Living with and Healing from Anxiety
BY SARAH MCAVOY
I remember the first time I realized that something could be really wrong with me and I’d possibly have no idea until it was too late. I was probably about 18 years old and, ironically enough, my Dad was the one to comfort me as this reality set in. We had been discussing something else and all of a sudden the unpredictability and unfairness of life hit me hard. My Dad understood where I was coming from, but he simply said “You just can’t think like that.” He was right. We’ll drive ourselves mad if that’s all we ever think about, so I barely revisited the idea until about 6 years later; when living with and healing from health anxiety became my everyday experience and endeavor.
If you’ve been following along for a bit now, you’ve heard that my Dad’s cancer felt like it came out of nowhere. I had just moved to San Diego in March, and by May the cancer had been detected. He went through surgery to remove a kidney and we thought that was that. Then in November, the cancer came back, and that’s when he was given a year to live. I, not for a single second, saw it coming. I thought he’d just have surgery again (if he’s not feeling well even had anything to do with cancer) and we’d all be back on our way to normal.
Unfortunately, this was not the case. Instead, we watched him go through all the trials of someone with a serious cancer diagnosis. Never did I think that this would be our life, but it was. Here we were and nothing could change it.
During this year, I traveled between San Diego and Portland fairly often. I felt grateful to have a life elsewhere; one where my Dad was not dying and life was just going on as normal. And as guilty as I felt for those feelings, I think it was all in God’s timing for it to happen that way because it allowed me to be so fully present while I was there, and it made those moments so much more special and meaningful.
One day, while I was in Portland, I went to a bookstore and picked up When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. If you haven’t heard of or read this book, I would highly recommend it. It’s written by a man who, at 36 years old, and while training to become a neurosurgeon, is diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. When he finds out his time is limited, he begins to write this book.
Feeling particularly close to this part of the life experience at this point, I was fascinated by other’s experiences with it too. Many of us have never helped walk, someone, to the end of their life, let alone experienced it ourselves. To read the words of someone who knew they were dying; what an eye-opening experience. And what a gift for him to leave us with, a raw look into what makes life meaningful.
But, as fascinated as I was, reading this book made me extremely anxious. It was another reminder of how unpredictable and unfair life can be. I had already been struggling with my health anxiety coming back, but this definitely didn’t help. A few months earlier, I’d experienced my first (and only, so far) panic attack. About a month after that, my doctor had me go in for an ultrasound to examine a lump in my breast. I was convinced I had breast cancer and that I’d die soon. Or that I’d have a blood clot and I’d die in my sleep. Even as I type these things I’m somewhat embarrassed and I do understand how ridiculous they might sound to some, but this was my reality. My Dad had been given a year to live, and as far as I was concerned this was just how the world worked now. I needed to be aware of every single little thing happening in my body because my awareness and obsession over it would save me from dying too soon.
Of course, this drove me mad. I was in ultimate fight or flight mode constantly. Any little pain I felt in my body meant something terrible would happen. I was afraid to be home alone because I was worried I’d die and no one would be there to help me. It was terrifying… but eventually, with intentional healing, I was able to crawl my way out, for the most part.
Here’s what helped me live with and heal from health anxiety:
1. Remember that your thoughts are not your reality.
The second I truly recognized that I didn’t have to give attention and power to every single thought I had, my whole world changed. I could disassociate from a panicked spiral and talk/breathe myself through to the other side.
2. Ground yourself.
When you do start to feel those thoughts speeding up and becoming darker and darker, you’ll start to feel disassociated from reality. You’re so in your head that you’ve lost touch with what’s real and what’s not. All that matters is what’s happening inside, and that’s a quick way to a panic attack. To combat this, think about your 5 senses and name something you are currently experiencing with each one. Right now, I feel my fingers tapping on my keyboard, I can see my screen and the letters appear as I press each key, I can hear cars driving down the road I live on, I can taste the sip of water I just drank, and I can smell the lotion I put on earlier. Focusing your attention on these things helps to redirect and bring you back to the present moment.
3. Develop a relationship with your body to build trust.
When my health anxiety came on full force, I became inspired to take better care of my body. Here I had felt so disconnected from it that I had no trust for it at all. I felt it would betray me, which accomplished absolutely nothing other than just making the situation worse. So I began being even more intentional about the kinds of foods I put in my body. I began reading ingredients lists and taking supplements. I also started working out more regularly which made me feel more in tune with my body and more connected to it.
4. Become your own advocate and be proactive about your health.
Go in for your annual check-ups, and if you do feel that something’s off, get it checked out. Staying on top of these things won’t make it so scary when you do have to go to the doctor or when you do feel something’s off because you’ll be more in tune with what’s already happening.
5. Identify what is truly driving your fear.
Is it a fear of lack of control? Of being sick? Of disappointing your loved ones, or not seeing them grow? Of not living out your purpose or using your time how you’d always wanted to? Being able to put your finger on exactly what it is that’s causing the anxiety will help you be able to get to the root of it. Instead of wasting time trying to not feel your feelings, see what’s driving them and counteract it. If you fear a lack of control, do what you can do make peace with that and be intentional about letting things flow more in your life. If it’s of being sick, start treating your body better. If it’s disappointing your loved ones or not seeing them grow, have an open and honest conversation about this with them so that you both can make sure you do special things together while you’re all alive and healthy, and so that you can hopefully understand that in no way are you a cause for disappointment if anything were to happen. Keep that open dialogue going so you never leave what’s in your heart left unsaid.
6. Try to make peace with the idea you don’t have control
For me, I was afraid to get sick and die before I’d done something with my life that felt purposeful to me. So I’d say, if you’re in the same boat, try to make peace with the idea that you don’t have control and that someday yes, your life will end. Let this fuel you to use your time wisely and do what gives you purpose. Once I began using my time for things I was passionate about I started to feel like I was fulfilling my purpose and that even if I died tomorrow, at least I would have left my mark in the way I was meant to and that could potentially help someone, even when I’m gone.
7. Give yourself time.
I know it’s so damn scary, especially in the beginning, to experience severe anxiety in any form. There’s no amount of reason or logic that can pull you out of it. I know it feels like it will never go away, but I promise you, if you are intentional in working through it, it will. And in my experience, the longer you deal with it, the more power it loses. Once you see your worst fears never manifest as you thought they would, you can apply that same information the next time those fears arise.
While I was in this place in my life, all I wanted was to feel normal again. I couldn’t stand that all I saw was the worst, most negative outcomes in every scenario. I missed believing and trusting in my journey and feeling like I had support through it. Not necessarily support from friends and family, I had lots of that, but more so support from the universe and whatever greater things were at play. I think if we can see the bigger picture: that we are here for a reason and we won’t leave before that’s complete, we can begin to make more peace with the unpredictability of life and that eventually, it will come to an end. We can’t control that part. What we can control is how we use the time we have. Use it to do what you love with who you love; it’s a small but powerful start in the right direction of healing from health anxiety. It’s not about living forever, it’s about feeling good, both mentally and physically, while we’re here. And I think, with that in mind, my Dad’s advice is pretty spot-on: at the end of the day, we really just can’t think like that. As often as we possibly can, we must choose to see and trust the good in all things.
I would also highly recommend seeing a therapist if you have the resources to do so. If not, find a trusted confidant you can confide in. I know being able to talk my feelings out has helped (and still helps) get them into the light, so I can truly deal with them. This is an ongoing process and having that support can make such a positive difference. Please keep in mind that I am not a professional and the above suggestions are merely what has helped me in my experience.
Have you dealt with health anxiety? What did you find helped you most in those times?
If you enjoyed this post and are looking for more ways to heal from health anxiety, you may also enjoy Meditation, Simplified.