Why You’re Freaking Out About Your Teeth
In the stress of a pandemic, minor ailments suddenly seem terrifying
The following is a brief and incomplete list of innocuous bodily sensations that have recently freaked me out:
- A burning in my thigh that I assumed was a blood clot, having temporarily forgotten I was stung by a bee in that exact spot a few hours earlier.
- A rash on my eyelid that I was briefly convinced was a chemical burn from off-brand hand sanitizer (this is what happens when you touch your face!) but was actually a little patch of poison ivy.
- A soreness in my jaw that I was sure was osteomyelitis, an infection brought on by ignoring my dentist’s suggestion to remove my wisdom teeth six months ago. It took me a few days to realize how tightly I was clenching my jaw every time I read a new report about surface transmission or antibodies.
With conversations about sickness — and fear of sickness — unrelenting in the news and daily life, I’ve found myself on extra-high alert, vigilantly monitoring all the ways my body just feels “off.” Each new itch or ache triggers its own new spiral of worry as I convince myself I need to see a doctor and then anxiously weigh the pros and cons of going to a doctor’s office in the middle of a pandemic.
As the country’s gradual reopening chugs along, it’s a calculus plenty of people are doing right now: Am I being paranoid? Is this something serious? Should I get it checked, or is it safer to wait and see?
General anxiety has grown exponentially in the wake of the pandemic — so much so, in fact, that the country is currently facing a shortage of the anti-anxiety drug Zoloft — and health anxiety has grown right along with it. That condition, once known as hypochondria, causes healthy people to blow small symptoms out of proportion, convincing themselves that something is dangerously wrong despite the lack of evidence. A bee sting becomes a blood clot. A slightly irritated throat becomes a dangerous virus.
“With generalized anxiety disorder, people worry about a vast range of things,” says Los Angeles–based therapist Ken Goodman, who specializes in anxiety disorders. But with health anxiety, he says, “a specific worry is triggered by…