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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

Hanging Out My Shingles

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“The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together…” ~William Shakespeare (All’s Well That Ends Well, IV, iii)

So seven weeks ago, I wrote these words in a post called Falling Up For A Change: “It looks like I won’t have a day off for the next six weeks. But it’s a good problem to have, I keep telling myself. And six weeks goes by in the blink of an eye, right? I’m still scared and unsure of what the next months will bring…and, I may even fall down again instead of up…

Silly little naive me. Oh it did go by pretty quickly, in retrospect. And I did take a fall alright – I fell waist-deep into the pool of false mindset, believing that I could work and function at the same no-consequences level of my younger self from twenty years ago.

I did actually have one (unforeseen) full day off during those six weeks of working both jobs. What I didn’t count on was the cumulative effect of all the other days I didn’t have off. Add to that recipe the fact that I worked harder physically in that span than I have in quite some time, throw in a significant mental and emotional stress factor, and out popped the last thing in the world I expected:

Shingles.

For those of you that have never experienced shingles, allow me to describe it: for me anyway, it started about ten days ago as a feeling on my left hip near my waist (hence being waist-deep in that pool I described above, get it?) of the skin having been rubbed raw or chafed but when I looked, it wasn’t. It almost felt like burning heat-rash but there was no rash (yet), and it was extremely sensitive to the touch. Then the next morning I woke up with a very itchy area on my stomach just to the left of my bellybutton. Two days after that, I woke up with the same burning skin feeling on my back, again near my waist.

I finally made an appointment to see the doctor the next morning, and I’m glad I did: that morning I went, the little red bumps characteristic of shingles started popping up on my stomach where it had been itchy before. The doctor confirmed it was shingles and started me on anti-viral meds immediately. The rash has continued to grow and spread but the meds have kept it from going crazy. The weirdest part is that the pain on my back has been by far the worst, but no rash has popped out there (and hopefully won’t). Nerve pain is a trip.

You know all those TV commercials you see with burly marines telling you that shingles pain is the worst they’ve ever had? Luckily it hasn’t been that way for me, but it’s definitely not comfortable either. (I’ve known people with much worse cases than me and I have a whole new admiration for you now.) You know those novelty pin-case gift things you see at stores like Spencer’s, where you can put your hand or face in the pins and it leaves an impression? When I sit back against something, it feels like I’m sitting against a panel of those pins and that they’re very sharp. And then every once in a while, it feels like someone’s stabbing me in the back with an ice pick, that’s pleasant. I’ve been trying to go pants-less as much as possible, but that can be a bit awkward.

Shingles

I feel lucky that I caught my case fairly early and got on meds to help with the pain and the rash. I get tired pretty easily and the medication causes some side effects like headaches, but I feel like I may have dodged a real bullet in terms of a more serious case. If you ever start having those sensations I describe above, please get to the doctor immediately! Starting on the meds will decrease the severity of your case and hopefully prevent the lingering long-term pain sometimes seen with shingles. And if you’re over 60, consider getting the shingles vaccine.

I suspected my issue was shingles almost as soon as it started happening, and yet I still waited five days to go to the doctor. I kept hoping it would just turn out to be nothing; I kept saying that I didn’t want to overreact. I knew that shingles in people my age are mostly caused by high stress levels, but I kept telling myself that I hadn’t felt that stressed over the past two months. Yes, I knew I’d been overworking myself at pretty tough levels recently in terms of both time and degree of manual labor without much (if any) rest, but I had definitely gone through times of worse stress in my life without ending up with shingles.

The day after I saw the doctor, I was resting at home and feeding my Twitter addiction when I had the following conversation with a friend of mine that lives in England:

tweet

Did you get that? Read it again. Patricia pretty much blew my mind when she said “That Body/Mind connection [is] so strong but not always obvious.” Yes! Our relationship with time can make all the positive OR NEGATIVE difference in the world…so why do we abuse and neglect it willingly? Why do we push ourselves until the body can’t take it anymore?

In retrospect, I believe I made myself susceptible to shingles because I neglected my relationship with time and allowed myself to get worn down, plain and simple. Getting worn down weakened my immune system, which gave the dormant virus a portal. There’s a reason why the work week is five days on, two days off; we need time to rest, recharge, rejuvenate – but I hadn’t been permitting myself to do that. Both my mind and my body were being stressed beyond healthy levels, but I was refusing to listen. I had ignored my mind/body connection, and so now I’m paying the price. I’m just glad it wasn’t something more serious.

Our bodies are amazing vessels that take years of punishment from us and try to protect us anyway. Our brains deliver signals when the system gets overloaded or when there’s a problem, but we don’t always listen. Why not? I remember when I was going through my last separation and divorce, I chose to isolate myself while going through the process, revealing my distress and pain only to my therapist once a week. My body started revealing signs of the severe stress: hives, fatigue, even these weird squiggly lines in my vision that the eye doctor said were signs of impending migraines and 100% stress-related.

So I’m going to try to do a better job of listening to the signals from now on. And scheduling – I’m not going to work seven days a week anymore if at all possible (my internship ended so I’m getting more much-needed rest while I re-group for future opportunities). I’m going to try to not ignore the things that make me feel more balanced and just better in general. And I’m going to try to not get so upset by things that have upset me in the past (like the insane Austin traffic). Easier said than done, I know. But I know I don’t want to get shingles again, that’s for sure, so I at least have to make an effort.

Shameless plug: my friend Patricia in England (from the aforementioned tweeting) is starting her own business called Well Ahead Coaching. She will be partnering with career-minded women to help them re-engage with their career goals, realign with changed priorities, or reinvent themselves after maternity leave. I know Patricia from college, and I have no doubt she’s going to be an extremely successful life and wellness coach. Follow her on Twitter at @wellaheadcoach and sign up on her website for early bird specials on coaching opportunities (especially you readers in the UK!).

I hope all of you have a wonderfully balanced body/mind week. I’m starting mine out with fresh-baked pumpkin bread, so what could be better than that? It’s not a cure for shingles, but it’s a start.

pumpkinbread

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Wanted: A Prescription for Patience

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“Out, dog! out, cur! Thou drivest me past the bounds of maiden’s patience.” ~William Shakespeare (Midsummer Night’s Dream III, ii)

For almost as long as I can remember, I’ve been a pretty impatient person. My Dad read this story at my first wedding: “Over the years, Kristi and I have remembered and recalled one small but very important event from her childhood. It was the time she wanted to learn to jump rope. It would seem that learning to jump rope would be simple, but Kristi, then as now, was impatient with herself and when she first tried it, she got tangled in the rope. She wanted to quit trying to learn how to jump that rope, but I encouraged her to try and try again, and in a short time she was the best rope jumping little girl on the block!”

What he didn’t say was that I think I threw a pretty big temper tantrum, throwing the rope on the ground, making a little fool out of myself with my little girl hysterics. The outcome however was a good memory for me and my Dad, and the moral of the story of course is to persist – to be patient, and with that patience will come success. So I guess I’m wondering though: why doesn’t it get any easier to be patient as we grow up? I still find myself getting impatient all the time – with people, with processes, with life in general. I wish someone could write me a prescription for patience (not that my new high-deductible health insurance would pay for it).

I guess it’s a part of who I am, and while I accept this, I don’t like it. My impatience is usually either accompanied by or results in stress, unhappiness, regret, and even rage (of the road variety). I wonder if impatience is a genetically inherited trait; I tend to think it is, but then maybe I’m just making excuses. And if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of my impatience-induced rudeness, I sincerely apologize. As someone who has said (and believed) in the past “Most people in the world are idiots,” patience with other humans is not my forté, and is definitely something I need to work on.

The one exception to the duration of this character flaw was when I lived in sub-Saharan Africa during my time as a Peace Corps volunteer. Over there, time stands still, literally. If you don’t slow down – both physically and mentally – to match the creeping crawl of life, your impatience will literally drive you insane or you’ll just keel over from stress-induced hysteria. I learned, and even appreciated eventually, how to become a more patient person while I was there. Hakuna matata is real, people.

Unfortunately, that acquired level of patience and “no worries” attitude seemed to shrivel up and die once I arrived back in America – land of the never-ending go-get-’em fast pace of life. Settle in, chase “the dream,” bypass vacations, battle the traffic, worry worry worry. And then before you know it, another decade has passed. Years full of wasted moments that you can never get back. And through all of it, being impatient for…something. Everything.

When I decided a few months ago to make changes and pursue meaning in my life again, I knew that impatience would continue to be a personal foe for me. I spoke to my therapist at the time about perceptions and reality, and giving myself TIME to adjust and pursue the new directions in my life. I expressed worries about how others would perceive me and my efforts – that they’d think I was a “slacker” for quitting my job without having another one lined up. People want to know what I’m doing with “all this time” on my hands. It’s not easy to explain, this transition phase.

I don’t blame others for wanting to know how I’m filling the hours in every day or what the next step of “the plan” is – but as I told someone the other day, sometimes there just isn’t that much to tell right now. It’s not that I mind the questioning so much, because I think that’s part of normal human nature to be curious, but I then start to feel guilty somehow that I don’t have a perfect outline to hand to them that will make them feel better about all this change (because from my end, I usually feel pretty fine about it). I’m learning to be comfortable with saying “I’m not sure” or “I don’t know.” It’s ok to not know how something is going to turn out!

Yes, it is very nice to not have to trudge back and forth from the miserable job I recently quit. I’m happier than I can say to not have to fight the long and stressful morning and afternoon commutes. But I do find myself getting impatient with the anticipation of “what’s next.” I’m impatient that I haven’t heard back yet about the internship I applied for a few weeks ago. I’m impatient that a part-time job I’ve been anxiously waiting for hasn’t been posted yet. I’m impatient for the 2014 Tour de France to get here, now that I’m in withdrawals from the Tour that just finished…

Each day I feel like I make a few more small strides towards an UNunhappy future, but I also don’t want to discount the here-and-now part of the journey. When I get too impatient with myself about where I or others think I should be at this stage, it inevitably leads to more stress and distress. I love to tick the “completed” boxes on my to-do lists, and those lists help guide me with goals and objectives, but letting my lists get too long and out-of-control is something I need to work on.

So instead, I’m trying to be patient with myself and my own expectations, which really are the ones that count the most after all. These new directions and desires I have for my life aren’t going to happen overnight, or in a few weeks, or even in a few months. Giving myself time is ok. The days fly by so quickly though don’t they? We get so caught up in the “down-the-road” goals that we sometimes gloss over what’s right in front of us, right now.

The favorite in-front part of my day today was a fromage sandwich on a fresh-baked baguette from a new-found French cafe and getting to know the owner, a nice lady from France. What was yours?

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

PS: The family klutz gene (which I know IS inherited) struck strong this past week, so I just wanted to pass along get-well wishes to my three ailing family members:

  • My Mom, for her hairline-fractured leg she was awarded after slipping on a watery sidewalk at an Oklahoma casino;
  • My nephew Truman for a river rock-induced gargantuan foot slice that took 9 stitches to close; and
  • My nephew Wyatt for a bad tongue laceration inflicted by a spectacular chin fall from the kitchen table.

At my brother’s prompting, the rest of us are considering rolling ourselves in bubble wrap just to be safe.

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