Essays

Fighting Off Hypochondria in a Mexican Shaman’s Temazcal

A travel journalist tries to outrun her irrational fear of health ailments, only to confront it square on in Oaxaca.

It’s nighttime in Mexico and I am bracing myself against the evening chill as I pull a flimsy, blue bed sheet tighter around my naked body. I am standing in the front yard of a local shaman’s family home—about an hour outside of Oaxaca City—carrying a bushel of basil and twigs as I walk slowly towards the dome-like structure in their backyard.

I am ushered into what can only be described as a large, stone oven big enough to fit about 14 people sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in a circle. Inside, the smell is sweet and warm as the shaman tosses mezcal on hot rocks to release a smoky steam. This is a traditional “temazcal,” a Nahuatl word coined by the Aztecs to describe a ceremony used by indigenous groups in Mexico as a therapeutic and purifying ritual.

Travel journalist Nikki Vargas struggles with hypochondria. Photo: Cantimplora Travel/Nikki Vargas/

The temazcal mixes intense heat and steam with natural herbs, juices and oils to both cleanse the body and soul of whatever ails it. As a New Yorker and skeptic, I am not confident that a splash of mezcal will be enough to wash away my ailment: hypochondria.

As a New Yorker and skeptic, I am not confident that a splash of mezcal will be enough to wash away my ailment: hypochondria.

In its most basic definition, hypochondria is defined as a person who is abnormally concerned about their health. Hypochondria is not an illness, in the classical sense, but rather is an irrational phobia. Most hypochondriacs—myself included—will fixate on a specific health-related fear. In my case, I have an irrational, all-consuming phobia of heart attacks.

I imagine my hypochondria like a debt collector standing with his trench coat collar pulled up, flicking his cigarette in my direction. It’s been days since he’s waltzed in my door and he is eager to shake me down of any serenity I may be holding on to. As a travel journalist, my hypochondria clashes squarely with the career and persona I’ve cultivated over the years. Despite my best efforts, that damn trenchcoat-wearing goon pops up in the unlikeliest of places. I smell the hint of his cigarette and musky cologne at 37,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean, on a sparsely populated island in Indonesia, on the back of a camel in the Sahara, in the backyard of a shaman in Mexico.

Within minutes of my sitting in the temazcal, I am covered in herbs, fruits, and oils, looking as though I’ve performed a gymnastics routine in a grocery store produce aisle. Rose water is poured on my head and face, chocolate is rubbed on my chest, mandarin juice coats my legs, honey is rubbed into my arms, pineapple is used as a body scrub. Each fruit and herb is a spiritual representation that is meant to take away anxiety or cleanse the soul. Yet, I can feel my hypochondria sliding in the small space, sarcastically smirking as if to say, “you think a pineapple will keep me away.” Just like that my hypochondria is sitting next to me in that remote temazcal, whispering fears into my ear.

Rose water is poured on my head and face, chocolate is rubbed on my chest, mandarin juice coats my legs, honey is rubbed into my arms, pineapple is used as a body scrub.

It’s hot in here, you might get a heat stroke. What if you have a heart attack?

Where is the nearest hospital anyway?

What if you’re allergic to some of these fruits or oils?

What if your throat closes up?

The thoughts alone are pesky, but the fears create psychosomatic sensations. At each question, my body seems to respond. My head feels dizzy at the mention of a heat stroke. My heartbeat quickens at the thought of a heart attack. My chest begins to tighten under the weight of the anxiety. My throat begins to itch at the thought of an allergic reaction. Deep down I rationally understand what is happening to me—I can see each worry and its physical response unfolding in real time—but in the moment, rationality is eclipsed by that hypochondria goon.

It would be easy to blame aspects of my life for my hypochondria. As the daughter of a doctor, I was raised with the sort of worst-case-scenario stories one can only tell if they work triage in an Emergency Room. I remember nights spent at the doctor’s lounge while my dad—a single father then—was moonlighting. I remember growing up surrounded by medical encyclopedias and stethoscopes, equal parts fascinated by medicine and terrified. But even my childhood—which I wouldn’t change for the world—doesn’t seem like enough of an explanation. No, if I had to guess, what terrifies me the most is how little warning it seems we get when illness arises. It is the idea that something could be spreading in your body at this very moment and you could be none the wiser. Heart attacks, in particular, appear to be so sudden and random that the idea of them terrifies me.

Photo: Cantimplora Travel/Nikki Vargas/

Despite my very real anxieties, I am ashamed of my hypochondria. People with diagnosed illnesses are fighting for their life, and I’m boxing with a figment of my imagination. I come to Mexico—as I often do when traveling—to outrun my demons. Yet, here he is, comically out of place in this shaman’s backyard, and all of a sudden, I want to push off the title of travel journalist and crawl under my bed sheet.

I am ashamed of my hypochondria. People with diagnosed illnesses are fighting for their life, and I’m boxing with a figment of my imagination.

This is our routine. Every time this trenchcoat wearing jerk saunters in, I fight like hell to chase him away. I am wrestling with my mind in that sweaty temazcal somewhere in the outskirts of Oaxaca, having a mental Mayweather match. My fight against hypochondria begins with breathing. Deep belly breathing to center the body, slow the heart and calm the brain. Next, I need a distraction—a recommended tactic from my therapist—to pull my attention away from the psychosomatic responses, typically it’s a little ‘fidgeter’ or counting. As I work through my tricks, l notice hypochondria’s grip slacken. The fears begin to clear, my body stabilizes and suddenly I am back in Mexico covered in fruit, listening to a shaman. For a good couple minutes, I was elsewhere, yet not one of my fellow travelers would guess. That’s the thing about anxiety, it exists in the darkest recesses of our minds, hidden in the corners no one thinks to look.

With the temazcal ritual over, I step back into the cool night air feeling lighter than I had a few minutes ago. In the corner of my eye, I think I can see the flash of a beige trench coat as my hypochondria slinks off into the night, knowing he lost this fight. I can almost smell him—cigarette and cologne—floating over the Oaxacan night air, but he is too far gone to be a bother anymore. I know he’ll be back in a couple days when I least expect it, but I know I’ll be ready. As I learn to face my hypochondria, to talk about it openly, to learn about anxiety management, and to master techniques to calm myself down, I am becoming a worthy adversary.