Superstition, Hypochondria, and What My Anxiety is Actually Telling Me

My therapist thinks I’m superstitious about my anxiety. The other night, I admitted to her a ritual I go through daily that, while it wouldn’t surprise those close to me, I haven’t necessarily outlined in detail. I’m a hypochondriac, and every day I diagnose myself with a different ailment. A headache quickly becomes a brain tumor, a pulsation somewhere in my body an aneurysm, a new freckle, skin cancer. I can spend hours fixated on my diagnosis; ultimately despairing as my thoughts turn toward all the things I won’t get to do by the time of my inevitable, untimely death.

“You’re superstitious,” she says as I realize, saying it out loud, how much of my actual life, my days in a healthy, active body, I’m losing to this ritual. “You’re worried that the one day you don’t mentally draw the ritual out to your demise, will be the day the imaginary ailment kills you.”

The ritual has evolved over time. In high school, my best friend and I reasoned that if we told the other, out loud, what we were afraid of, it wouldn’t come true. “It’s lung cancer today,” I’d announce gravely, tying up each of our household landlines as I described my symptoms and allowed her to gently bring me back to the reality of my healthy body.

Now, the ritual exists mainly in my head, although most nights I do turn to my boyfriend and start with, “my leg…” Stop, he’ll say, before I can detail the imaginary blood clot that’s taken over the last 30 minutes of my thoughts.

But, my anxiety asserts, what if it is a blood clot? What if today, it’s real, and you keep your mouth shut, and then the paramedics come and he has no way to guide them to the truth, to help aid my recovery by telling them swiftly, it’s a blood clot, she told me, so they can then do whatever you do to fix a blood clot?

It’s an exhausting cycle. My therapist thinks I’m wasting my creativity; day after day coming up with fatal conditions instead of writing, drawing, thinking.

“I think about how the time I spend talking myself down could be spent building myself up—new skills or talents, more frequent output…”

How can you harness this brain power, this creativity? She’ll ask.

“…write a book about death?” is my honest response.

She’s skeptical, and I’m not serious, but God knows I’ve spent enough time imagining my own demise to fill a novel.

The next day, I think about our conversation. What could I do with the time I spend fearing the future? If the ritual weren’t a part of my routine, if WebMD wasn’t a frequently visited website.

I think about how the time I spend talking myself down could be spent building myself up—new skills or talents, more frequent output…I’d even take watching an episode on Netflix without my worried brain distracting me from a show’s mind-numbing content.

Maybe I can’t rid myself of anxiety, but I think about what it would take not to rely on the superstition, the rituals—to let them go. Because at the root of letting go is fear, fear of what unknown rituals might take the place of my self-diagnoses; fear of the unknown, which is just what anxiety is. And just maybe, the fear is larger than what if it’s worse? Maybe the fear is a reckoning with my full potential, what might happen if I spent more time doing and less time trudging through a years’ old process. I know that there’s benefit in digging beyond the ritual itself. I know the process begins with acknowledgment and desire to change. And maybe, for today, that’s enough.

Featured image by Davide Ragusa

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