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Hulk Headaches & Health Anxiety

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“So sick I am not, yet I am not well…” ~William Shakespeare (Cymbeline, IV, ii)

I haven’t been feeling too great lately.  Nothing life-threatening or too deeply dire, just lots of mostly minor maladies here and there that add up to an overall sense of suckiness.  Headaches, weird muscle aches, earaches, toothaches, overall body aches…it’s getting pretty tiring, both physically and mentally.  I seem to have a few good days where everything seems in pretty good working order, but it’s inevitably then followed by about a week of bad days where I feel crappy…and then the cycle repeats itself.

I know no one likes to be sick or feel bad, and I realize there are many people out there that are dealing with a LOT worse than me, but the fact remains that when I don’t feel good, I seem to just…shut down.  Being sick or hurt for me presents a mental roadblock that is pretty tough for me to push aside.  You see, I have a history of some pretty impressive health anxiety.  It used to be a lot worse than it is now, and I’ve brought it under manageable control with the help of a life-saving therapist – but I continue to grapple with it and have come to accept that it will probably always be a part of who I am and something I have to work to overcome.

For someone with health anxiety, the whys and whens and hows and what-ifs threaten to overwhelm a person when they get sick or hurt, or have any “unusual” symptoms: Why is this happening to me, what’s the exact, specific, pinpointed cause?  (Because if I know the cause, I can then hopefully prevent it from happening again.)  How and when did I catch this cold, or get this headache, or become short of breath?  What if this headache is really the beginning of meningitis?  What if this weird muscle spasm in my armpit is a sign that I have clogged heart arteries?  What if those recurring cramps in my legs are because of life-threatening blood clots?  When we can’t get answers to these questions (which is most of the time), it just makes our anxiety worse, which then leads to more stress, which then causes even more health problems.

Stopping that fatalistic self-talk as it begins and trying to not immediately imagine the worst possible scenario is part of what I learned and practiced through therapy, back when the anxiety was at its worst.  I was also not allowed to look up any of my symptoms on the internet, so as to not induce even more panic and feed the medical monster.  I was banned from taking my pulse more than once/day or at times other than during exercise.  Ultimately, I decided I had to quit my job as a health counselor where I talked about horrible health problems all day every day (the worst possible environment for me) and take myself out of that personal mine field. 

(Source: criticalscience.com)

(Source: criticalscience.com)

For the most part, I still am able to enlist those calming strategies and avoid the full-blown panic attacks and vicious worry cycles that I used to incur on a pretty frequent basis.  I remember my therapist’s teachings: to tell myself what the most likely and unlikely scenarios are, and then to logically handle the symptom and situation from there.  To realize that everyone – especially as we get older – has aches and pains as the normal part of life.  To also realize that life doesn’t always come with an explanation pamphlet for every scenario we encounter, and to learn to live with not always knowing why (as crazy as it may drive me).  I’m happy to say that I’m no longer a frequent flier at the doctor’s office, but I also still believe in timely visits for those issues that truly do warrant it and not ignoring what could be serious (like the stabbing/piercing ear pain I had this past week).

But – I am kind of a worrier by nature anyway, something else that was in the genes and I just have to accept and deal with.  Which means, that even when I am able to not panic out loud about an illness or strange symptom, I still quietly and subtly worry about it (for both me and for things happening to those closest to me).  Health anxiety quietly hovers in the corner of the dark room that you usually try to keep closed off, but then sneaks out every once in a while when you least expect or want it.  People tease you about it, or avoid talking to you about any health topic whatsoever, in fear that you’ll just have some kind of fit-like meltdown.  (This just makes us feel worse by the way, when we’re working so hard to improve.)

And I admit that even that subdued level of worry is still enough to cause me to focus on the issue more than I should.  I find myself making more mental room for it and sacrificing attention to other things on my to-do list that get waylaid by the worry.  Every once in a while, I allow myself to guiltily look up a new symptom online, and then usually regret it as soon as I see all the uninformed prattle on the chat boards.  I lose my appetite when I worry too much about what’s going on with my physical failings, but maybe that’s normal?  Being “normal” and feeling “good” are what I wish for every day, so I guess I feel let down and anxious when the opposite happens.

As mentioned above, I also know that worrying about my health – or anything really – actually contributes to a negative circle of physiological health effects in and of itself.  Ten days ago I had a spectacular tension headache across the back of my head that lasted for a tight and burning 48 hours; nothing would make it go away but time, but what was most frustrating for me (in terms of figuring out why it was happening) was that I’d been feeling what I thought was relatively tension-free lately!  I have a job that I really enjoy, and my overt stress levels compared to a year ago are practically nil.  But no one can ever be totally stress or worry-free, that’s unrealistic.  Even minor stress levels over things like money, or the future, or family issues, can apparently cause your cranium to feel like it’s being clobbered by the Hulk. 

So, it’s a work in progress, this tempering of my teetering.  I feel alone in my anxiety journey most of the time, and I don’t usually like to talk about it, but I wanted to shed a little light on it today in case someone else out there is also struggling to get a handle on it too.  It can get better, so hang in there.  Get help if you need it.  Figure out the source and root cause of where this anxiety is coming from, as that’s how you’ll be able to start dealing with it.  I’ve been lucky to have a few friends and family and therapists help me through it in the past, but it’s a constant effort that I have to work at mostly just by myself.  Like Pam from ‘The Office’ said, “Pobody’s Nerfect.”  Definitely not me…and I don’t want to be perfect anymore anyway (or nerfect). 

Bonne santé et à la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Le Bel Age of 43

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Last week I attended a social function for the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers group I belong to here in Austin.  There was a good showing of about 20 or so, people of all ages and backgrounds and ethnicities who have served in countries all over the world.  Some of them had literally just returned home from their service a few weeks earlier (with glazed eyes and reverse culture shock); some, like me, had been back for many years.  At one point, I sat down at a table next to another young woman and three young men to chat with them, and learned it was the young woman’s birthday.  After a few minutes, the man directly across the table from her asked her “so, how old are you today?”

You would think that the old-fashioned adage which dictates men should never ask a woman her age had gone the way of the eight-track tape long ago in this age of straightforwardness, but even this young millennial looked at the guy asking her this with more than a little surprise on her face.  She acquiesced though with a flirty laugh and said “Ok I’ll tell you guys how old I am, but it means everyone here also has to say how old they are.  I’m 28 today.”  

Now at this point I began to get a little uncomfortable.  I could tell that all four of them were significantly younger than me.  Was I really going to have to tell them my age?  I pictured the shocked looks that would appear on their faces and perhaps even receiving sad but comforting pats on my ancient hand as I revealed a number that surely their youthful group would consider prehistoric.

One of the guys across the table then said “Oh god, 28…it’s been the worst year of my life so far, I’m 28 too right now.”  And then his friend sitting next to him nodded knowingly in miserable affirmation and said he was 28 too.  Finally the third guy broke the curse and said he was…wait for it…29.  I think they all started talking about this horrible, miserable time in their lives but honestly I didn’t hear any of that…I was too busy thinking of what I was going to say in the next few seconds when it was my turn to answer.

And then suddenly I thought of a clever quip, a way out of having to tell them my age at all but at the same time acknowledging my um, advanced wisdom (yeah that’s it) in a humorous and self-deprecating kind of way.  “What a coincidence, I was 28 when I left to join the Peace Corps!” was on the tip of my tongue as I waited for it to be my turn to complete the round.

Except that moment never arrived.  Which was confusing, because it was my turn, with the briefest of pauses in the conversation, and I think a few eyes even glanced my way for a fleeting moment in fearful apprehension…but then the subject was changed and I was passed over.  Literally.  The subject turned to something else entirely.  I really don’t think they meant anything malicious or mean by it, and I guess I should have been grateful for the reprieve, but the feeling I actually got from the rest of the group was “don’t worry, we know you’re obviously way older than us, so no need to even answer the question.”

But should I have been grateful?  The more I thought about it, the more it gnawed at me.  I’ve never shied away from telling someone my age in the past, so why had I been intimidated at that moment?  Why shouldn’t I have felt at ease with telling them my age, and why shouldn’t they have felt at ease hearing it?  Why did I feel dismissed when I didn’t get the chance to answer the question?

I’m really not sure.  Maybe it was the way the rest of them were talking and laughing and flirting in their loosely-choreographed dance of young life, and I felt somehow excluded from that even though I was right next to them.  It was maybe the first time I’ve actually and tangibly felt what it’s like to be stranded by the proverbial generation gap – but from the older side this time, the one that’s just slightly over the other side of the hill. 

What I wish I’d had the chance to say, now that I’ve thought about it, is this:  I’m 43 years old – which doesn’t make me ancient, it just makes me experienced, and that’s a good thing.  Yes I like Pat Benatar,  Journey and The Go-Go’s, so sue me (I took their cassettes with me all the way to Africa by the way).  No we didn’t have cell phones and laptops and tablets when I did Peace Corps – we were truly unplugged before that was even a catchword, and were lucky to have one (landline) 10-minute phone call every 3 weeks with our families, which cost them a small fortune.  There was no Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or Snapchat…there were only long-awaited letters in plain white envelopes with red and blue borders, and they were our addiction.  When it got dark at night, we didn’t log on, we lit up – our lanterns, that is, so that we could read dog-eared paperbacks by lamp light and listen to BBC on the radio.

It’s been 15 years already since I left to join Peace Corps, so 28 was actually a very memorable and good year for me, because as I mentioned above, that’s how old I was when I left to go serve.  I’m glad I waited until I’d finished grad school and was older to serve – for me personally, it was just the right time in my life to go.  And I’m not sure why the 28th year now apparently has such a bad reputation amongst those presently living it, but all I can say to them is just wait until you’re 43, or 53, or 63, and you’ll appreciate 28 much more than you do now.   Just let it be good.  (Does that make me sound like a crotchety old woman?)

Actually years 28 and 43 have been amazingly similar in my life.  They were both years in which I made huge life-changing decisions and took leaps of faith to start new ventures.  Both were years in which I made (or will make) voyages to the other side of the globe to pursue adventure and change.  Both were years in which I contemplated new directions and committed myself to self-study on things important to me.  Both have been categorized by determination and resiliency.  Now that I think of it, the ages of 28 and 43 have been two of, if not the most, important years of my life so far.

So maybe those youngsters at that table did me a favor after all…they’ve helped me remember and reflect on times that were pivotal in my life.  I’m grateful for that.  Maybe as a thank you I should take them to a Pat Benatar concert.  Or at least give them one of her cassette tapes…

pat-benatar-le-bel-age-big

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

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