I’ve always been drawn to science, particularly physiology and how God designed our bodies to work. I was the weird kid who loved dissections in school, and who had no problem discussing my vet clinic work experiences in graphic detail at the dinner table (to my mother’s shock and horror – and maybe mild amusement).
I’m in my forties, so there was no internet in my early years, but I loved thumbing through my dad’s medical encyclopedia, reading about every disease known to man – literally from A to Z! I was convinced I had appendicitis at one point, and to this day whenever my kids complain of neck pain I make sure they can touch their chin to their chest (checking for meningitis, of course). But all of this was relatively mild and went away as quickly as it came.
But we live in a very different time. My dad’s medical encyclopedias were finite; I wasn’t going to obsess and read the same articles over and over again. But the internet? It’s virtually limitless.
The Internet and Health Anxiety
So fast forward thirty years or so, and here I am with three kids, an aging body… and let’s just say it, ladies:
Having children heightens your anxiety by a factor of a thousand – per kid (no, I can’t actually back up that statistic). When my daughter was diagnosed with a tree nut allergy, I Googled like crazy, and my heart dropped as I read stories of children dying from accidental exposure to allergens.
A seed of fear was planted and grew and grew.
One of my other children, and then I, myself, had some issues that I felt the need to “research” to the point of becoming almost obsessive. I don’t even want to know the number of hours I spent searching for answers and reading alarming stories that caused the fear to grow.
Google vs the Gospel
It all really came to a head about a year and a half ago. I have shared some of those struggles (you can read one of my posts here). I had some worrisome symptoms that escalated exponentially the more I worried about them (I made no connection at first to anxiety driving the symptoms), and when I Googled the symptoms, the words that kept coming up were “colon cancer.”
For whatever reason, my mind latched onto that “diagnosis” and I read more and more stories of women whose symptoms were exactly like mine who had colon cancer. Some of these stories almost seemed fabricated to be sensational or to evoke emotion, now that I look back more objectively. I wasn’t discerning about where I got my information, I just Googled away, my anxiety growing by the click.She Googled away, her anxiety growing by the click… Click To Tweet
I finally went to the doctor (yes – I went for weeks without even going to the doctor because I felt silly for feeling so anxious) and scheduled some tests. As I waited for tests and results, I had to put on a mask for my kids. I felt scared and hopeless inside, and found myself acting super upbeat for them, joking like everything was great, just so they wouldn’t know I was struggling. I was having full blown panic attacks daily where my heart rate would surge over 100bpm and wouldn’t go down, where I could literally feel the adrenaline surging in my chest over and over again. I’d never, ever experienced anything like this.
We were in a life group meeting at church and a dear friend’s husband was sharing about his battle with cancer, and I couldn’t breathe. I had to leave – I went outside after it was safe not to look rude leaving, and walked around the church in the freezing cold, just to be able to function around people and catch my breath.
Recovery and Restoration
That night was the turning point.
I remember being in the kitchen after our life group meeting, talking with my husband and asking him to pray for me. I told him that I believed he had spiritual authority over me, and that I needed him to pray for God to give me release from the bondage of this anxiety. He placed his hands on my shoulders and prayed a very simple, straight-to-the-point prayer. I felt a shift. I wasn’t a different person, and the anxiety wasn’t completely gone, but I felt like my surrender and his prayer had done something in me. Whether it was spiritual or mental or emotional or chemical, I have no idea, but I give God all the glory.
It was months before I felt “normal,” and I want to take a moment and let you know that I don’t believe that anxiety can always be overcome through prayer alone. God is good. He is great! He is the Great Physician. Jehovah Jireh, Almighty God who Provides. But there are times when God works through doctors, counselors, husbands and friends… all sorts of ways. While I probably should have sought medical attention sooner, in my case, my husband’s prayer shifted the balance and God began a work of recovery and restoration.
A little over a year later, I had a dream that there was a lump in my breast. I did a self-exam the next morning when I woke up, and there really, truly was a lump in my breast! It seemed reasonable that God was warning me that I had breast cancer and bringing it to light so that I could receive treatment. I had multiple tests done, and while I’m scheduled for a six month follow-up, the conclusion was that they were benign cysts, and today I can’t feel the lump that sent me to the doctor in the first place.
But during that time, I had a completely different experience. I had learned some things about myself, and set some boundaries that made this health issue so very much different than the last. I felt like this time, I had so many more reasons to think I could have cancer, but I walked through this health journey in a very different way, and experienced virtually no anxiety. In fact, I felt joy.
3 Steps You Can Take to Combat Health Anxiety
More disclaimers: if you are suffering from clinical anxiety, I am in no way suggesting that I’m more spiritual than you because I didn’t during this most recent experience. If you experience chronic health anxiety, whether you’re on medication or not, I’m not suggesting you can always pray it away, or take these steps I’m about to share and be free from it. In my case, for my body and brain chemistry, these steps kept me from spiraling into the same frame of mind I had been in before. If you suspect you suffer from anxiety, please schedule an appointment to see your doctor immediately.
So what was the difference between my two experiences? Here’s what changed with my second “health scare”:
1.) I refused to Google.
I just didn’t do it. I was tempted – oh how I was tempted!! But I did not. When I had my first mammogram I asked for the CD ROM so I could view the images myself, and it didn’t work on my computer. I am convinced even that was by the grace of God to keep my mind clear.
“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” – Colossians 3:1-3 (NIV)
2.) I praised God constantly.
I listened to praise music instead of Googling. I spoke praises out loud like “Thank you God for this health scare. Thank you for the opportunity to praise you no matter what the outcome!” And the more I said it, the more I really, truly believed it. I pictured my praises being like an atomic bomb going off – you know the movie scenes where the explosion begins and spreads out destroying everything in its path? I pictured my praises demolishing any seeds of fear or anxiety, sending the demons fleeing.
And they fled.
“As they began to sing and praise, the Lord set ambushes against the men of Ammon and Moab and Mount Seir who were invading Judah, and they were defeated.” – 2 Chronicles 20:22 (NIV)
3.) I let others in.
I was really embarrassed about the anxiety I felt during the first health scare. Part of that was that I knew that some of my fears were irrational. But I felt myself shutting everyone out. Only a select few knew the extent of my struggle. When I found the lump in my breast, I was very open about it, about asking others for prayer support, and as I felt the victory over anxiety, I wanted to tell everyone about how good God was and is. It was like instead of spiraling downward in my thinking, I was spiraling up.
I think this is so key: meditating on good begets good thoughts; meditating on bad begets bad thoughts.
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” – Philippians 4:8 (NIV)
Oh, and one more thing…
One last (huge) lesson I learned: In the first case, anxiety actually made me sick. I couldn’t eat. I had to force food down, because I knew if I started losing weight it would make me even more anxious. I had constant abdominal pain, sometimes to the point where I couldn’t stand up straight. At night sometimes when I was sitting down trying to relax, my chest felt heavy, like I couldn’t breathe. I had to consciously pay attention to my breaths and convince myself it wasn’t that I physically couldn’t breathe – it’s that I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to. I had tingling in my hands and feet, as well as dizziness.
When I received an “all clear” from some medical tests and began to realize anxiety itself might be the cause of my symptoms, I began to get well.
While I think the internet can be incredibly helpful to giving us tools to become advocates for our own health, and the health of our children and loved ones, I believe there is an epidemic of health anxiety out there and self-diagnosis that we call “research” that can be very, very damaging.
Health Anxiety Isn’t One-Size-Fits-All
Please accept my story as an anecdote – not a one-size-fits-all prescription, and certainly not a lecture. Everyone’s body and brain chemistry is different. Anxiety of any kind shouldn’t be ignored, and prayer alone isn’t always enough. But I believe when we dwell on the negative and “research” our symptoms to death, we are not only doing ourselves a disservice, but we are taking valuable time and energy away from God’s best plans for our lives.
Join The Conversation
So what about you? Have you struggled with health anxiety on any level? Do you agree it’s fueled by Google and “research,” or do you disagree? We’d love to hear your story. May God bless your mind, body and spirit today and always!Do you struggle with health anxiety? If so, you are not alone. Click To Tweet