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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

Transporting Out of That Pit (And Please Quit Yelling at Me)

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“This babble shall not henceforth trouble me.” ~William Shakespeare (The Two Gentleman of Verona, I, ii)

Last Saturday morning, I had to make an unexpected trip to the Apple store to revive my poor old iPhone after it got hit with a case of iOS 7-itis.  The closest store to me is in an upscale shopping center that is always insanely crowded with both cars and pedestrians.  I parked in a garage, and when I was walking from the parking space to the outside area, a woman in a huge white SUV almost hit me; she was craning her neck around looking for open parking spaces instead of watching out for people crossing, and she had to slam on her brakes when she finally did see me.  As I crossed tentatively in front her and she started to drive away, I gave a polite little wave and pointed to my eyes as if to mime “please watch out for us next time.”

At which point she slammed on her brakes again, rolled down her passenger side window, and SCREAMED at me “Excuse me, I stopped for YOU, you ASS!”  Then she peeled out going full blast – in a parking garage.  I know several other people around me also heard her screaming.

I stared at her in disbelief, my mouth open.  She’d almost hit ME, and she was the one who was upset?  I shook my head, I couldn’t believe someone could be so brazenly rude and say something so mean like that to someone who had done NOTHING WRONG.  The other people around me stared at me, wondering what I’d done to incur such a rant.  My immediate thought was: what is wrong with people?? 

Not so long ago, I probably would have yelled something equally as horrible back at her as she sped away.  But instead, this time I found myself just feeling sorry for that woman.  Whatever was going on with her and in her life must be pretty bad for her to be such a miserable, angry, ticking time-bomb person.  Don’t get me wrong – I hope I don’t have to cross paths with her again.  But I do hope she is able to get a handle on her anger issues sooner rather than later so that others don’t have to face her misplaced wrath as I did.  I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to let go of her anger’s effect on me fairly quickly (although it obviously had an impact on me as here I am writing about it several days later).

I said to someone the other day “I guess we never really know what’s going on in other peoples’ lives,” and isn’t that the truth?  Even with people we see all the time, like coworkers and friends and family members, there may be something happening behind the scenes that is tearing that person’s world apart…and most of the time we never even know that the bottom is falling out from under them.  I’ve been guilty of this myself.  We all do such a good job of hiding and faking and covering and disguising.  And for what? 

The problem is, when you have to work so hard at keeping things under wraps, your psyche usually sprouts pressure-induced leaks that you have no way of stopping.  Those leaks may show up as rage episodes directed at innocent bystanders, or sometimes even physically manifest as stress-induced illnesses or disease.  Sadness, frustration, pain, anger – none of us want to have these emotions much less talk about them.  But speaking just for myself, I know that the times in my life when I’ve admitted I need help to manage life’s downturns, and then sought that help through either a therapist or counselor – well, I credit those professionals with helping to pull me out of the pit, more than once.

There’s no shame in seeking help and kindness from others; in fact, it seems much more shameful to purposefully exclude others from times of personal darkness.  This just leads to more isolation and more anger, which then leads people to lash out like that woman did to me the other day.  Is it possible I’m giving her too much credit?  Maybe instead of going through something awful in her life, she’s just an unhappy bad seed in general.  There are those kinds out there too.

But if you are going through something that leads you to do things or say things (or throw things) that you then regret doing or saying (or throwing)…well then maybe it’s time to let someone else help you too.  It can be anybody, but just don’t suffer in silence alone.  You don’t have to do that.  We supposedly have the power to be more connected to others right now than any other time in history.  So start connecting.

On a totally unrelated note, when I was waiting for my own personal genius in the Apple store a few minutes later (and why in the world hasn’t Apple’s PR team already jumped on that link to Depeche Mode’s most famous song, it would be a brilliant ad campaign for their Genius Bar), I witnessed something amazing: a family at the kids table (who were also waiting for their own personal genius) was cooing over their marvel baby – he could barely stand, had a pacifier in his mouth, and couldn’t have been a year old yet – who was swiping, unaided and unprompted, through pages and apps on an iPad and using his tiny little fingers to open games and perform actual technical functions.  I found my Star Trek nerd self geeking out over this and believing for the first time that the kids being born today might actually be using tricorders and transporters in my lifetime.

transporter1

Make it so, babies.  Engage.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

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