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Illness & Death Phobias

By Margaret Hawkins

People who have illness phobia are looking constantly for reassurance from their doctor or the accident and emergency staff at the local hospital and they tend to bombard personal friends and family with references as to how awful they are feeling.  Reassurance is transient and even x-rays, scans and other investigations will not convince them that nothing is amiss.  They are sure that somewhere along the line something has been overlooked and possibly a mistake has been made in their particular case.  It is all gloom and doom in their eyes.

Then there are the real physical signs that they can look at and wonder and worry about.  “What is that little spot on my leg?  It has been there for ages and hasn’t altered.  I wonder if it is cancerous.”   “ Oh my goodness, my partner has a mark on his penis.  Is it a sign of a venereal disease?  Oh hell it might be AIDS.  I can’t cope, I think I shall go mad.”  “I keep getting headaches all the time, that’s not normal, is it?  What if it’s a brain tumour? Will I die?

These kinds of thoughts are normal and most people at some point worry about a symptom that to them is unusual but they deal with it by seeing their G.P. or going to the appropriate diagnostic clinic.  Others who are suffering from anxiety will be fearful and restless.  They become constantly aware of their bodies and how they are functioning.  “My lips look very blue this morning and my heart seems to be racing, I hope I’m not going to have a heart attack.”  The ever present anxiety and resulting tension can produce other symptoms such as pains in the stomach; contractions of the intestines too, are not uncommon.  All this reinforces the negative thinking and the terror of the imagined consequences.

How do we deal with these worries?  We have to start looking at the problem logically.  If we have been told that all is well but just can’t accept the fact, then we must look at the part we are playing in prolonging our lack of belief.  Are we exaggerating?  The answer to this is ‘More than likely.’ Are we forever thinking ‘What if this symptom gets worse and the doctor still tells me there is nothing to worry about?’  What shall I do then?

It might be an idea to write down the most horrendous outcome that you can think of and start to question the probabilities of it happening. After making a list, go through it methodically and answer each question.  I think you will find that most of your replies could be regarded as highly imaginative, not a true representation of the facts or reality. Let us take headaches as an example.  You have had them frequently, so much so that you have been to see your G.P.  He/she has tried to explain to you that it is not surprising that you have headaches because you are anxious and perhaps in a difficult situation at home or at work.  “You must try and relax more.” he/she might say.  They may even offer some form of medication, which may or may not help.  After a week of wondering whether your headaches will be cured you realise that, unfortunately, they are still a daily occurrence.  Now what, you begin to get more worried so back to the G.P. you go.  This time you are so uptight and so insistent that something must be radically wrong, that to make absolutely sure, the doctor arranges a consultation and X-ray at the hospital.  Instead of thinking that you will be in good hands and will get a definite diagnosis, you start to think that you must be really ill.  You forget that it was you that insisted that there was unquestionably something wrong and to give reassurance your doctor obliged you by arranging the visit to the consultant.  You begin to imagine that you are being sent there because the doctor is unsure of what is causing your headaches.  At this stage you are so tense isn’t it likely that you are actually exacerbating the problem by your exaggerated and negative thinking?

Go through your list again and this time, take each statement that you have made and examine it thoroughly.  Isn’t it true that nearly everyone in the world has a headache at some point?  They don’t all die from a brain tumour do they?  Even if the headaches are very, very bad and the sufferer has been sent for an examination, the diagnosis of a brain tumour is relatively rare considering the vast numbers of the population.  Try to undermine all your negative thoughts with facts not imagined possibilities.  You are suffering from anxiety and the headaches are caused by tension.  These will disappear as you apply your relaxation techniques and you become less introspective.

Change you negative thoughts to positive ones as you become more relaxed and in control of your situation and start to enjoy your life again.

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Most people don’t like the thought of dying.  It’s an unknown quantity, something that can’t be measured or related to any other situation that we experience.  The one thing that I do know is that I have never met anyone yet who remembers their actual birth!  Being born is a natural process and so don’t you think that death might be too?  Prior to passing into unconsciousness you are still alive and functioning.  What is it that you’re afraid of?  Is it pain or discomfort?  You have most probably experienced both and coped.  At this point you are still in this world and able to make known your needs.  When you slip into unconsciousness that is the actual moment of death and you will not be aware.  This cannot be so terrifying because you have been doing something similar all of your life.  Slipping into unconsciousness is just like the experience of going to sleep.  You are not afraid of that are you?  You know that one moment you are alert and the next you are asleep.  Yet you are not aware of this moment happening.

Going to sleep is an unconscious act.  You can’t actually make yourself go to sleep.  Sleep is normal, like sneezing when you have a head cold, you expect it to happen.  Sleeping is nature’s way of renewing and recharging our minds and bodies so that we can live a healthy life.  When we come to the end, the winding down is not some traumatic event but an expected conclusion, as natural as birth.  Quite literally we are freed from control or knowledge.  Sleep releases us from all our doubts and fears, anxiety is gone.  It is only when we are awake and conscious that our fears return.  We have lived with the unknown every moment, every day of our lives since we were born and dealt with all that has been thrown at us, so there is no reason to think that death will be any different.

If you happen to have a religious belief then that can be of great comfort. Faith and prayer brings hope and alleviates the distress of parting from loved ones.

Do bear in mind that dying is as natural as being born and that nothing about the experience will register on your consciousness.  Live your life to the full and accept death as a normal conclusion to human existence, similar to all things in creation that have an allotted time span.

Margaret Hawkins.                                                                             25.11.06

One Response to “Illness & Death Phobias”

  1. A very helpful piece that gives me some tools to begin to deal with my anxiety in this particular area

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