There’s no short story for health anxiety, and sometimes no clear explanation for what triggers it until you start to seek professional help. Or, in some circumstances, you never find the root cause, but learn how to cope through various exercises; physical and mental.
One of the main things that helps me when I feel my anxiety creeping up on me, is talking. I knew I wanted to start an anxiety series on this blog. I have an anxiety journal which helps, but writing posts like this makes it feel like I’m getting things off my chest (and it saves my husband from having to hear about it day in, day out). In my experience, reading or listening to other people’s anxiety stories helps a lot. I don’t feel so clueless, alone or scared. So, I’m going to start from the top…
Where it all began…
My anxiety didn’t start off with fixating on symptoms or convincing myself I had just weeks to live. Instead it started through work when I, alongside over one thousand colleagues, were at risk of being made redundant. I’d just started a new job in October 2019, making the big move from a small-to-medium size business, to a global corporate group. Two months later, in December 2019, the company announced they were planning a global restructure and redundancies were inevitable. We had to endure a cruel three months of worry before we found out the status of our jobs in March 2020 – one week before the Covid-19 pandemic hit.
In February 2020, I had started to experience odd symptoms (which I now refer to as anxiety sensations): chest heaviness, breathlessness, tingling arms, and the occasional wave of dizziness. At this point, I had no idea what it was, but I remember for a couple days feeling a little off. Then, three days after those sensations began, I experienced my very first panic attack, which resulted in a good ol’ trip to A&E. You can read all about my panic attacks for more information.
A couple weeks later, I found out my job was safe and continue to work in that role today. Did that make all that worry disappear? Did it heck! Work, I thought, was no longer a concern. Instead, after weeks of being petrified by the panic attack, all these anxiety sensations and wondering if it’ll happen again, that’s when I started to develop health anxiety.
Developing health anxiety during the Covid-19 pandemic
Like for many, the pandemic scared me shitless. I was having nightmares of either family or myself being put on a ventilator; I was washing every single item coming through the door with disinfectant; washing bedding two-three times a week; constantly using hand sanitiser even when not leaving my desk…in my own home; and as my husband wasn’t working from home right away, each day I would make him shower as soon as he got in, I’d disinfect all his touchpoints on his way to the shower, and even wash his suit daily. It was exhausting.
Although this obsessive mindset over keeping coronavirus out of the house eased after around six months, the health anxiety was still a mental struggle. Hearing someone being diagnosed with cancer in a TV show would convince me I also had cancer. Having a bad stomach after some questionable takeout convinced me I had a deadly disease in my gut. A headache from lack of sleep or dehydration made me believe I had a brain tumour. There wasn’t anything that could convince me otherwise that I wasn’t dying at this point. It was reaching a point where I was constantly calling the doctors with new symptoms, and despite being told, “this sounds like health anxiety”, they would never get me the help I needed.
Within the space of twelve months I’d had two breast scans. In my defence, I have cysts in one breast and dense tissue in another, so there are definitely lumps and bumps, but they’re luckily benign. I’d had an MRI after convincing myself for six months I had a brain tumour. I’d had a smear test sooner than necessary as I was convinced there was something wrong because of some mid-cycle cramping. I had a flexible sigmoidoscopy because a bad gut for three weeks convinced me I had bowel cancer – turns out stress and a poor diet because of stress does some funny things to you. Once all tests came back clear, it was like a switch was able to so simply turn off the worry… until I found a new illness to obsess over.
When my heart health anxiety began
Initially, my health anxiety wasn’t focused on a particular area of the body as you read above. However, from June 2021 this all started to become fixated on my cardiovascular health. Why?
I bought an Apple Watch to encourage me to get more active – working from home meant sitting down far more than I was used to. I took an ECG when I was feeling some of my anxiety sensations, not really knowing what I expected to see, and the result read, “This ECG shows signs of Atrial Fibrillation”. Fantastic! I took another just minutes later which showed a normal Sinus Rhythm.
I became unhealthy obsessed with this feature on the watch. Daily I’d be doing an ECG and in all honesty, the majority of results showed as a normal Sinus Rhythm. But that didn’t matter to me, as just that one A-Fib result was enough to ruin my whole week.
As the months went on, I knew I needed to do something about it, as well as my anxiety in general, so I called my doctor. They referred me for heart monitoring and gave me a self-referral link to the NHS wellbeing hub.
As with everything with the NHS during Covid, the wait times were too long. So, I paid to go private for a 7-day heart monitor. Once I got the results, it confirmed there were no signs of A-Fib and I had a normal Sinus Rhythm with an occasional Sinus Arrhythmia which I was assured was perfectly normal and didn’t put me at risk of any cardiovascular health concerns.
Did this put my mind at ease? Yes.
Did it stop me worrying about heart health? No.
Getting an official anxiety diagnosis
As my heart health was still clearly on my mind, I did a self-referral to the NHS wellbeing hub to see what support I could get. I was fed up with almost two years of constant health worry, which was becoming a daily concern since fixating on my heart health. After going through assessments, I was officially diagnosed with severe health anxiety in November 2021 and referred for CBT therapy.
It was reassuring to know I finally had a diagnosis. Although it was pretty obvious I was suffering from anxiety, without that official diagnosis, I felt like I was stuck – is it that, or is it something else? Not a great mindset when you have health anxiety.
Panic attacks making an unwelcome return
In January 2022, I suffered three panic attacks – I’d gone almost two years since my first one and then boom, three in the space of one month. Work over the last eleven months by this point had been incredibly stressful, coupled with the daily battle from health anxiety. Then, one gloomy day on 11th February 2022, I broke down during a video call to my manager. I had just got myself settled after a panic attack that morning and all she asked was, “how are you feeling?” and that was it. I was gone. I’d never broken down like that to anyone other than family before. I felt incredibly vulnerable, but at the same time, I simply didn’t care. I was exhausted, I was scared, and I just wanted my anxiety cured. If only it was that simple.
That same day I was signed off from work for seven weeks with stress. Work had been incredibly full-on with very little breaks to help me along the way. Coupled with the endless worry about non-existent health concerns, mentally I was exhausted. I knew this was going to be the start of a tough, but very well-needed break to finally focus on myself.
Starting CBT therapy and finally moving forward
I started therapy twice a week and it’s been a huge help. I’ve noticed a major difference in my confidence and my energy, but more importantly, I’ve learned so much about myself, my triggers and how to cope with my anxiety sensations. I’m going to write a post detailing everything that helps my anxiety, so stay tuned for that.
At the time of writing this post, I’m in my fourth week of sick leave. I’ve had good and bad days, and know that’ll be something I’ll likely always have. But the biggest difference is knowing what helps reduce anxiety sensations, how to stop my mind wandering and creating catastrophic scenarios, and stopping myself from searching for every little symptom. In the space of four weeks I’ve come a long way and already feel healthier for it, but there’s still a long way to go.
If you’ve made it to this point in the post, thank you for taking the time to read this. Whether it’s for your own benefit, to learn for a friend or family, or for anything else, I hope it’s helped.