Health anxiety is a new one for me

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Someone asks me how I am and I’m brave enough to be honest with them. “I’m going through some anxiety stuff, like everyone”.

‘Like everyone’ is the phrase I use so that people know I’m not complaining- I’m constantly checking my privilege right now. It’s so strange to feel both lost and misplaced in a world that is full of people in the same situation. Even though I know I’m one of many, my anxiety tells me that I’m both totally alone and very weird- it has a way of doing that.

The past weeks have been a struggle, I didn’t expect my anxiety to get to this stage if I’m honest. At the start of the pandemic, the pause in life almost felt like a relief, because I didn’t have to fulfil my huge list of expectations. My final term of undergrad was going to be intense and I think I was dreading it quite a lot. I was happy to be free, up in Scotland and the whole world was within my reach. I was buzzing to explore nature again after the roughness of London. I was blissfully walking, reading and practising cello alongside spending more time doing very little.

What I’ve discovered about doing little, is that you often find out things about yourself that aren’t ideal or easy. Slowly, through the long weeks without familiar noise or stimulation, my old anxiety friend reared it’s head. Now I find myself very anxious for my life. Health anxiety hasn’t affected me like this before. I’m hyperventilating, I’m focussed on every tiny nuance in my body and it’s exhausting. Frequently, my brain takes me to the space many people with panic attacks will understand as the ‘I know this is probably a panic attack, but it’s more likely that it’s a heart attack and I’m going to die’ feeling. It’s awful, I’m ashamed but still I’m laughing here as I see my health anxiety as such an obvious strand of anxiety to experience in a pandemic. “Couldn’t you be a bit more interesting this time?”. I talk to it as I remember that tragic giraffe from the film Madagascar, who was dreaming of his MRI’s.

Health anxiety is often one big social joke and I suppose my fear has been that, because everyone relates to this increase in anxiety for either our or others’ health, it won’t be taken seriously. “Well, of course you’re anxious, it’s normal to feel this”. But it feels very ‘not normal’. I’m freaking out that my flea bites mark the beginning of a deadly rash, about overheating and getting heatstroke when exercising, twinges of pain in my chest, about my breathing of course (no real surprises there) and about the asbestos roof on my parents’ garage. I find myself wishing to live with a doctor for constant reassurance, or incase anything bad happens to me. I’m also terrified about what isolation on this scale will do to my mental health. This is the paradoxical ‘worrying about worrying’. What if I worry so much that I lose my mind? The stress makes it feel like that’s possible quite frequently.

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We’re all in transition to a slower pace. I healed my anxiety previously, yes with wonderful therapy and exercise and acceptance, but also through numbing. I’ve used work and noise to suppress the anxious dialogue in my head. I’ve seen emotions as a nuisance, often getting in the way of me achieving day-to-day. Better to run headlong into work, travel and compulsive cooking than sit and feel difficult emotions.

I’m needing to find a new way of trust and care that accepts the whole of me. Not just the working, striving, competitive and ‘achieving’ side, but also the messy brain that worries about getting tetanus from stepping on a drawing pin.

There isn’t a trendy or acceptable strand of anxiety. It’s intrusive and debilitating and feels entirely uncontrollable sometimes. I’m coming to realising this only now, over 14 years of anxiety later. We don’t have to ‘get over’ illness, mental struggles or grief at any sort of pace. The months I’ve spent shouting my thoughts down have taught me that there’s a beautiful relief in letting the whole and imperfect me live in this messy moment. Feeling spaced out, confused and terrified is ok right now. Let these bad times be a whole lot of bad, I have faith in their passing and trust in my strength to live all of it.

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