Why You’re Freaking Out About Your Teeth

In the stress of a pandemic, minor ailments suddenly seem terrifying

A man inspects his teeth in the mirror.
Photo: PeopleImages/iStock/Getty Images Plus

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 something — there’s a lump in my throat or a mole on my skin, or I’m walking by someone and they cough, or I see a report on the news that a healthy person died of Covid-19.”

Some health anxiety is a good thing. It’s a mechanism we’ve evolved to keep ourselves safe, and the brain is always doing periodic scans to make sure everything in the body is copacetic. But when we’re being bombarded by thoughts and images of illness, that protective mechanism can go haywire, firing off warning signals for minor anomalies.

This can happen even if you don’t have an existing issue with anxiety, and the pandemic can be a trigger even if the connection isn’t an obvious one. Uncertainty breeds fear, and that fear can manifest in strange or indirect ways — maybe the stray cough here and there doesn’t freak you out, but a fresh bruise sends you down a WebMD rabbit hole.

Once your thoughts start to spin out, it can be hard to reel them back to a calmer place. Health anxiety is a bit of a vicious cycle, as Goodman explained in a blog post for the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. “As you imagine the worst,” he wrote, “your body’s alarm system sounds off in the form of symptoms of anxiety (racing heart, tightness in the chest, difficulty breathing, jitters, tingling, lightheadedness, nausea, stomach discomfort, sweating, headaches, etc.) giving your imagination additional fuel.”

In other words, the symptom makes you anxious, and the anxiety creates the symptom. And the fact that Covid-19 is a very collective experience of anxiety means we’re taking cues from each other to keep up that type of hypervigilance. “A lot of people are afraid, and everyone’s living in this feedback loop,” Goodman says. “We’re all just bouncing our anxieties off one another.”

Ironically, the process of rejoining the world — if done safely and carefully — can help beat back those anxious thoughts by acting as a sort of exposure therapy. “You might start off by walking around your neighborhood. Then hang out with friends, at least six feet apart. When nothing bad happens, you think, ‘Okay, that seems fine. I’ll do that again,’” Goodman says.

Getting back to some semblance of regular life can also be a signal to your psyche that it’s okay to think of symptoms the way you used to — that is, with less alarm and less intense rumination and with the understanding that sometimes a sore jaw is just the result of a stress clench.

Kate is a freelance journalist who’s been published by Popular Science, The New York Times, USA Today, and many more. Read more at bykatemorgan.com.

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