Does the body rule the mind
Or does the mind rule the body ?
— The Smiths
One summer during my middle school years, I had to mow the lawn at my dad’s house. My father was a big believer in kids starting on regular household chores as young as possible, and he had all of us kids rotate through mowing the lawn, washing dishes, doing the family laundry and so on. It was my turn to mow the lawn, and the lawn mower was out of gas, so I had to refill the tank. Which naturally left my hands smelling of gasoline. By the time I finished mowing the lawn, the smell of gasoline on my hands was really freaking me out. I was afraid to touch anything I might put in my mouth, for fear of ingesting gasoline, poisoning myself, and dying. So I washed my hands thoroughly, scrubbing them with soap. And then repeated this, as my hands still smelled of gas. And again. And again. I washed my hands over and over again, coming close to literally rubbing them raw. I was in a state of panic, and my dad finally saw this and, worried that I would scrape the skin off of my hands, rubbed them down with baby oil so that they were moisturized. The baby oil also covered up the gasoline smell, calming me down.
I was remembering this today as my hypochondria seized me once again.
I think it’s important to note: I am not a mysophobe. I don’t freak out when I’m around people with colds. I don’t worry about using public toilets. Hospitals don’t really make me nervous. I don’t use anti-bacterial products all that much. However, I’m terrified of swallowing something that will poison me slowly and I worry on an almost constant basis that my body will betray me with some insidious, internal, debilitating and possibly (or probably) fatal disease.
Cancer is the big one. Sweet kittens, do I worry about cancer! Is this headache the first sign of a brain tumor? Am I short of breath because I have lung cancer? Keep in mind, cancer doesn’t run in my family. My dad smoked almost his entire life, and while he suffers now with COPD and other health issues that are certainly related to his smoking, he doesn’t have lung cancer (or any other kind of cancer). But that doesn’t stop me from worrying I have it. (HIV is another one. For many years, I was convinced I hadn’t made it through college without contracting HIV. I was sure it was lying dormant in my body, waiting to leap out and share the everloving shit out of me, infecting everyone around me like a cartoon cloud of death.)
The reason hypochondria is so frustrating and difficult to fight is this: my hypochondria generally manifests from my generalized anxiety and it, in turn, feeds my anxiety. I can rationally reason out that I don’t really have anything serious and terminal, but my anxious subconscious refuses to believe it and persists in hammering my brain with terror and worry. One thing people may not know about anxiety and depression is that it’s not just a mental state. It’s not just, “Damn, I’m feeling sad and hopeless!” or, “Crap, I’m really worried about things!” There are a whole bunch of physical symptoms that come with anxiety and depression. You may not even be feeling particularly anxious or depressed, but your body still somatizes everything.
So, let’s say I get a slight pain in my lower back, and the thought flashes through my head, “OMG! IT’S KIDNEY STONES!” I can reason with myself, telling myself that I haven’t shown any other signs of kidney stones, and even if it is kidney stones, the best thing I can do right now is wait to see if things progress the way I know it should. “You’re a hypochondriac, Josh! You can’t run to the ER every time you think you have something serious!” But my subconscious says, “Oh no, you don’t! You can’t get rid of this that easily!” I start to sweat A LOT. I get a headache. I get a stomachache. I feel as if I’m running a low-grade fever. I start noticing every tiny ache in my body. I get restless and have a hard time concentrating on any one thing. My chest gets tight. My back hurts. And this panicky voice in my head keeps yelling, “DAMMIT, JOSH! YOU’RE GOING TO DROP DEAD AT ANY MINUTE!” The tectonic plates of my anxiety are rubbing together, and any minute, there’s going to be a huge quake.
Does the body rule the mind or does the mind rule the body?
Xanax calms me down, quiets the yelling voice, helps make the aches and pains go away, keeps the quake at bay. If Xanax isn’t available, I just hold on to the bucking bronco for dear life and wait for it to tire itself out.
I make a lot of jokes about being a hypochondriac. Mostly, it’s an attempt to belittle it in my own head, to deflate it, in the hopes that I can laugh it out of existence. Hypochondria is pretty funny. But it’s not fun. It’s embarrassing and demoralizing to walk around with this intense, irrational fear in my head, weighing me down like iron manacles. I’m working on trying to keep myself calm–or at least to not stoke the fires of anxiety that are already lit. It’s not easy. But…well, it’s something I have to do.
And now, hopefully, you have a little more insight into how my mind works.