I’ve written a lot about how I transformed my own life with the help of a master coach.
I spend a lot of time talking about how I cultivated a “broaden and build” mindset by overwhelming my brain with positive experiences and “minding” my own mind.
Quite intentionally, I resist most urges to verbalize my shitty thinking with my clients.
But I feel compelled, today, to share some of my most serious and silly moments of hypochondria, now termed “somatic symptom disorder” or “illness anxiety disorder.”
Until my mid-30s, when I actually received two relatively minor autoimmune diagnoses, I feared that some latent disease would manifest itself just a few short days before my untimely death.
It started as early as grade school when the beautiful and talented ballet dancer, whom I wished I could become, died from osteosarcoma, a childhood bone cancer.
I spent weeks running my fingertips over my shins, sure that I felt sinister lumps. My mother took me to a doctor who massaged my chubby legs and sent me out of his office with the reassurance that my prognosis was actually pretty good.
I had the bright idea, in college, that smoking would relieve my anxiety. In my 20s, I both smoked and, at the suggestion of a well-meaning but perhaps misguided doctor, went in for yearly CT scans of my chest. Trust me, a pack-a-day smoking habit and “somatic symptom disorder” do not mix well.
When I married and had children, I felt undeserving of my loving husband, two healthy babies and our physical comfort and safety.
On a routine physical, during which I had a cold, my doctor felt enlarged lymph nodes in my neck.
She asked me to come back so she could recheck them — after my utterly joyless family vacation at a lavish Puerto Rican resort.
What I recall about that trip is that my husband’s lifelong mentor and colleague died and that I could not stop palpating my neck compulsively. Pretty fun vacation.
Years later, a different doctor observed that my liver enzymes were just a teensy weensy bit over normal. I ran to see the most credentialed specialist in New York. For those of you not as, um, conscientious as me, that would be a hepatologist.
If I choose to, I can replay countless episodes of waiting by the phone for the doctor to call with the devastating news that my life was about to end.
Several well-meaning doctors, all of whom I fired, were alarmed and put off by my anxiety and questions.
My level of alarm was so much higher than they would have expected under the circumstances.
I defended my worry.
I rationalized to myself and the few poor souls who would listen that I am the type of person for whom bad things happen.
While I might have relaxed with the statistic that elevated liver enzymes signal liver cancer in less than, oh, I don’t know, maybe one percent of young women like me, I believed I was that unlucky one percent. The doctors didn’t understand that. I had an urgent need to alert them I was the statistical anomaly that required their hypervigilance.
I developed a mistrust and defensiveness in the presence of doctors. I think it’s safe to say the feeling was mutual.
And then I did something that hypochondriacs are warned not to do.
I searched the internet.
But not to investigate physical symptoms.
Instead to do some research on the story behind hypochondria.
I began to see that, while my symptoms felt quite real and while my worries seemed legitimate to me, the worry itself might be symptomatic of something greater.
My problem was not the bodily symptom but the runaway freight train of worry.
Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, the trauma researcher explains:
The brain is formed in a “use-dependent manner.” This is another way of describing neuroplasticity, the relatively recent discovery that neurons that “fire together, wire together.” When a circuit fires repeatedly, it can become a default setting—the response most likely to occur. If you feel safe and loved, your brain becomes specialized in exploration, play, and cooperation; if you are frightened and unwanted, it specializes in managing feelings of fear and abandonment.
I began to identify, label and really study my terrifying automatic thoughts.
My brain was, at the time, predisposed to some pretty dark ones.
As I got more advanced with this self-directed study, I would notice my sheer terror of dying and leaving my children motherless, and instead say to myself, “Oh, there it is. That’s my ‘lymph node terror.’” I could watch it arise over and over again. I talked to myself lovingly, “Here it is again. And I am safe.” I had this terror because my brain was wired to do this, not because the terror actual portended any Shakespearean level tragedy.
I’m writing this to you not to convince you what a basket case I was, but instead to illustrate how I’ve chosen to not believe the thoughts that emerge from my pesky reptilian brain.
Just as the “lymph node terror” was produced by unchallenged and limiting habitual thinking, so can other more “innocent” thoughts result from flawed thinking rather than facts.
The light went on for me when I realized that my thinking was the problem, not the “symptoms” that my hypersensitive, hypervigilant brain perseverated on.
Where might your story be patently false?
A client overseas tells me she’s unqualified to get a job in the U.S. because she’s lived abroad for twenty years.
Where I see a sophisticated woman with international business and cultural experiences and a briefcase full of foreign languages she’s picked up along the way, she sees only the unemployment line.
Of course, my perception of her capability is irrelevant. What matters are her beliefs about her skill and future.
The writer Greg McKeown relates in “Essentialism” how he decided to quit law school in England halfway through his first year. He chose law school not because of any great passion for the law, but because he felt is was a harmless next step if he wanted to keep “all his options open.”
On a spontaneous visit to the U.S. a mentor offered “If you decide to stay in America, you should come and join us.”
McKeown writes that what changed his life was not his mentor’s offer to collaborate professionally, but rather
It was the assumption he made that I had a choice: “If you decide to stay …” He saw it as a real option.