When I published my last post on health anxiety, one reader very kindly asked if I had any suggestions for things people can say or do to help those of us who suffer from this condition to cope a little better.
This is such an awesome question (Thank you, Emily, for asking!), but it’s actually a pretty hard one to answer. Something I heard quite recently is that health anxiety is almost impossible to treat, because the thing is, it’s not actually an irrational fear – even although it can definitely seem like it at times. No one, for instance, can guarantee to me that the things I fear most will never happen to me, or to the people I love: because I know perfectly well that they can, and they do. This, unfortunately, makes it a particularly difficult condition to deal with: for every positive story someone can tell me, there will one hundred other terrifying ones, and sometimes there’s absolutely no avoiding them.
So, what can people do to help? To be honest, I think all anyone can really do is listen. Try to understand. Don’t laugh, or belittle, or judge, no matter how tempting it might seem. Finally, if you can try to avoid making the following statements or observations to someone you know suffers from health anxiety, you’ll already be doing far more than you can ever know…
“Worrying won’t help, you know!”
Thanks, Capt’n Obvious, but I’m pretty sure that no one actually believes that worrying will help them, do they? The fact is, though, we’re not worrying because we believe it’ll help – we’re worrying because we’re terrified. And telling us it won’t help… won’t help.
“You’re being ridiculous/ you sound crazy / you’re such a weirdo!”
Want to know a secret? Most of us already know this. Just a few weeks ago, I decided to join a Facebook group for people with health anxiety, thinking I would finally get to connect with people who, like, totally understood me and stuff. </emo teenager> I left that group just a few hours after joining, because it turned out to be the most triggering experience of my entire life. It was just post after post from people listing their symptoms and fretting about it, and you know what? Those people sounded crazy even to me. I’m not saying that to be mean: I know I’ve sounded exactly like them at various points in my life, so I’m in no position to judge anyone here. No, I’m saying it to illustrate the point that people with health anxiety don’t need you to tell them they sound ridiculous: THEY KNOW. They just can’t help it: if they could, and if their anxiety could be cured with just a few, well-chosen insults, there wouldn’t be anyone with health anxiety, would there? It’s not quite that simple, though: you can’t bully or shame someone out of anxiety any more than you can do it with depression, or any other mental health condition, and calling someone “ridiculous” or “crazy” or whatever … well, that IS mean, isn’t it?
“Did you know that <insert totally normal food/other activity here> causes cancer?”
*CUE PANIC ATTACK*
This is one of the many, many reasons I don’t read the Daily Mail…
“Just go to see the doctor if you’re that worried!”
This sounds like a great idea in theory, but my particular brand of health anxiety comes hand-in-hand with a very real phobia of any situation in which I might be diagnosed with one of the things I fear most. It’s not like that for everyone with health anxiety (Some people take the opposite approach, and basically move into their GP’s surgery… which isn’t particularly healthy either, really), but, in my case, this particular advice is like telling someone who’s frightened of snakes to go and live with snakes: again, it’s not that simple.
“Oh, my friend’s sister’s cats mother had that, and it turned out to be brain cancer! She’s dead now.”
It honestly doesn’t matter if the cat you’re referring to was 102 years old and, you know, a cat – I’m now 100% sure I have whatever ailed it, and that I’m about to drop dead, too. It never ceases to amaze me how keen people are to share bad news, or provide you with the worst-case scenario: even when you’ve specifically asked them not to. I mean, I’m pretty sure that if I really did have a phobia of snakes, say, people would understand that it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to share their scary snake stories with me: when my phobia is of hospitals, medical procedures, and various different diseases, though, people will talk about nothing else. WHY?
“My sister’s boyfriend’s uncle’s second cousin’s ferret had a bit of a sore stomach last week: he thought it was just gas, but it turned out to be an abdominal aneurysm: how about that!”
Seriously, my stomach started to hurt before you even got to the end of that sentence. I will not sleep tonight. I know this sounds pretty similar to the point above, but while the “cat” example is normally given in response to me voicing a specific fear, the ferret one is usually just a “fun” anecdote that someone will decide to share with me, apropos of absolutely nothing, but guaranteeing that, for the rest of my life, every time my stomach hurts. I will assume it’s an abdominal aneurysm. Or an Abominable Aneurysm, as I keep wanting to call it.
(On a serious note, while stuff like this will obviously come up from time to time, and it’s not realistic to expect someone with health anxiety to be totally shielded from the harsh realities of life, if you know that someone has this condition, it’s nice to be aware of potential triggers, and to avoid them if you can. If the ferret in the story is someone close to me, then I obviously need to know about it, and I would never expect a ferret I knew to hide a health condition from me, just to avoid triggering me. If it’s a totally random ferret, though, that I would never even have known existed until you decided to tell me all about its abdominal aneurysm, I’m probably not going to thank you for the cool story…)
(Er, you all know I’m not talking about ferrets here, don’t you? Just checking…)
“Just stop worrying about it!”
Oh wow: almost two decades of health anxiety, and all this time I could just have stopped worrying: I wish I’D thought of that!
This is like telling someone with the flu to just stop having the flu: it doesn’t work that way, unfortunately. Health anxiety, like depression, is a complicated metal health condition, and it’s not something people can just “snap out of”: if only!
“I don’t mean to worry you, but…”
If you ever find yourself saying this to someone with health anxiety, you’re 100% about to worry them: please don’t. Because, when I say, “worry”, I don’t simply mean that whatever it is you’re about to tell me will make me pause for thought, or be a helpful heads-up to something I might want to investigate further, I mean I will literally be unable to function properly for the rest of the day – and hey, I guess I’m not getting any sleep tonight, either: thanks, friend! People with health anxiety aren’t able to rationalise things the same way you can, so even although whatever you’re about to say wouldn’t worry YOU, it doesn’t mean it won’t scare the living daylights out of the HA sufferer you’re speaking to.
“Have you considered that it might be cancer?”
This question almost always follows on from the “don’t mean to worry you” comment, and, OK, I’m exaggerating by using cancer as the example (Although the answer to that is “yes,” by the way – no matter what the symptom is, YES, I’VE CONSIDERED THAT IT MIGHT BE CANCER…), but people do fairly often try to diagnose me with various conditions, normally based on a throwaway comment in a blog post, or on Twitter or something, and, no matter how helpful you’re trying to be, unless you actually are a doctor (And even if you are, if you’ve never met or examined me, you really aren’t in a position to diagnose me with ANYTHING), this kind of thing just isn’t kind, and it normally isn’t particularly helpful, either. As proof of this, I’ve had numerous internet diagnoses over the years, and NOT ONCE have I actually had any of the conditions people have tried to diagnose me with: NOT ONCE. I have, however, spent countless hours worrying about the things internet doctors have “helpfully” tried to diagnose me with, though, which is why it’s always best to leave this kind of thing to the professionals.
“Oh, that happened to me [in reference to surgery/anaesthetics/hospital stays/whatever] and it didn’t bother me in the slightest!”
That’s awesome for you, seriously, but all it really tells me is that you don’t have health anxiety. I DO have health anxiety, so it’s highly unlikely that I’d just sail through whatever experience it is I’m terrified about without turning a hair: often, even THINKING about having to go through something scary will cause an anxiety attack (Every time I’ve had an ultrasound scan, I’ve been almost sick with fear before it, and knowing that other people don’t find them the slightest bit scary won’t stop that…), so while this is great for you, it’s not going to help me, as much as you might intend it to.