I CAN’T discipline my boys without thinking: is that the last word I’ll say to them? I can’t have a glass of wine without wondering: have I just stolen a day from my biological clock? I can’t function any more. I have no energy left. I cannot go on like this.
I wrote this heartbreaking diary entry last year when I was battling crippling health anxiety. The debilitating condition meant I spent so much of my time worrying about dying and obsessively checking my health that it took over my life.
At my worst, I was so fearful of death I’d think about it for six hours a day.
I remember being scared of dying at a very young age, maybe even five or six. I had no traumatic childhood experiences. There's not a point in my childhood where my mortality was questioned, but the fear was always there.
Bedtime is when I get most anxious because I have time to contemplate. I’m also more likely to question my mortality and catastrophise if I’ve seen or heard something upsetting about somebody.
And, let's be honest, fear is everywhere. Every day a horrendous thing happens: stabbings, abductions, rape, cancer, failings in the NHS, paedophiles… the list is endless.
Every other advert on the radio, TV and social media seems to have the word 'cancer' in it. Even writing those things down makes me hot and my heart thud against my chest.
I decided to take action last year and booked onto a course of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) in London.
I have no idea what triggered this mentality. I told my therapist that I gave birth at 17. She said this is trauma and may have triggered my anxiety. While my anxiety was there before, she says the gruelling labour may have made it worse.
I think the trauma of giving birth made me feel vulnerable and I wasn't invincible. Giving birth made me feel like I could die at any minute. I felt very fragile and that anything could happen to me and I wasn't in control of my life. My biggest fear is not being around for my children.
In the end I only had three sessions of CBT. While it is a wonderful therapy that has saved some of my nearest and dearest during their darkest days, unfortunately, it wasn’t right for me. It didn’t work.
What I would later discover was that I was fighting the wrong fight. My relief came months later when I sat with my wonderful GP Oli.
Not only is he wonderful because he has dealt with my irrational fears and self-diagnostics with patience and kindness, but because he gave me the power to release myself from my death demons.
He asked me one question that changed my life: “Why are you trying to get rid of something that is a part of you?”
The truth is I’d spent all of my life trying to get rid of a part of me I thought I’d adopted over time. What I wasn’t accepting was that it was a part of my personality.
I’m not anxious because something has gone wrong. I’m anxious because it’s a part of my makeup. It’s been there for as long as I can remember.
What is health anxiety?
Health anxiety (sometimes called hypochondria) is when you spend so much time worrying you're ill, or about getting ill, that it starts to take over your life.
You may have health anxiety if you:
- constantly worry about your health
- frequently check your body for signs of illness
- such as lumps, tingling or pain
- are always asking people for reassurance that you're not ill
- worry that your doctor or medical tests may have missed something
- obsessively look at health information on the internet or in the media
- avoid anything to do with serious illness, such as medical TV programmes
- act as if you were ill (for example, avoiding physical activities).
Anxiety itself can cause symptoms like headaches or a racing heartbeat, and you may mistake these for signs of illness.
See a GP if your worries about your health are preventing you leading a normal life and self-help isn't working
If the GP diagnoses you with health anxiety, they may refer you for a psychological therapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), or offer you a medicine for anxiety.
Some people say it’s hereditary. It’s prominent in the Jewish culture, perhaps because of the suppression faced through generations.
Whatever the reason, Oli explained to me that instead of fighting against it I should be accepting of it. “Being vigilant about your health can be very useful,” he said. “Being obsessive isn’t healthy, but trying to eliminate it all together would be equally as counterproductive.”
Finally, something clicked. It made sense. Why was I trying to eradicate my instinct to want to survive? As much clarity as I felt in that moment it didn’t help the fact that I wanted to stop worrying about every ache and pain as if it were my last day on earth.
Oli gave me the tools to accept myself for who I am. Every time I felt myself on the verge of catastrophising a symptom, I reminded myself this is just something I do. I’ve obviously made myself nervous and stressed about something and I need to just ride out the anxiety until my body relaxes.
Now I recognise a pattern, and have been able to see my triggers. Before bed I try and read the most brain-hurty, intelligent book I can. One that’s so hard to read no other thoughts can creep into my mind. After 10 pages I’m usually exhausted and fall asleep.
I try my hardest to not watch too much scary news. If I cannot avoid those stories then I let myself know I may struggle to keep my anxiety at bay for a bit.
I’m finally beginning to accept my anxiety and not fight it. And that has been the key to being able to move forwards and take back the control over my thoughts.
I see Dr Oli once or twice a month still. I never let my boys see me anxious because I didn’t want them to feel it from me. As their mum I always want them to feel safe, protected and for them to feel I’m strong. Luckily, I suffer most when they're asleep.
I realise it’s a part of me and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. I just have to accept the good with the bad and try to maintain a healthy balance.
But I no longer beat myself up for having these episodes because I am who I am, and if I can except my so called 'flaws' on the outside then I need to be ready to accept that I have differences on the inside and that’s OK, too. Without them I wouldn’t be me. And I, if I don’t say so myself, I am pretty awesome. Haha!
'I just need an off switch': Stacey shares her heartbreaking CBT journal
I wrote this diary entry a year ago when I decided to take action and tackle my health anxiety head on with a CBT course.
Meg. Black and white striped T-shirt. South African. In her 50s. Glasses on one of those chains that your teacher used to have.
They’re the most prominent things I remember from my first session of CBT. I have left feeling rather emotional. My quest to get rid of my health anxiety feels impossible.
Received the same old advice: make more time for you, relax, have hot baths, change little things, meditate… blah blah blah. How does one meditate when they cannot stop the influx of negative thoughts bulldozing their way into ones brain?
I just need an off switch. Please! I don't need to “revisit my past”, which, by the way, is full of love and hundreds of positive, painless experiences. Why can't I just be normal? Surely there's something somebody can do to stop me catastrophizing every single tiny detail?
I'm leaving the clinic in Marylebone with my green coat on, hood over my head, in hysterics crying. I’m once again facing the harsh reality: nobody can save me but me. I'm alone.
I feel like I’ve just thrown £136 down the drain. My CBT appointment was booked it for 3.30pm but didn’t start until 3.37pm. This may seem a minor problem but as it’s only a 50 minute session and I’m in desperate need of help right now, the thought of now losing 15% of time with a therapist is horrific.
She spends the first 10 minutes explaining what CBT is. I have severe health-induced anxiety. Surely this woman must know that I researched, in immense detail, my chosen form of treatment. Another 20% of my session wasted.
I say I need to do something now, I cannot go on like this. I feel exhausted. I have no energy left. I'm using it all to be in this constant state of fight or flight and I need to stop it.
"Do you take medication?" she says. I'm not sure if I’ve made this clear but I HAVE HEALTH ANXIETY! I will not take antidepressants or Valium or anything that makes me feel a loss of control!
At this point I'm conscious we only have five minutes left and my urgency for an instant remedy increases. I need an answer. Please tell me what I can do to change this.
She says: "You need to relax." Is she joking? "Find time for you." I'm going to lose it. "You need to take positive steps in accepting lack of control and train your thoughts to work for you." I've gone. My eyes have started welling up and I'm ready to burst into tears.
She reminds me that we are all going to die, it can happen at any time and I need to accept that I am not in control of that. Wonderful.
I feel like I've learned nothing about myself, about my mental disposition and, more importantly, I have nothing to use to cope. In floods of tears I feel the same reality, which hits me every day. I am alone, I am responsible for my own thoughts and only I can change them.
The biggest waste of £136 ever. I have no other options and my desperation has reached a new low. I hang on to any glimmer of hope that this overwhelming, life-limiting feeling will one day disappear – so I book in for the same time next week.
Stacey, you have officially lost the plot.
So I’ll take the good bad and the ugly because it’s who I am. Riding the wave of anxiety and accepting that it’s a part of me has been the best approach I’ve found to making it manageable and sometimes even productive.
Meanwhile, Stacey has previously taken on the world's biggest obstacle course.
And, she reveals the life-changing secret hobby she shares with Meghan Markle.
And, hit back at claims absent fathers are to blame for Britain's knife crime epidemic.
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