Health Anxiety and the Ongoing Cycle of Worry

Despite this blog having the name Anxious Travelers, you’ve probably noticed that recently there has been a lot more said about travel than anxiety. There’s a reason for this. For me, anxiety isn’t an ever present thing. It comes and goes. One day it’s on my shoulders, dragging me down. Then it’s gone for a while, waiting for the next moment to pounce.

When we arrived in New Zealand eight months ago, I was in one of my positive periods. Nothing in life bothered me, I was happy – or happy enough. Things were going great. We’d arrived in this new beautiful place, we had healthy bank accounts and everybody spoke English. Hallelujah!

As time has gone on, things have started to take a downturn.

Return of the Health Anxiety

It all started with a pain in my arms. I put it down to the repetitive movements from working at a desk all day, so I started to work less intensely. Then I had the idea that I was typing too much on my tablet, so I stopped that too. The pain still didn’t go away. Maybe it was our terrible bed frame made of cinder blocks? We put our mattress on the floor. Still no joy.

I started to worry about the pain. What if it was the precursor to some terrible medical condition? The first thing I did was go straight to Google and read about the many things it could be. I never went to a real doctor because I didn’t want to take a day off work and lose money. So instead I dwelled on it. Kept running over the scenarios in my mind.

What if it gets so bad that I can’t type anymore? I won’t be able to work. I’ll have no money so I’ll have to go home.

What if it’s cancer and by not going to the doctor it’s spreading through my body and killing me?

What if it’s arthritis? My sister has it in her arms. Maybe I do too.

Each time I felt a twinge of pain in my arms those thoughts were there, creating a narrative in my mind that convinced me that the pain would only end in doom. Eventually, it was too much. After three months, I decided to go to the doctor.

She did some exercises with my arms. Talked to me about it. Her diagnosis: “I can’t find any real weakness here. Your arms seem strong – but we can get a blood test to check a few things.” This took 15 minutes. It cost $80!

$80 for 15 minutes. I kept running it over in my mind. If that’s the cost to see a doctor, what will the cost be if I have something genuinely wrong with me? My answer–too much! I would never have enough to pay the doctor’s bills, rent, utilities, food and to save.

I decided not to get the blood test. I didn’t want to pay for it. The doctor gave me a slip anyway.

“If you’re still having trouble in a few weeks, get the blood test and I’ll call you to let you know how it goes.” 

I tried to push all thoughts to the back of my mind. I failed.

The Descent Continues

I’m in the pub with Jamie and suddenly my leg starts to feel weird. “My leg feels weird,” I say out loud. Within moments, I’m on Google. Soon I’m convinced I have diabetes.

Symptoms: You sometimes feel lightheaded. Sometimes I feel lightheaded! Your eyes get blurry. My eyes have trouble focussing at work!

My mind quickly raced back through the intervening months for all evidence that I had diabetes. Then I remembered the doctor in Thailand.

“Your blood sugar is a little high. You should do more exercise and change your diet. Otherwise, this could lead to diabetes.”

Echoing in my mind. Diabetes. Diabetes. Diabetes.

My leg aches all week. Diabetes. I’m Googling it every thirty minutes compulsively. Diabetes. Sometimes people lose their limbs if it’s not diagnosed in time. I could lose a limb! Diabetes.

But I don’t go to the doctor. Don’t get the blood test. Because there’s that other word echoing in my mind. Money. Medical care. Money. Time off work. Money. Tests and appointments. Money.

The Worry Builds

I start freaking out at work. I’m working away merrily when suddenly I feel like I can’t breathe. Worse, I can’t remember how to breath. Am I breathing correctly? Maybe I’m doing it too quickly or too slowly. My heart is pounding. I’m screaming to myself, “JUST DO YOUR WORK! FORGET THIS!”

But all I can notice is everything. I can feel the ache or lack of ache in my leg. My teeth feel like they hurt. I feel lightheaded like I’m going to faint. Please don’t faint at work, I don’t want to faint at work. My eyes are going blurry. I rub them with my palms. I feel like I’m going blind.  “JUST DO YOUR WORK! CONCENTRATE ON YOUR WORK!”

The office is completely silent, but in my head all I can hear are a thousand voices screaming about all the bad shit that is going to happen. Maybe I’ll collapse and they’ll call an ambulance. Don’t call an ambulance, I don’t want to pay the bill. Suddenly my hand feels wrong, it feels different. Like it’s not my hand, like I’m not touching anything. What the fuck is going on!?

I put on some music. Blare it so loud into my ears that it drowns everything out. I concentrate on my work. For a time, until I feel an ache in my leg and we start it all over again. Diabetes. Money. Diabetes. Money.

That Friday we decide to head to town to go to Wellington’s night market. Twenty-five minutes from home we’re walking down the street. All of a sudden I feel weird again. Like my arms aren’t connected to my body. Or like my head is floating an inch above where it’s supposed to. I don’t know what the hell is happening. I panic. I turn to Jamie, “I want to go home!”

We turn back and everything seems fine, but it’s not.

Hiding My Illness

Something that annoys me about anxiety, and all mental health issues, are that they’re almost impossible to spot in others. If you walked by me on the street you’d never visually know that all of this is going on in my head. You would just think I looked like everybody else. To some this simply means that these problems don’t exist or matter.

Really, I think this is understandable. It’s easy to empathise with somebody that has a broken leg. You see their leg and you can easily picture the pain associated with it. You can imagine their problem so it’s easy to feel bad for them.

If you’ve never experienced a mental health issue though, I’d wager it’s almost impossible to empathise or even consider it a real problem.

Whenever I try to explain my issues to Jamie, I can tell she’s trying her best to understand, but I also know that no matter how hard she tries she can never feel the experience. Anxiety is often like a voice in your head worrying about everything, all day, every day. It’s draining and tiring, like listening to a negative tape on repeat.

When I tell Jamie I think I’ve got diabetes, I know how ridiculous it seems and this makes it even worse because that knowledge means it’s so much harder to get treatment. I don’t want to go to the doctor again because I know I’ll look like an idiot.

“Hey, I came in a couple of weeks ago with arm pain…now I think I’ve got diabetes.”

So instead I don’t bother. The negative voices in my head gain strength.

I go to work for a week and worry about my leg. I start to consider the blood test. I still have the receipt to get it done. Should I do it? My eyes seem to be getting blurrier at work. I feel like it’s only a matter of time before I collapse and die. My arms don’t feel right. I worry.

No, I don’t worry. I do more than that. Imagine your usual level of worry is a five. I’m at ten. Every moment of my day is filled with constant panic about something.

I decide to get the blood test, which just leads to more worry. What if something goes wrong? I’ve written about my fear of injections before, I won’t bore you with those details. Everything goes fine. But then I have to wait for the results.

Taking Time Off Work

I go to work that day and for the first hour all I can think about are my hands. They don’t feel like they belong to me. When I’m typing it feels like I have ten fingers on each hand. Each button I press feels like it’s an inch away from where I think it is. I’m going insane. I hold the mouse and it feels like my arm is floating. I want to scream, but such things aren’t acceptable at work. I call my manager: I’m feeling sick, I’m going home for the day.

At home, I lie in bed and think about the money I’m going to lose for not being in the office. I think about everything. Most of all my hands. My diabetes. My leg aching. The hospital bills. The embarrassment at the doctor. I wait for the call, to hear those words, “Sorry, you have diabetes.”

But what if they didn’t test for diabetes? What if they didn’t do the right tests? What if they never find the cause of my problems? What if I die? Maybe it’s for the best so I can be out of this miserable existence. No, not a good way to think.

The next day I wake up and I dread going to work. I call in sick. More money wasted, but I don’t care. In bed, I feel a modicum of safety. If I collapse there’ll be no witnesses. I can be alone without the embarrassment of my illness. I know this is a bad way to think. Soon I may come to fear the outside world, become a recluse. Small chance of that happening as I’d soon run out of money. Tomorrow I will go to work, make money. I will sit all day on the edge of panic, screaming in my mind and the world will go on, none the wiser.

But today I sit. Google symptoms. Have a shower where my hand doesn’t feel like it’s touching the bar of soap. Like it’s somebody else’s hand, a second hand hovering beside mine. I make eggs and fuck them up. Usually I would get angry, but there are worse things to worry about than eggs. There’s the diabetes. The money.

I crawl into bed. Wait for the test results. Maybe the doctor will never call. So I call the doctor. Make an appointment for the next day.

Going to the Doctor

Jamie goes with me. I feel complete shame. A 28-year-old man and somebody has to go with me to the doctor. All I can think in the waiting room is, this is it. Right now I’m free, I don’t have an illness, don’t have diabetes. But once I step into that room, once I get the results, my life is changed forever. I’ll have this new disease and I’ll never be me again.

I step into the doctor’s office. “What seems to be the problem?” she asks. 

It all comes out. The worry, the anxiety, the diabetes, my hands. I sound like I’m crazy. I am crazy! But the doctor nods. Professional sympathy. I tell her about how I’ve had anxiety in the past. Tell her about the Thai doctor who said I could get diabetes. Tell her everything.

She goes through my blood tests. All fine. Perfect health. Everything is a-ok. I’m relieved. It costs me $80 for 15 minutes.

$80 for 15 minutes. I kept running it over in my mind. If that’s the cost to see a doctor, what will the cost be if I have something genuinely wrong with me? The answer obviously would be: too much! I would never have enough to pay the doctor’s bills, rent, utilities, food and to save.

The exact same thoughts as my last visit. More worry. Never leaving.

It seems like each time I go through one of these episodes a little bit of me is chipped away. I lose part of my fight. I get weak. The worry finds it easier to overcome me.

Still, for a few weeks I’m fine. The weight has been lifted. Almost overnight I’m better. My hands feel ok. I forget about the diabetes. Stop thinking so much about money.

The Worry Returns

Then about a week before Christmas, I feel a twinge in my jaw. Is it getting swollen? Maybe it’s getting swollen. Maybe I have a tooth infection. I hope it’s not a tooth infection. I’ve had a tooth infection before, and it was the worst pain I’ve ever gone through. Plus with Christmas coming up all the dentists are closing and we’re about to go on a road trip. If I have an infection the whole thing is going to be ruined. Plus, how can I afford to get the dental work done? It’s going to cost thousands of dollars.

And it starts all over again. The voice no longer shouting about diabetes, but instead shouting about my teeth. Teeth and money.

I’ve barely recuperated from the diabetes. Each moment of my life seems to be taken with stress. Constantly panicking about what might happen. I wonder if it’s all worthwhile. All this torture for what? Early signs of depressive thinking.

I make an appointment to see the dentist. Hope for the best, but think about the worst. Try to continue, try to push away the voices. But it’s hard. I feel like I’m alone. Just me and my anxiety.

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6 thoughts on “Health Anxiety and the Ongoing Cycle of Worry”

  1. Oh Dan. I feel your pain. One cycle ends, another one begins. And so on. And so on. Feeling good in a simple way feels like something entirely out of reach. I’ve been to the doctor so many times about physical pains that have, in the end, been rooted in my brain. Anxiety can have truly bizarre effects on the body. I find that my anxiety medication really helps with the health worrying (in combo with CBT), but I understand that not everyone is comfortable going down that route. Sending some virtual sunshine your way 🙂 Bryony

    1. I’ve been travelling for just over 3 years now and the lack of a routine and permanent place has meant I’ve not really managed to get much professional help for anxiety. I’d love to do CBT etc but I’m in a place where I’d need to pay for it out of pocket and it seems pointless to start when I may not finish. I’d hope to do some when (and if) I get back home on the NHS. Cheers for the comment, keep writing your blog as I love reading it.

  2. Ugh, I can relate to so much of this – I even recently thought I might have diabetes! So frustrating! Off to read some of your other suggested anxiety related posts that I haven’t read yet. It’s nice to read about someone that struggles with the same things; most travel bloggers seem so… capabale and I feel like I really am not.

    1. I still sometimes think that maybe I really do have diabetes. It crosses my mind and I often think “Well, what if the doctor was wrong?!” The mind can make even the most irrational thing seem plausible.

      I think most travel bloggers are honour bound to sugar-coat their experiences. After all what most of them are selling is travel, it’s how they make their money! So they don’t want it to seem shit…but a lot of the time it is! One of the things I often tell myself is that if I were at home I’d be just as miserable…may as well see the world while being miserable. Hah.

  3. I’ve had anxiety about so much since I started traveling. It seems like everyday I have a new pain because I am sleeping in different beds and walking on different ground. I’m trying not to freak myself out. I already have an autoimmune disease that fills me with enough stress!

    1. Travel can be really stressful and a lot of hard work. I think it’s one of those things people rarely talk about. Where are you travelling? You should read up about culture shock as that can also make you stressed when in other countries, adding on to your negative mental state.

      I can see from your blog that you’re currently in Thailand. You should go for a massage to relax a little. Or they’ll batter you so badly that at least you’ll know where all your pain is coming from.

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