Anxiety & Depression Due to Fear of Illness

A 30-year-old man walked into my office with a forced smile. George had been in one form of therapy for 15 years from the beginning of his depression. About 7 years ago, he had his first anxiety attack at work. He thought he was going to die and was rushed to the hospital where he was administered anti-anxiety medication. Gradually he started feeling afraid of getting diseases. His greatest fear was catching AIDS through sexual intercourse with a woman.

He changed his psychologist and started seeing a cognitive therapist. That lasted 6 years. He was also taking three different medications for depression, anxiety and for his obsessive fear of illness.

When he came to see me he had recently broken up with his girlfriend. He had difficulty maintaining a relationship because of his obsession with contracting AIDS. He said that he talked about his depression, anxiety and fear of illness every day to his parents who were taking care of him in their home. They would comfort George and reassure him that he shouldn’t take life too seriously.

However, despite 15 years of therapy, medications and parental support, George had an average of 3 anxiety attacks every single day. On top of that he was deathly scared of getting an STI and felt totally depressed.

The first thing I asked George to avoid was talking about his feelings to his parents. I explained to him that when his parents listened to him, they do that because they loved him. However, every time he talked to them about his sad or scary thoughts, he was telling them that he is an incapable person. His parents also, by listening to him and reassuring him, were indirectly, telling him that he is incapable. Therefore, I asked him to avoid that and instead to write his thoughts down on paper.

If you really think that you must complain about how much you are suffering, I told him, then tell your parents that they should not interrupt you at all. Every night, after dinner, have your parents sit and listen to you describing your suffering. Then begin telling them about your sad feelings and about your all your fears. But they must only listen attentively without uttering a single word. When you are finished, you all stand up and go about what your daily routine without mentioning anything related to your problems at all.

A week later, George said that he had avoided talking to his parents the way he used to do. For three nights he had talked to them about his depression, anxiety and phobia of AIDS but then he said he didn’t feel like repeating it. In total it had been four days since he talked about his problems. I asked him to continue this new ritual I had outlined after dinner, only if he felt like it. He was also to continue writing about his fears on paper. We scheduled another session in two weeks.

George came back a bit surprised. His depression had diminished drastically and so had his anxiety attacks. Before he had 3 anxiety attacks daily, but it had gone down to only 4 per week.

He had stopped talking to his parents because he didn’t feel he needed to. He had judiciously written about his fears of appendicitis, AIDS and death. Curiously as he was writing in details about these fears, his anxiety had diminished. I asked him to continue with these tasks for another two weeks.

A few days later George contacted me because his anxiety had increased. A girl had given him oral sex and he had gotten very scared of catching AIDS. I instructed George on how to avoid his obsessive doubts and fears. In the following months George was able to enter a new relationship without anxiety about AIDS or any other diseases. If he occasionally felt some anxiety, he didn’t rush home as he did before. He managed to stay at work and overcome it. He bought a car and got ready to move out of his parents’ home. Six months later I called him and he said: “these past six months has been marvelous”.