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Health check The maladies inside my head

November 18, 2018

WESTPORT — A few months back, I burnt sausage while cooking and the smoke made me so dizzy and scared that I thought I may die.

I called up a friend who assured me that, if I did die, I would be the first person to perish from inhaling burnt sausage, but that kind of rational thought didn’t stop me from thinking I would surely collapse form this new and fatal illness.

I’ve been afraid of illness — both of the very real variety and kinds invented in my mind, for as long as I can remember. On the last day of 1999, my sister told me that if your hand is larger than your face, that means you have cancer.

Thankfully I was in the clear, but when I put my then 1-year-old brother’s hand up to his small face and found it covered nearly the whole thing, I was convinced he had cancer (he did not) and rocked in the new century in a panic.

The word hypochondria, and its earlier derivations, has been used going back to ancient Greece to describe sickness without a specific cause. In 2013, this long-used label was split into two diagnosis by the American Psychiatric Association: illness anxiety disorder and somatic symptom disorder.

“Both are anxiety disorder,” said Barbara Heffernan, a Norwalk-based psychotherapist who often sees patients with illness anxiety or somatic symptom disorder.

The former is characterized by obsessive thinking about having or getting a serious illness, while the latter presents itself more with physical symptoms that aren’t necessarily linked to an identifiable medical condition, Heffernan said.

“Anxiety manifest in our body in a physical way,” Heffernan said, noting unexplained headaches, dizziness and chest pain are common traits of somatic symptom disorder.

People with a history of trauma can have a higher degree of risk for either disorder, so those suffering can be greatly helped by therapy, specifically a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing that can help identify and change harmful thought patterns, Heffernan said.

Just telling someone to change a destructive thought isn’t going to do anything, but identifying behaviors that can help take the mind off the worry — such as going for a run, talking to a friend or watching a movie — will tap into physiological relaxation and beat the cycle of anxiety, Heffernan said.

Looks like I have some work to do. Lucky for me, it’s a great time of year to watch movies.

svaughan@hearst

mediact.com; 203-842-2638; @SophieCVaughan1

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