tells me that my hair falling out is my fault and that every bad thing that has happened is 100% due to my poor judgment?

If my anxiety was a person, I’d cancel that bullshit and remove them from my life permanently.

And though sadly my anxiety is not a person, and I cannot inherently control what I worry about, I CAN draw boundaries as to how those worries make me feel.

I can allow myself to learn about nutrition and health and things that I am passionate about without feeling the need to apply everything to my own body to “perfect” it. I can feel anxious about my health, and most likely will for a long time, but I can control how that anxiety manifests itself in my thoughts- I can allow myself to not feel guilt and shame for things outside of my control. I can (and will) have periods of anxiety that leave me with physical symptoms, but I can choose to accept that those symptoms of anxiety will come and go and that nothing is wrong with my health long term. These are things that I can control. And it’s not easy. The easy path with anxiety is to just let those nasty, anxious thoughts rule your emotions, actions and thoughts, but the hard, grueling way out is to learn how to control what you can control in moments of great stress and anxiety. As the cover picture above describes, it’s like choosing to find a perspective that says “I’m ok, I’m healthy and worthy and safe” even when your world feels like it’s burning around you. It’s so hard, because often that anxious little voice in our heads wants us to take things personally, to let every thought that goes through our head define the very core of who we are.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading! I want people to know that my experiences with anxiety have taught me a lot about myself. They’ve facilitated growth in so many areas in my life, I’ve gained empathy, compassion, and understanding for others going though similar struggles. I’ve gained self-respect, self-forgiveness, and learned to free myself from guilt that I’ve felt for things in the past. I’ve gained a passion for learning about the human body in a way that doesn’t inflict bad feelings about my own body but instead builds an appreciation for the amazing things it allows me to do. I’m also learning how to care about my physical health in way that doesn’t harm my mental health- something that is a constant battle for me, but one that is extremely rewarding.

I hope that others can read this and perhaps feel less alone in their silent struggles and to inspire those to put their mental health first- that you deserve to fight and overcome whatever you struggle with to find peace and happiness in your life! And if this post to sparks a conversation that leads to the same discoveries that I have made about my own self, I have achieved my goal for sharing this for the world to see!

Again, thanks for the read:

~Lauren Sanders


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