Managing Health Anxiety

DSCN2063 (2)I am staying home like everyone else, surfing media like everyone else, most of it either humorous (my choice) or useless (most news as usual). But I ran across an item from someone who was writing as a self-proclaimed “recovering from health anxiety” person and it looked pretty good, so I am putting up the link here.

The one thing I want to put in a word about is the cognitive distortion of catastrophizing. You can find a lot of definitions online, but my personal version is that we catastrophize when we go beyond making mountains out of mole hills and turn them into erupting volcanoes.

One way of dealing with this is by the use of counter-examples. So when we look at the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center we see that over 100,00 people have recovered from the illness. We see that the world wide death rate is around four percent– much less in some countries and some groups. So even if I get sick, my chances are 96% over all of coming out the other side in one piece. That doesn’t mean we don’t do all the obvious things– keep six feet apart, wash hands a lot, stay home– you’ve heard it all before.  The additional good news is that when I do these things they’re also for other people, not just for myself.

From one point of view, this is one crisis that’s easy to confront: we can respond by adhering to the self-isolation and social distancing– 6 feet! guidelines, i.e., I can help out by doing exactly nothing! Just stay home and read a book in the bathtub, if you’ve got a tub. Harder done than said, as the article on managing health anxiety points out, but you’ve got a window of opportunity. Or you can take the time to begin or work on your mindfulness practice or re-organize your sock drawer, or garden if you have a garden, or… you get the idea.  Now is the time to do some guilt-free binge watching of old TV shows and movies. Personally I’m a fan of Miyazaki, but if you don’t have his stuff on disk I don’t think it’s available to stream.

This whole thing reminds me of a study that I read many years ago where researchers in Norway looked at sensory deprivation and the reports of hallucinations and other extreme phenomena in some of the literature. They did a very interesting, somewhat low-budget version of sensory isolation using two different groups– one was city-dwelling Norwegians much like the rest of the Western world. The other was a group of rural Norwegians who were used to going through long, isolated winters in the far north. They gave everyone sandblasted goggles to wear that created a blank gray-screen visual field, played low volume white noise, and had people move around as little as possible in small living quarters that were designed for the experiment. So it was not the absolute sensory deprivation of “tanking” but a little closer to real-world boredom, if you will.

The urban dwellers reported that after a number of hours of this they began to experience visual and auditory phenomena akin to hallucinations, such as seeing/hearing patterns that were not there– no real hearing voice or seeing giant pink bunnies or anything, but still some disordered perceptions. The rural isolates reported that they spent the time in isolation “Thinking about things they had done or planned to do.” No big deal.

I guess that for those of us living in the media-saturated age, doing nothing is a bit of a challenge. So you can spend a little time working on yourself. Or not. You’ve got time right now.

When you’re re-reading that old romance novel or spy thriller in the tub, light a candle– in a safe holder– and put on some soft music. It’s OK. We’re going to get through this.


About jamesmatter

Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) in private practice in San Francisco. I work with adults, adolescents, and couples, with focus on substance use and abuse and co-occurring disorders (having both a mental illness and an addiction).
This entry was posted in anxiety, behavioral health, cognitive therapy, Crisis survival, physical health and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Managing Health Anxiety

  1. Swiss Scall-Hart says:

    Great post. My cancer is spreading..I will be with Jesus soon.
    Take care
    Love ya

    • jamesmatter says:

      Continue to love everyone with your special love as you always have. Be sure to take a moment to accept the love you are receiving. Your life is a triumph of love and the human spirit. You are in my heart & prayers.

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