5 TIPS FOR HEALTH ANXIETY DURING A DRS VISIT
If you want my five tips for health anxiety during a Drs visit, especially if you have a medical condition that concerns you, this is the episode for you.
Hello and welcome back everybody. Today, I’m going to share some updates about a recent medical issue I have had, and I’m going to share specific tips for dealing with health anxiety (also known as hypochondria).
A lot of you who have been here with me before know I have postural orthostatic tachycardic syndrome. I also have a lesion on my left cerebellum and many other ups and downs in my medical history where I’ve had to get really good at managing my health anxiety. I wanted to share with you some real-time tips that I am practicing as I deal with another medical illness or another medical concern that I wanted to share with you.
Here I’m going to share with you five specific tips, but I think in total, there’s 20-something tips all woven in here. I’ve done my best to put them into just five. But do make sure you listen to the end of the podcast episode because I’m also going to give some health anxiety journal prompts or questions that you can ask yourself so that you can know how to deal with health anxiety if you’re experiencing that at this time.
Before we get into it, let me give you a little bit of a backstory. Several months ago, I did share that I’ve been having these what I call surges. They’re like adrenaline surges. They wake me up. My heart isn’t racing. It’s not like it’s racing fast, but the only way I can explain it is I feel like I have like a racehorse’s heart in my chest, like this huge heart that’s beating really heavily. Of course, that creates anxiety. And so then I would question like, is it the heartbeat or is it just my anxiety? You go back and you go forward trying to figure out which is which. But because this was a symptom that was persisting and was also showing up when I wasn’t experiencing a lot of stress or anxiety, I thought the right thing to do is to go and see the doctor.
Before we get started, be sure to make sure you’re not avoiding doctors. Make sure you’re not dismissing symptoms. We do have to find a very, very wise balance between avoiding doctors but also not overdoing it with doctors. We’ll talk about that a little bit here in a minute. But first, I wanted to just share with you what health anxiety feels like for me. Because for me, I’m very, very skilled at identifying what is anxiety and what is not. I’ve become very good at catching that by experience, folks. It’s not something that comes naturally, but by experience, I can identify what is health anxiety and what is a real medical condition or what is something worthy of me getting checked out.
For me, for the health anxiety piece, it’s really this sort of anxiety that is a sense of catastrophization and it’s usually in the form of thoughts like, what if this is cancer? What if this is a stroke? All the worst-case scenarios. What if this is life-threatening? What if I miss this and you are responsible, you should have picked it up. These are very common health anxiety intrusive thoughts or health anxiety thoughts that I think you really need to be able to catch and be aware and mindful of. First of all, that is the biggest symptom for me.
The other thing is when you have health anxiety, you do tend to hyper-fixate on the symptom and all of the surrounding symptoms that are going with that. And then you can really catastrophize those like, “Well, my heart’s beating really heavily and I feel dizzy. Oh my gosh. And I’ve been having a headache. Yeah, you’re right, I’ve been having a headache. Oh my gosh.” I call it ‘gathering.’ That’s not an actual clinical term, but I do use it with my clients. We gather data that is catastrophic to make it seem like, yeah, we actually have a really big point, and this is actually a catastrophe.
Some other health anxiety symptom that I experience is panic. When you notice a symptom, it is very common to start panicking. And then again, you go back to this chicken or the egg or is it the horse or the carriage in terms of I’m panicking, and now the panic has all these symptoms. Are these symptoms an actual medical condition or are they actually just anxiety and panic? You could spend a lot of time stuck in that cycle trying to figure that out.
Let’s now talk about how to manage these symptoms and some tips and tools that you can use.
Let me tell you what has recently happened to me. I’ve been having these symptoms. I made an appointment to see my cardiologist. It was two months out and I was like, “It’s not a big deal. I can handle these symptoms.” I’m feeling super confident about my ability now to just ride out some pretty uncomfortable sensations and not catastrophize. I go in for my checkup, they do an echocardiogram, and it’s taking a long time. She’s asking me these strange questions like, “Why are you here again,” as she’s doing it. She’s checking, she’s looking, she’s squinting at the screen. “Why are you here again? What are your symptoms?” Click, click, click, looking at the heart, whatever. Again, I’m in my mind going, “Kimberley, let your brain have whatever thoughts it wants. We’re not going to catastrophize.” I was doing really, really well. I got up and I answered her questions. I did the whole appointment. She cleaned me off when I was done and said, “Great, you’ve got 24 hours and then the doctor will email you with your results.”
And then yesterday afternoon, I get a call from the nurse saying, “We need to book you a video appointment with the doctor to discuss your results.” As you can imagine, my brain went berserk. My health anxiety thoughts were saying, “This is really bad. Why would he need to make a video appointment? This can only end badly. This must be cancer. This must be heart problems. Am I going to have a heart attack and so forth?” Of course, my brain did that. I’m grateful my brain does that because that’s my brain being highly functioning and aware.
But the number one rule I made with myself in that exact moment, even though that was very anxiety-producing, is no Googling. Kimberley, you are not allowed to pick up the computer or the iPhone and Google anything about this.
That is tip #1 for you. I’ll tell you why. A lot of my patients say, “But why? It’s no harm. I’m not doing any harm.” And I’ll say, “Yes.” I’ve actually just seen my cardiologist. But now that I’ve had my appointment, he encouraged me to do a little research. What was hilarious to me is every single website is different and some catastrophize and some don’t. Some go, “This could be very normal.” Other ones say, “This could be cancer, cancer, cancer, cancer.”
This is why I’m telling my patients all the time, don’t Google because what you read is different. It’s not like this is going to be a factual thing. Most of the time people who have articles that rank high on Google searches are the ones who have optimized their website to be very easy to Google. The reason they have become number one on the Google algorithm is because they’ve included keywords like cancer for blah, blah, blah, and all of these health issues and health names. The ones that are at the top, some of them are very reasonable, helpful, and accurate, but a lot of them are not. They’ve just really done a great job of putting in lots and lots of keywords that makes them highly searchable and come up high on the algorithm.
Please, number one, do not Google. Go to your doctor for questions if you have any. Unless they’ve encouraged you to do research, do not Google.
I’ve actually categorized this in a bigger category and I’ve called it important health anxiety CBT techniques, because there are some important CBT tools that you’re going to need here and here we go.
While I was in getting my echocardiogram, I was laying and I was having some anxiety because she was squinting and asking some strange questions, not in the normal of what I’d experienced. I could feel the pull to check her face for reassurance like, does she look concerned? Does she look relaxed? What’s going on with her? I wonder what she meant.
What I want to encourage you to do is acknowledge and catch when you’re checking their face to try to decipher what the nurse or the assistant or the doctor is doing and saying. Because really, all I’m doing there is mind reading because I have no idea what she’s thinking. I was laughing at myself because she was squinting and looking concerned. I was like, “I wonder if she’s trying not to pass gas.” We could mind read that she thinks I have cancer and that there’s a big problem, or maybe she’s just trying not to pass gas right now. Maybe she’s thinking about a fight she just had with her partner. My attempt to analyze her facial expression is a complete waste of my time. You could use that tip anytime you want.
The next tip for you is no reassurance seeking with nurses or doctors. Now, I actually felt almost into this trap. If I’m being completely honest, I did fall into this trap, but I caught myself really quickly. As she was finishing up, she took off her gloves and got ready to discharge me, and I said, “So, you’d let me know if there was...” I paused because what I was going to say is, “You’ll let me know if there’s something wrong, right?” I was going to say that. And then I was like, “No, no, no.” I stopped myself and said, “You know what? I know the deal. I’ve done these enough times. I know I have to wait for the doctor.” But I caught myself wanting to get confirmation from the nurse and I already know that nurses are not allowed to give me any diagnosis anyway. I caught myself wanting to get some expression of relief from her like, “No, you’re fine. Everything looks good,” or whatever. Sometimes they accidentally give you that reassurance. But I caught myself seeking reassurance from her.
In addition to that—let me talk to you a little later about how we do that with doctors as well—often if you’re in the office with a doctor, you may find yourself at the end of the session going, “I’ll be fine, right? It’s not bad, right?” It’s okay, we’re all going to ask some of those questions. I’m not going to be the reassurance-seeking police with you. But what I want you to do is really drop down into catching when we’re engaging in reassurance seeking and using it too much to reduce our own anxiety about it, to take away our own anxiety or fear.
Now, another CBT technique or sort of rule that we often set in clinical work when I’m talking with my clients who have health anxiety is also not swaying the doctor or the nurse to answer things in the way that you want. A lot of people fall into this trap. For me, I just had my doctor’s appointment. We are working through and there are some little problems that we will work out. But I caught myself there wanting to sway him to be very positive. We had talked about it ultimately. He had said, “There are some issues. It could be this, it could be that, it could be this.” He listed off three or four options. Some were very, very small, and of course, the third one is always like, it could be cancer. They always say at the end, like whatever.
When they give you these three or four or five options on what the problem might be, it’s very important that you be mindful and aware of how you’re trying to sway the doctor to give you certainty. This is what my doctor said, and I’m going to be brief. I’m not going to bore you with my medical stuff, but he’ll say, “It could be that you recently had COVID or an illness or a virus. It could also be this other condition, which is common, and if it’s so, we’ll treat that. It could also be that there could be some rheumatoid arthritis and that’s a longer treatment. And then the final thing, which we don’t think so, but it also could be cancer. “Let’s say he lists off these four options.
Now, this is very common. Doctors will do this often because their job is to educate us on all of the possibilities so that we can create a treatment plan that doesn’t ignore big issues, but we have to be careful that we don’t spend their time and our time going, “You think it’s the first one, right? It’s probably just the first one. I probably just had a virus, right?” I’m really swaying him towards giving an answer when he’s already told us that he or she doesn’t know yet. He’s already said, “I don’t know yet. We’re going to need to do extra tests.”
Catch yourself trying to get them to reassure you and confirm that it’s definitely not the C word. The cancer word is what I’m saying there. Catch yourself when you’re doing those behaviors in the office with either the nurses or the technician or the doctors. Very, very important.
Now, one other thing I want you to also catch is if you’re coming to them with something, let’s say you are coming to them with a concern that you’ve pretty much know is your health anxiety, but you want reassurance that it’s not, also be careful that you don’t overly list things to convince them that something is wrong. A lot of you don’t do this, I know, but I have had a lot of clients who’ve come back to me after seeing the doctor and said, “Do you have any other symptoms,” and they would list even minor symptoms that they had a month ago that they knew had nothing to do with it. But they felt like if they didn’t say it all, if they didn’t include every symptom, every stomach ache, every headache, everything, they could miss something. So also keep an eye out for that.
That’s some sort of overall general CBT techniques we use for health anxiety that help guide people into not engaging in those health anxiety compulsions.
This is a really important part of it. From the minute that I got the call from the nurse that he wanted a video call with me, my mind went to, again, the worst-case scenario. It just does. It just does. I think that that is actually really, really normal. I really do. I think that is what happens naturally for anybody. First of all, I don’t want to even go too over in terms of pathologizing that. I think that’s a normal thing for anybody to experience.
The first thing I want you to practice is validating your anxiety. It’s a part of self-compassion practice. It’s going, “It makes complete sense, Kimberley, that this is concerning you.” That’s one of the most important self-compassionate statements you could make for yourself. “It makes complete sense that this is hard, this is scary. Of course, it’s making you uncomfortable.” It’s validating.
You might even move to a common humanity, going, “Anybody in this situation would have anxiety.” Then you can also move into mindfulness skills, which is—this was one that I hold very true—just because I feel anxious doesn’t mean there’s danger or there’s a catastrophe. It’s my body’s natural response to create anxiety when it feels threatened. That keeps me alive. That’s a good thing. But just because I’m anxious and having thoughts about scary things doesn’t mean they’re facts. Remember, thoughts are not facts.
The next thing here is also being able to just observe them, again, while you’re sitting in the waiting room. They were playing the movie, what’s it called? Moana. And I love Moana. I remember watching it as a child. I’m sitting in the seat and my mind is offering me all of these health anxiety intrusive thoughts, and my mind really wants me to pay attention to them.
A part of my mindfulness practice was to go, “I am noticing I’m having these catastrophic thoughts, but I’m also noticing Moana, and I’m going to choose which one I give my attention to.” I’m not going to push them away. I’m not going to make the thoughts go away because they’re naturally going to be there. I basically knew from yesterday afternoon until 9:00 AM this morning that the thoughts were going to be there and I accepted them there. I didn’t go in saying, “Oh gosh, I hope the next 24 hours aren’t filled with thoughts.” I was like, they’re going to be, “Hello thoughts, welcome. I know you’re going to be here,” and I’m going to train my brain to put attention on what matters to me. In this case, I’m not going to make these thoughts important. I’m going to watch Moana. I’m going to look at the colors, I’m going to listen to the sounds, I’m going to notice whatever it is that I notice. I’m going to notice the fabric of the seat underneath me as I’m waiting in the room. Last night as I went to bed, I’m just going to notice the feeling of the cushions underneath me. This is mindfulness and this is so important—being present and paying attention to what is currently happening instead of the worst-case scenario.
There’s one important point here, which is my mind kept saying, “By nine o’clock tomorrow, your life might change.” You guys know what? If you’re listening, I’m guessing you know what that’s like. You’re like, “After this appointment, this appointment may change your life for the worse.” My job was to go, “Maybe, maybe not. It could be that he just wants to tell me everything’s okay.”
It is what it is. It will be what it will be. I will work through it and solve it when it happens. I’m not going to live the next 24 hours or the next 12 hours coming from a place of the worst-case scenario until I have actual evidence of that. So we are not going to live your life as you wait for your appointment. We’re not going to live your life through the lens of the worst case. We’re going to live through it through being uncertain and accepting that in this moment, nothing is wrong. Until we know, we don’t know.
Now, other options for you, I’m just going to add a couple here, is I have found meditation for health anxiety to be very, very helpful, particularly when health anxiety is taking over. That has been very beneficial for me—to find a meditation that can actually sometimes give me some concrete skills to use in the moment to stay present. We are not going towards staying calm because maybe you’re going to have some anxiety. That’s okay. Really what we want to do is we want to be working in the most skillful fashion as we can.
And then the last one, this one’s a little controversial. Some people don’t agree with this piece of advice, so take what you need and leave what doesn’t help. But for me, when I’m anxious, I tend to shallow breathe a lot. I hold my breath a lot. For me, it was just reminding myself just to breathe. Not breathe in any particular fashion or deep breathing, but just be like, “Take a breath, Kimberley, when you need. Take a breath when you need.”
Tip #4 is what to do when anxiety takes over in the biggest way, and that ultimately means, what can you do when your brain is setting on the full alarm. Now in this case, I’m just going to say it’s basically what to do if you’re panicking and the advice goes the same as it is whether there’s a health anxiety panic attack or a regular non-health anxiety panic attack, which is do not try to push the anxiety away. Let’s break it down.
If you’re having anxiety, and you are saying, “This is bad, I don’t want it, it shouldn’t be here,” you’re actually telling your brain that the anxiety is dangerous. Not just the health issue, but also the presence of anxiety is dangerous, which means it’s going to pump out more and more anxiety because you’ve told it that anxiety is dangerous. Your job here is to let the anxiety be there. Try not to push it away. What we know is what you try to push away comes stronger.
You can talk to your anxiety. There’s actually research to show that when you talk to your anxiety and you talk to yourself in the third person, it can actually empower you and feel more of a sense of empowerment and mastery over that experience. For me, unfortunately, I’ve had quite the 24 hours. We actually had a very large earthquake last night here in southern California, which woke me up, so I had some anxiety related to that. And then of course, my brain was like, “Oh yeah, and by the way, you might have cancer. Ha-ha-ha!” You know what I mean? Of course, your brain’s going to tell you that.
In that moment, I used the skill and the research around talking to myself in the third person. I said, “Kimberley, there’s nothing you can do right now. It makes total sense that you have anxiety. Let’s not push it away. Let’s bring your attention to what you can control, which is how kind you are to yourself, whether you’re clenching your body up, whether you’re breathing, whether what you’re putting your attention on. You can’t control anything. You can’t control this earthquake. You can’t control what’s happening tomorrow. All you can do is be here now.” Using a third person, using your name as the third person like, “Kimberley...” and saying what you need to do. Coaching yourself has been incredibly helpful for me and I know for a lot of people because that’s actually science-based.
The next thing I want you to do, and this is the final one before we go through some questions that I want you to ask yourself, is to engage in value-based behaviors. Now what that means is when we’re anxious, when we have health anxiety, it’s very normal for us to want to engage in safety behaviors. One for me was every morning, I drop my daughter off and my husband drops my son off at school and I could feel my anxiety wanting to stay home. I don’t want to go out. And so I almost was starting to say, “Maybe I’ll ask my husband to drop off my daughter and my son so I can stay home.” I recognize that would be me doing a fear-based behavior. I would be doing that only because I don’t want to face fear today. I just want to make it small.
Number one, it’s okay. If you need to do that, that’s totally okay. But for me personally, I caught myself and I said, “No, you value being someone who drops off your daughter and shows up and doesn’t let anxiety win. You love dropping off your daughter. If you stayed home, you’d only be doing the dishes, circling around, maybe catastrophizing, just trying to get past time. You love taking your daughter to drop off.” And so engage in that.
Another value-based behavior for me personally is humor. I’m texting friends and I’m telling them jokes about what I’m going to do to my doctor if he says something wrong or something, or I’m making jokes about some of the questions and statements that the nurses made. I’m making jokes about it, not to catastrophize, not to put them down, not to minimize my own discomfort, but humor is a very big part of my values. I’m making jokes about what we’ll do if it’s cancer and will you come to my funeral and silly things. Again, I really want to make sure you understand, I’m not doing that as depressed bad things are going to happen. I’m doing it because I’m literally saying, it will be what it will be. Let’s just move forward and let’s actually bring some light and joy and some laughter to this.
Now you might not like that. If that’s not your values, don’t do it, but identify, what would the non-anxious me do right now? What would I do if this fear wasn’t here? And then do those behaviors. It’s really, really important that you make sure you hit this in as many ways as you can because fear can cause us just to clam up and sit still and ruminate. It’s very important that you practice not just ruminating and cycling and going over and over and over and over all of the worst-case scenarios because your brain will take you to some very dark places.
This is really important. I know I’ve given you the top five, but that’s more like 20 points. Let’s talk about some hypochondria or health anxiety journal prompts or questions you can ask yourself to stay as skilled as you can.
What is in my control? My behaviors, my reactions. That’s ultimately what is in your control. What’s not in your control is how much anxiety you have and what thoughts you have about them.
You can be very specific here. In my case, it’s like, what’s not in my control is what the doctor says. What’s not in my control is what my health condition is. What’s not in my control is when he calls. You know what I mean? What’s not in my control is the treatment plan. I’m going to have to wait for him to do that. I’m identifying what is in my control and what is not.
For me, I know that Googling is going to be a full sense of control and doesn’t help my long-term recovery, so I’m not going to do it. I know that me ruminating and doing tons of mental compulsions is going to give me a sense of control, but it’s not helpful. It’s not helpful. It doesn’t help my long-term recovery, it doesn’t help my long-term mental health, so I’m not going to do it.
What will help my long-time health anxiety goals, it’s going to be all the tips that we covered today—no Googling, no checking faces, no reassurance seeking, no swaying the doctor, practicing my mindfulness, being as compassionate as I can, maybe taking some breaths. All of those are going to make me stronger in my health anxiety recovery instead of weaker the ones which would be ruminating and doing all of these. Not very helpful safety behaviors.
You guys are going to have to tolerate a lot of uncertainty. That’s what this is all about. From the minute I got the call from that nurse saying that I needed to have this video appointment, from the minute he got onto the video appointment, all I had to focus on is, am I willing to be uncomfortable? Am I willing to be uncertain? Because the only reason I would’ve Googled was because I wanted certainty. Really, really important.
She’d get up and she’d go and drop her daughter off, and then she’d call your friend because that’s what you do every Wednesday morning. She’d respond to emails, she’d call. Do whatever it is that you’re doing. What would the non-anxious you do?
Another code question for that is, what do I need right now that is skillful? What do you need? The most beautiful thing about this is my husband. He is the most gorgeous man. He sits down. He doesn’t reassure me, he just says, “I got you.” If your partner is giving you a lot of reassurance, you might want to mention to them, “That actually doesn’t help my long-term health anxiety. I just need you to be next to me and support me.” And so it’s very important that we make sure our partners aren’t giving us a whole bunch of reassurance and a whole bunch of certainty-seeking behaviors that keep us stuck.
That’s it guys. There are my five tips for health anxiety which turned out to be more like 20, I know, but I try to always overdeliver. I really wanted to jam in as many skills as I could.
I hope you have a wonderful day. Please do not worry about me. I am actually fine. There’s a joke between my best friend and I. We say, “Are you fine number one or fine number two?” Fine number one is you actually are fine and fine number two is you’re not fine, but you’re saying you are, and I am fine number one. I actually have a lot of faith in my doctors. I have a lot of faith in my ability to handle these things and these are just another bump on the road in terms of being someone who has postural orthostatic tachycardic syndrome. So all is well. All is well. I am fine number one and I hope you are fine number one as well.
I am sending you so much love. Do not forget, it is a beautiful day to do all the hard things, and I’ll see you next week.