Bridget Phetasy Wants You To Kill Your Hypochondria Before It Kills You

Bridget Phetasy invented her surname as a description of “the sensation of when reality becomes parody and parody becomes reality.” The word was born as the title of a greeting card and t-shirt company she founded in 2005, but when that business ended, she took its website as her blog and its name as her new identity.

Eventually, she moved to Los Angeles to become a comedian, but like many of her fellow comedians, she fell into a parallel vocation she refers to as “the accidental pundit.”  “Everything became political,” she said, “and comedians ended up in punditry whether they wanted to be there or not. Because you either spoke The Approved Message and got work in Hollywood or did your job as a comedian and called out the ridiculousness wherever you saw it—which often meant striking out on your own.”  

For her, this new role was cultivated by Twitter, brought to fruition on her podcast, Walk-Ins Welcome and codified on her newsy youtube show, Dumpster Fire. Across all this work, she enjoys poking at prickly, timely topics, including pandemic ethics, vaccine passports, and all the nitpicky battles in the ongoing culture wars. She wields a wry, acerbic humor, which she keeps in balance with vulnerable revelations about her addiction and compulsive proclivities.

Phetasy has also become a regular contributor to The Spectator, where she published her manifesto-like essay, “The Battle Cry of the Politically Homeless.” Once a diehard liberal, she now feels alienated by the dogmas of 21st century liberalism while remaining repulsed by aspects of conservatism. Her essay gives a voice to a growing interest in centrism, a position that has become wider as political parties continue to polarize toward untenable extremes. “Both parties demand totalitarian-like devotion to their ideology,” she writes, “and if you’re indifferent, apathetic or nuanced in your approach to politics, you’ll end up in the wasteland of the center, tribeless, unprotected and increasingly insulated.”

In the following interview, Phetasy and I focus our talk on a lesser-discussed aspect of her life: hypochondria, a condition she endured and cured before the pandemic began requiring all of us to behave like hypochondriacs. She and I spoke over several seasons, including a zoom call and many round of emails. Initially, I sent her a handful of questions to begin the process and over the following months, she responded with updates on the rocky, busy road of her life, explaining all the reasons why she had not yet replied with answers. Eventually, she sent me one the most lengthy and deeply considered responses I have ever received: a fully developed how-to guide for addressing hypochondriac tendencies, which you will find at the end of the interview.

—Ross Simonini

I. The Joy Thief

THE BELIEVER: What was the nature of your hypochondria? Was it specific to a certain condition, or was it more migratory?

BRIDGET PHETASY: Let me start by saying—I’m not a doctor or a professional. I’ve had a therapist help me unpack a lot of this over the years but by no means do I claim to have answers. Hypochondria is insidious and manifests differently in every single person. Any knowledge I have about this topic is experiential.

Mine was both specific and migratory and by that I mean I would focus on a specific “problem” or perceived problem intensely until there was something else to focus on. For example there was the throat cancer phase or the ovarian cancer phase or the fear that there was something wrong with my lip phase. They were all very specific and as soon as I’d get relief from either going to see a doctor or just getting distracted by another part of my body—I was on to the next fear.  I spent almost a decade of my life never free of worrying about some aspect of my body or health. It cast a shadow over everything. 

In doing some reading on the topic, I understand it’s considered part of the OCD family as well as a form of anxiety because of the repetitive obsessive/compulsive nature of the thoughts and actions and the anxiousness it causes. In fact, it’s not even in the DSM-5. Now it’s called “illness anxiety disorder” and it’s categorized under “somatic symptom and related disorders.” 

For me, that was true. It did cause anxiety and that fear was constantly felt in my body but my hypochondria was like whack-a-mole, which is funny because addiction feels like that and I think there is a lot of overlap. In many ways, hypochondria is an addiction to worry. Fear feeds on this worry and tells you it’s perfectly justifiable because after all, this is your life at stake. It becomes a loop you can’t escape. And it’s insanity; insanity that you can recognize and yet do nothing about. 

It’s also self-obsession. I definitely feel like there are elements of narcissism in hypochondria although again, I’m not a doctor or a psychologist. And that self-knowledge drove me insane on top of the fact that I was making up ailments that weren’t real—and felt powerless to change it. Being self-aware enough to know I was crazy but feeling powerless to do anything about it is a horrible, crazy-making position to be in. Again, I can only liken it to the way I felt at my rock bottoms of addiction. It’s debilitating. But instead of being a slave to a substance, you are imprisoned by your own thoughts. And it’s hell. And there has been more than one time in my life that I’ve been crying in the fetal position wondering how long it would be before I ended up in a straitjacket. 

BLVR: Do you remember how it began?

BP: Seeing how my siblings struggle with this, I think there is absolutely a genetic component to hypochondria. There is also nurture. My mother had those self-diagnosis books that were like choose your own adventure books for hypochondriacs before WebMD made those rabbit holes even easier to fall down. Looking back on my childhood, as the oldest of five kids, I vividly remember her constantly obsessing about this or that on her body and asking us to feel different lumps on her neck etc… that can’t be good to absorb as a child under the age of ten, so I’m sure that’s part of where mine originates. My father is a born worry-wart and so was I. Just a nervous little kid. Being the oldest of five kids where there was constantly a kid falling down the stairs or eating a mushroom off a tree or banging their head or almost drowning, I lived in a near constant state of fear.

But the hypochondria didn’t really manifest until my mid-twenties. It’s very blurry because I was drinking heavily but I was married and didn’t want to be married anymore and had no idea how to get out. Living this lie led to my first experience of anxiety and my first panic attack. 

It was around age twenty-six when I first started noticing it—but I’m sure that process had been at work for quite some time. I do remember the exact moment I realized it was a mental illness. I had a swollen gland and had a sore throat for about two weeks one fall. My mind told me it was definitely throat cancer. I finally went to a walk-in clinic and they took one look and said, “You have allergies—do you want some Claritin?” I felt so foolish. That was the moment I realized I had a real problem.

I’d be lying if I said it was important to get over it because I’ve honestly never really thought about this question until right now.

BLVR: Has the pandemic re-ignited your hypochondria at all?

BP: No. If anything I’ve gone too far in the other direction and have no desire to go to the doctor because it’s such a pain in the ass due to all the COVID precautions and extra hoops you have to jump through.

BLVR: Have you noticed a rise in hypochondria in the world during the pandemic?

BP: Yes, absolutely. Also OCD which only feeds hypochondria. And free-floating anxiety. According to my therapist, she’s also seeing an uptick in agoraphobia. So it seems being locked up and only having access to our doom boxes has aggravated a lot of people’s neuroses. Who could have possibly guessed?!

BLVR: All of the behavior of a hypochondriac has become justified over the last year—washing your hands twenty times a day, wearing masks, agoraphobia. Previously, we would have considered these to be unhealthy behaviors, and then they were mandated by the government. 

BP: My husband works at a grocery store, so we never, he never stopped working. So it wasn’t like we were in a bubble ever. He was always coming and going from work. So I can either be paranoid or I can take the precautions I need to take. But I also think I might’ve had it pretty early in April. Like a year ago I got really sick and they just weren’t telling you to stay home. But I think doing all the work that I did around the hypochondria prepared me for a pandemic mentally. I don’t feel like psychologically I changed at all. Other than watching everyone around me lose their mind and feeling bad for them.

BLVR: You were living through a kind of internal pandemic. 

BP: Yeah. Every day is a pandemic when you’re a hypochondriac. But now everybody I know has been like, Oh, is that cough COVID or is it just a cough? So people are definitely all struggling with it. And like you said, it’s justified a lot of the neurotic behavior, which is what concerns me: how neurotic it’s making everybody. On the street, people stare at you if you’re a block away without a mask. I’m like, you’re not getting COVID this way. You’re not getting it from me. We didn’t bump into each other. You’re becoming paranoid. We are a really fragile culture. And the more I talk about the hypochondria, the more I hear from people that they struggle with it, because it is something I think you silently wrestle with. It is a joy thief in your life. It takes any moment that you’re in and it might be perfectly fine and good and it ruins it.

BLVR: Do you ever feel it coming on now?

BP: When I do get anxiety, it’s usually when I’m lying to myself or when someone’s lying to me, I get that weird racy feeling. So I think some of these things are markers that we shouldn’t ignore, like calls from our soul. There’s a great book that absolutely saved me, The Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore. And he talks about the gifts of anxiety and depression and how they’re calls from your soul, telling you change your life, do something! Or move! Or you’re lying to yourself! So I’m grateful that I can recognize that.

II. An Addiction to Worry

BLVR: Do you think our society supports hypochondria?

BP: Yes. I think we live in this weird culture where our victimhood and laziness are justified. My greatest generation grandparents didn’t have a very high tolerance for whining. It was all this idea that pull yourself up by your bootstraps, which is now seen as colonialist or Imperial. I mean, I understand where people are coming from when they say these things about victimhood, but in recovery they’ll always say, “play the tape forward.” And with a lot of the psychology that people are gravitating towards, with the ideology of victimhood and perpetually being offended and looking for problems everywhere—where does that lead you when you play the tape forward? 

BLVR: There are probably radically different ideas on where that leads. Some might say it leads to utopia or dystopia.

BP: Okay. Say all of that is true. Say everything is true. Say you came from a fucked up upbringing. Say that you had trauma in your life. There were things that were out of your control. Socioeconomic forces were out of your control. Forces in the culture were out of your control. Well, you still need to make a life. I realized that when I was nineteen in rehab. I remember sitting there and going, how the fuck did I get here? And realizing that it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter what my parents said. It didn’t matter what happened to me. It didn’t matter how I ended up there. I still had to figure out how to put one foot in front of the other and build a life. I think it’s a nihilistic destructive impulse that people seem addicted to right now. I mean, so let’s burn it all down! Well, we’re still gonna have to wake up and build something eventually.

BLVR: Right, and how do we know when the destruction time is over?

BP: And I think that that impulse for me was very represented in hypochondria. I always said my brain was trying to kill me. And now we’ve put a whole generation of young people up in front of these doom boxes and expected them to thrive psychologically. The internet contains some of the most toxic places on earth. And you’re projecting all of your neuroses and insecurities. It’s all projection into the internet, and everyone’s reacting to their own worst image of themselves being projected. I think we’re going to see a lot of fallout from this pandemic in terms of the mental health of our population, especially young people. They’re so anxious. I mean, they’ve done studies on this. There are more anxious and depressed young people than ever.

BLVR: Are you saying that the hypochondria mentality is one of victimhood? 

BP: It feels so narcissistic to me and one of the other sides of narcissism is perpetual victimhood. And I definitely think that was one of the things that I had to root out the most. And the thing that I try to stay on top of the most is entitlement and victimhood, because they are both so seductive. It’s like the Sirens. They’ll sing to you from the rock and you’ll crash on the shore. And there’s nothing there. 

And so now, I am really reframing my day. In the morning, I ask what I can give to the world instead of what I can get from it. That simple action changed my life. But I had to do so much work and it’s not easy. It would have been much easier for me to just sit around and complain about the state of the world and hate everyone and act like the world had done me wrong for forever. You don’t have to do any self reflection. You can point outward. And I think the hypochondria keeps you in that cycle of self obsession and you can’t get outside of it without taking different actions. And in some cases, I think medication does help people see what it feels like to not have that anxiety.

BLVR: Do you think that  these tendencies towards hypochondria have any correlation with different social or political positions?

BP: That’s a good question. I have friends all across the political spectrum, and I see way more neuroses and self obsessed craziness in this department from my friends who lean a little bit more left-wing ideologically. That being said, they do not have a monopoly on mental illness. There’s all kinds of mental illness all across the political spectrum. There are genetic components. There’s plenty of it on the right wing. It’s just peddled in a different way. I think grievance culture and resentment politics—everyone’s peddling that. And everyone feels like they’re being silenced. Everyone feels like they’re owed something that they didn’t get.

But I think probably if anything, people on the right suffer in silence more on these mental health issues. Because they don’t have the tools and it’s not really expected of them to talk about it and it hasn’t been normalized for them to have those conversations. 

BLVR: There’s this idea that conservatives and liberals both see the body as a temple and they both aim for a kind of purity, but while conservatives think about this purity in relation to sex, liberals think about it with food. 

BP: Right. I love that. Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind gets into the different psychological makeups of people who are generally lean more conservative versus people who generally lean more liberal. 

It’s funny, I was at Playboy and it was when, during kind of the height of the Me Too era, I was writing a weekly column there. And with the rise of Trump and #metoo, they’d stopped doing nudes for a minute. It was a very strange time to be writing about sex for the kind of red blooded American male. And I remember that’s when I started noticing things on the left that were weird and puritanical in ways that I was surprised by, being that I was raised in a Kennedy liberal kind of family background.

So I started to wonder, am I conservative now? And then the conservatives started talking about sex and I’d be like, Oh, hell no. Like, at my core, I’m such a bleeding heart liberal, and I really want to help everybody. But I think the means of doing that are more important than just having these ends that we all have to meet.

There was so much sexual shame tied to my hypochondria that I had to work through. I mean, being raised Catholic and getting your mind around what sex even is. I spent most of my twenties thinking I was absolutely going to get AIDS as punishment for being sexually active. That was my core belief and growing up kind of in the peak of that, and I think ingesting that fear from the media did something to my brain on some subconscious level that I was too young to process. A lot of the anxiety you feel as an adult, it might just catch up with you. And then if you’re drinking and trying to just make it go away, you won’t necessarily give yourself the opportunity to let go of a lot of that baggage. I feel so free now. And looking back, I would choose depression over anxiety just because anxiety shot my adrenal glands. I was in that constant fear all the time. I was exhausting myself with fear. 

BLVR:  What about people who have a chronic illness and who actually do have specific conditions that go on for periods of time? I think this kind of chronic way of living can program you to be vigilant and aware to a degree that may at one point serve you, but at other points may make you overly sensitive to your health.

BP: I have a funny story about this. Someone very close to me is a very bad hypochondriac. They woke up and couldn’t feel their arms or legs one morning and told themselves, this is hypochondria. And then it got worse and they took themselves to the hospital and ended up having Guillain-Barre syndrome, which is super rare. So, I think, if there are actual physical symptoms, go to a doctor! And thank God they listened to themselves because at the doctor they’re like, “Thank God, you got here early so you can actually treat it.” Because if you don’t treat it early, you can be paralyzed for years. It can get really bad if you just ignore it. So you also have to make sure you’re not overcompensating and now ignoring actual symptoms.

And I think that’s where it’s really challenging. Because hypochondria shreds your ability to trust yourself. You don’t know if this is just a repetitive, looping brain thought, or a symptom. 

BLVR: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? 

BP: Yeah. I do think that kind of stress triggers things that might be lurking for sure. They’ve done studies on how stress can trigger disease. So I have a rule with myself. If I’m experiencing enough physical symptoms that I want to Google it, I call my doctor and go see my doctor. I don’t Google things. That’s just my rule, because then I can get an actual professional’s opinion and not go down some rabbit hole and stress myself out. Because as I mentioned, I do think in some ways, hypochondria is an addiction to worry. You’re just addicted to being worried all the time. You know, that was the question I had to ask myself: What does life look like if I’m not worrying all day long about something on my body? And it’s pretty fricking sweet! I’m getting a lot more done.

III. Beezle

BLVR: How did you manage to cure yourself of hypochondria?

BP: Again I have to reiterate—I am not a mental health professional or a doctor, so take all of this with a grain of salt. When I was in the depths of my hypochondria I was too broke to afford therapy and I was still drinking and smoking tons of weed and doing drugs. The weird program I came up with to “cure” myself was a patchwork set of practices and tools that I picked up here and there. Some of it I just made up. When I could finally afford therapy I came to learn a lot of what I was doing naturally was part cognitive behavioral therapy, part narrative therapy, part meditation practice. Once I learned about what triggered the hypochondria, I went to therapy to deal with it and process it—but more on that later.

 1. Recognize it—I didn’t know what anxiety was. I remember calling my yoga instructor from Chicago O’Hare and telling her I thought I was having a heart attack. When I explained my symptoms she said, “Oh honey you’re having a panic attack.” That was the first time I’d ever even heard of such a thing. That anxiety morphed into anxiety about my health and it wasn’t one moment I remember. It just steadily happened over years. It was like my brain got hooked on being in a constant state of fear. The first person I ever admitted it to was my doctor after I’d spent months obsessing about my throat.

 2. Personalize it—Beezle—The only way to describe what my hypochondria felt like was as if I was being possessed by a demon that wanted me dead. I’ve come to learn a lot more about my anxiety and hypochondria and the actions, behaviors and psychology that are underneath a lot of it, but at the time, I just figured I was an insane person. It was enormously frustrating not to be able to get on top of my own thoughts. Someone suggested meditation and I read a beginner’s book about it. Granted I’d done plenty of meditation in yoga but never had any real formal training with a specific practice. In this book the author (and I can’t for the life of me remember the book) said to imagine that your thoughts were a person sitting next to you on the couch. You’d think they were a crazy person who never shut up. That was the moment I decided to name my hypochondria. So I named it “Beezle.” Beezle was my crazy roommate and whenever he started yapping I could tell him to shut the fuck up. There was a part of me that feared I was going to create a split personality, but the hypochondria thoughts were so specific, so different than normal healthy thoughts, I had to find a way to differentiate between the two. It was the only way I could begin to discern between what is a healthy, reasonable thought and what is a crazy Beezle thought. One of the most challenging aspects of hypochondria is that it robs you of your ability to trust yourself and your gut. Is this a real pain or is it a pain my brain wants me to perseverate on until I drive myself crazy? Beezle was very convincing and Beezle was very good at coming up with perfectly logical rationalizations for why googling that lump I found and all the potential cancers it could be is a great idea.

 3.  The Rubber Band—At its worst, Beezle would really start talking and it would escalate to ranting until he devolved into a crazy person rocking and repeating the same mantra over and over again. “There’s something wrong with my lip. There’s something wrong with my lip. There’s something wrong with my lip.” In order to relieve myself of the repetitive looping thoughts, I’d go to the bathroom and check my lip. More like examine it. I’m not even sure what I was looking for but it was something. Then I’d calm down for a bit but eventually, the looping thought would return and the vicious cycle would start all over again. The process wasn’t just exhausting to me—but also to anyone I trusted enough with my secret mental illness—which was at the time only my cousin, Maggie. Somewhere along the way, I read about putting a rubber band on your wrist and snapping it every time you had a negative thought. I honestly can’t for the life of me remember where I heard this and the only reason I even tried it was sheer desperation. The minute Beezle would fire up, I snap that band and replace the thought with a mantra. Sometimes I’d snap the band hundreds of times in an hour, my wrist would be swollen and welted at the end of the day.

4.  Replacement mantra—This can be anything so long as it’s positive and affirming. Mine was “I am healthy. Everything is okay.” It could be “I feel strong and empowered and confident.” Or “My body is a miracle. I feel healthy and well.” Or “I am a warrior.” Sometimes I’d say the mantra thousands of times a day. What I started noticing was that it wasn’t long before I didn’t even need the rubber band to trigger the mantra. I’d notice the negative thought and immediately replace it with something positive.

 5.  WebMD is Your Enemy -With the advent of the internet and the death of expertise, hypochondria functions a lot like confirmation bias. You decide what is true, “I have cancer” and then you set out to prove it, rejecting and dismissing any information that might conflict with what you believe is the fact. This is the craziness of hypochondria. You can hear from a literal doctor that you don’t have what you and WebMD have convinced yourself you have and it’s not enough. “That doctor doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” you’ll tell yourself and then you’ll seek out second and third opinions or fourth opinions or believe that one guy in the comments on a forum of the disease you’ve convinced yourself you have. 

6. Fake it until you make it—This saying is overused but there is an enormous amount of truth in it. There is a similar saying that gets repeated a lot in recovery that is grounded in the same principle: “You can’t think your way into different actions but you can act your way into different thinking.” All of these platitudes remind me of a quote that has often been attributed to Einstein, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” As simple as this advice sounds, what all these platitudes are really talking about is habit building. In order to overcome the habit of negative thinking, you first need to recognize it, replace it and finally, stop giving into the actions that reinforce the bad habit. This is the way you can start to break the cycle. I read something about the neural plasticity that stuck with me: “What fires together, wires together.” Do not give into the temptations/actions that the thoughts might be encouraging. Lucky for me at the height of my hypochondria I didn’t have health insurance and even if I did, I was too poor to go get all the tests I would have wanted. Don’t connect that crazy looping thought with a crazy looping action. Don’t look at the lip in a mirror. Don’t google it. Don’t keep touching that lump. Every single time you do that, you reinforce the thought. Snap the rubber band. Repeat the mantra. It’s going to be uncomfortable at first—but eventually there was more and more time between the craving for that hit of fear. 

7. Mock it—My cousin Maggie, the keeper of my shameful secret that was hypochondria, had an ongoing mantra that she used with me that made me laugh at myself then and still cracks me up today. “It’s not a tumor. You don’t have AIDS. There’s nothing wrong with your lips. That skirt doesn’t make you look like you have a penis.” We would die laughing and it would almost always take the edge off. Hypochondria wants you to take it very seriously. It wants you to believe you’re dying and what could be more serious than that? Recognizing the insanity and laughing at it, takes away a lot of the power those thoughts hold. 

8. Share the Load—One of the worst aspects of suffering with my hypochondria was how isolating it was. This is true for many forms of anxiety. I could be at the Ritz in Hawaii and completely in my head about whatever perceived illness or skin condition I had. People would be talking to me and I’d barely be able to engage. It’s a difficult sensation to describe—something akin to being in a bubble and everyone talking to you sounds like the teacher in Snoopy. It’s almost as if you’re trying to dissociate but because you’re surrounded by people, you can’t. I carried so much shame for having hypochondria because I knew it was crazy and that I sounded like a crazy person. So I hid it. From everyone but Maggie. But just like laughing at it takes some of the power away—so does talking about it and sharing your struggle with friends you can trust. WARNING: This can be a double-edged sword. If you become too dependent on the people around you to constantly reassure you that you’re aren’t in fact experiencing a stroke or dying of cancer—you risk driving them insane too. I’ll never forget when I was carrying on about how ovarian cancer was the silent killer and my boyfriend at the time said, “It’s not that silent.” Sharing the load doesn’t mean wearing everyone down around you. That’s what you pay professionals for. 

9. Therapy—If you aren’t already SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP for your anxiety, OCD and hypochondria. The next level of noticing (and killing) your hypochondria is beginning to notice what triggers it. When does it come up? When you’re stressed? When you’re tired? For me I started to notice it was a combination of shame around my sexuality, guilt about being hungover and the inability to hold joy because I didn’t feel worthy of it. That is a lot of information and plenty to unpack with a professional. So I set out to unpack it. Why was my obsession with my lips connected to intimacy? Why do I feel worthless?

10. Sobriety—My hypochondria started to improve almost immediately after I got sober. Those old mental grooves took years to undo, but the relief I felt was almost instant. Some of the worst days of hypochondria for me were when I had “hangxiety.” I’m not sure if it was a blood sugar thing or my nervous system being completely shot or guilt about whatever I’d said or done the night before or all of the above—but whenever I was badly hungover my anxiety would soar to the point that I couldn’t get out of bed. It was miserable and the minute I stopped drinking until I puked, a lot of this went away. It was also the beginning of when I could stop long enough to look at the things I was running from and the feelings that were causing the anxiety in the first place.

11. Meditation and Exercise—Another platitude I’ve found to be true: What you feed grows and what you starve, dies. You need to starve the shit out of your hypochondria and the thoughts that feed it. As I always said to my sister, “Put that shit in a box with no holes and smother it.” It’s graphic—but it’s necessary. In the battle against yourself, you need to be diligent. The beginning of this battle is to start noticing your thoughts and get better at realizing that you are not your thoughts. Most people don’t realize this until they start some form of meditation or yoga practice. We are tightly identified with our thoughts. But like the wind or sounds, our thoughts are just floating through our consciousness. Also: get moving. All that anxiety is energy. Sitting around with it will make it worse. Go do a 10 minute HIIT workout and shake things up. Exert some of that nervous energy. Exhausting myself physically made it harder to stay awake and stare at the ceiling.

12. Learn to trust yourself—Be wary of going too far in the other direction once your hypochondria begins to improve. A great example of this was a mole that developed on my cheek. I didn’t think much of it. It wasn’t pretty but I told myself it was nothing to worry about, I was being a hypochondriac. One summer when I was home my mom took one look at it and told me I needed to get it checked. My doctor took one look at it and told me I needed to get it removed. Lo and behold, I had skin cancer. Basal cell carcinoma which is the best kind of skin cancer to get but nevertheless, I needed to get put under and have it cut out. It was a much bigger surgery than it needed to be because I waited so long. Don’t replace obsession with avoidance.

13. Maintenance—Recognize your cycles. My hypochondria would really flare up two days before I got my period. Surprise, surprise, hormones had a huge effect on when I felt the most anxious and insecure. Keeping a hypochondria journal is great way to start noticing how often the stuff you’re worrying about isn’t real. There are CBT thought records you can download online for free. It’s another fantastic resource for keeping track of those obsessive thoughts and what’s triggering them. I didn’t discover them until long after I intuitively did this—but I send them to all my friends struggling with hypochondria. It’s also a great tool to use in tandem with a therapist.

 14. Count all the ways you can die—This sounds really dumb and perhaps it’s not the greatest advice for everyone, but for some reason this was very effective to me. The more I learn about Stoicism, the more I realize there is a bit of the practice of “negative visualization” in this weird little exercise I started doing. Basically, when my hypochondria would kick in, I’d recognize it, replace and do my best not to look in a mirror or google whatever symptom I thought I was experiencing. That wasn’t always enough though. Sometimes the thoughts were persistent and in those moments I’d count all the random ways I could die in that moment. A plane could fall out of the sky. A car could careen off the road and hit me. My brain could explode. So much of my hypochondria was about control. Recognizing how little control I have in any moment is a helpful reminder that while I’m obsessing about one thing, another thing could be the death of me. WARNING: This one might not work for everyone. It could add to your anxiety. So proceed with caution.

 15. Gratitude—One of the most powerful antidotes to health anxiety is gratitude. Just taking time to contemplate the miracle that is the human body and focus on all the things it’s doing right in each second of the day. Our tendency is often to focus on that one thing going wrong in our body or even life, when the fact that we are here and breathing is a marvel of creation that is hard to comprehend. There is a great quote I heard a lot from a yoga instructor—or hell maybe it was a Yogi Tea quote I see all the time—but it was: Be grateful so long as you have breath. 

 16. Service—Get out of your own head and do something for someone else. Call a friend and ask them how they’re doing. Send those thank you cards you’ve been meaning to send. Write a heartfelt letter to a sibling. Bake some cookies for your aging neighbor or offer to get them groceries. There are a million little acts of kindness and consideration we can give back to the world. A powerful way to reframe my entire day is to wake up and ask that I might focus on what I can give to the world instead of focusing on what I’m not getting. One of the easiest ways to think less about yourself is to think more about other people. 

  17. Get creative—I’m very convinced a lot of our collective anxiety is misdirected creative energy. Anxiety can create a debilitating inertia. It can paralyze you. Staring into the abyss that is social media doesn’t help either. Get moving. Get cooking. Get writing. Play with your dog. Go for a walk. Write that book you’ve been dreaming of writing. Build those shelves or grow that garden. Take a class. Have some fun! Lighten up. Dance for 10 minutes. When I’m not using my creative force judiciously it turns on me and I’ll start finding creative ways to self-destruct. This has been my experience throughout my whole life. 

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