When You Can’t Trust Your Body

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This will now be my third Bell Let’s Talk Day posting. The first one, “When My Body Is My Worst Fear” was my honest admission that I have anxiety and have been dealing with some form of mental health issue since my teen years. Last year, I wrote “What Talking Taught Me” as a way to express my gratitude, as well as share lessons learned in my journey to good mental health. One thing is certain – the best decision I have ever made about my own mental wellness is speaking up. Last year with my article, I hoped to show others suffering in silence that things can change.

This year, I wanted to go back and talk about what it’s actually like to suffer from health anxiety in particular, and the way my mind works when it comes to my body. I find what helps most to break the stigma around mental illness is talking through our experiences. Through this, we can find common ground with people, and find common solutions. Supporting each other is key to recovery, and what better way to do that than through understanding.

One of the things I continue to struggle with most is trust. I don’t really know when to believe the “signals” my body is sending me. I’ve spent so many years terrified of every sneeze, ache, twinge, spasm, and headache, that it sometimes is impossible for me to tell the difference between a real symptom and a fake one brought on by my anxiety. How vigilant do you consider yourself of your own aches and pains? Do you know how many times a day you feel a pain in your side? How about a spasm somewhere? Do you regularly check your heart beat? Do you remember the last time you had a headache? Do you know exactly how many times you sneezed this morning? Usually, I know the exact answers to all of these questions. This over-monitoring has led me to be incredibly sensitive about any little thing that happens with my body.

It might seem that being acutely aware of your body is a GOOD thing, but anxiety takes advantage of this. Just Google a phrase like “anxiety causing fake symptoms” and see what comes up. Pages and pages of studies, patient questions, etc, of people dealing with symptoms brought on solely because of anxiety. YES – Your body is actually capable of tricking you into thinking you are truly experiencing something! The flip side is, of course, that when my body produces real symptoms – back pain, sore knee, fever, my brain begins to work in overdrive thinking of the WORST.POSSIBLE.OUTCOMES.

Speaking of Google – fellow health anxiety sufferers please STOP asking the internet to diagnose your symptoms. Take it from me – I have convinced myself I have everything from MS to a brain tumour just based on what some sites tells me. It’s a habit that took years to break, but I am so thankful I have (to an extent…). Also – know when to stop reading an article if it’s going to trigger you. I have lost count of how many stories I’ve read about people dying of cancer that have led me on furious Internet searches looking for what symptoms the person had, how they had it diagnosed, etc. I sometimes now have to force myself to stop reading, so I don’t get caught in the cycle.

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But getting back to trusting in my own body, I want to walk through an example and in this case it’s something I have dealt with since being a teenager – heart palpitations. I still remember the first time I ever had one. I was in the movie theatre, eating nachos with gooey cheese when suddenly I had this bizarre flutter in my chest. It scared the hell out of me. It felt like my heart had stopped beating for a split second and then suddenly kick-started itself. I actually stopped eating my nachos entirely because I was scared THE NACHOS were causing my heart to beat irregularly (because you know… somehow nachos can instantly impact my organs like that). I told my parents about it when I got home, and my mom told me that is what her palpitations felt like. Years later, in 2013, I had them tested. That was when I was in a very hypersensitive state, and I was having a lot of severe anxiety symptoms. My palpitations were increasing in frequency and I was terrified that I was on the verge of a heart attack.

The doctor sent me home with a monitor, and anytime I felt a palpitation I was to hit a button, and the monitor would record the event. I had to wear electrode pads on two places on my chest, and somehow had to disguise all the wires every day because I was so embarrassed that I was walking around hooked up to a machine. The results all eventually came back clear – my palpitations are benign. Both my family doctor and therapist at the time explained to me that palpitations are often caused by stress and anxiety. Even just THINKING about palpitations can trigger them. If I calmed down, they would start to become less and less frequent. Easier said than done when at the time I was spending most of my day paying close attention to my pulse, heart beat, and any sensations that could possibly be a palpitation. Breathing exercises to calm myself down rarely worked because I actually got SCARED as I performed them. I became so focused on what my breathing sounded like, and how hard my heart was pumping that I actually was getting MORE anxious as I tried them.

But your heart is important – quite literally without it, you die. So when it has fooled you in the past, how do you really know when it needs real attention? And then begins the next struggle – deciding when to go to the doctor. It’s a real fine line for people with health anxiety. Some, and this once included myself, go to the doctor for every symptom they feel. But you eventually wear out your welcome and the doctor can begin to tune you out and dismiss your fears. Which of course, only fuels your unrelenting suspicions that something is SERIOUSLY wrong with you. So, I set “standards” for going to the doctor (outside of obvious emergencies, like a possibly broken limb or a high fever).

  • Have my symptoms been going on for more than a week? 
  • Are they getting progressively worse and worse as the days/hours go by?
  • Have I had this before? What did the doctor say then? 
  • Can this be explained by anything I have recently done? 
  • Do I have this symptom even when I am not thinking about it? 

See that last question – how often have you had to ask yourself that? For many of you, the answer is probably never. That’s the luxury of trusting your body. You KNOW it isn’t tricking you, because it’s never done it before. For me – I have to be certain “it’s not just all in my head” before going to the doctor. Because I’m always afraid that when I do go to the doctor, I’ll be dismissed because I can’t actually prove the symptom is real.

And getting dismissed is the hardest part. Because at the end of the day – all of this boils down to a fear of dying. More specifically – dying at the result of something I could have stopped. I always think – well what if this stomach ache is actually the beginning of stomach cancer, and if I catch it now I will survive? Or – what if this headache is actually a stroke and if I don’t get to the hospital in the next hour I will die? And even – if I don’t ask the doctor about my heart TODAY, what if I die in my sleep tonight? As I’ve said over and over, anxiety is a control freak. Anxiety makes you think you need to control EVERYTHING so you can stop worrying about EVERYTHING. By controlling my health, I will control what kills me.

So while I have improved over the years, it is still an ongoing battle with myself about when to raise alarm bells and questions about various symptoms and experiences I have with my body. I wish I knew definitively when my body was lying. I wish there was an app I could open that would say “Just your anxiety. You’re 100% fine today” or “You’ve just got a slight cold. You’re operating at about 75% today”. But until then, I’ll stick to my plans of regular physicals, working on calming my anxiety, and avoiding asking the Internet what my symptoms mean. I also have to work on forgiveness – because if I do get really sick, I have to be able to remind myself that it isn’t my fault. As badly as I want to, I can’t control everything – especially  how I’ll die. And then, I just have to hold onto the hope that things will slowly get better, and I’ll slowly stop being afraid.

Thank you for reading! If you are just reading my blog for the first time – welcome! I hope you will all join me on Twitter today to raise money, and awareness, for Mental Health. Remember to use #BellLetsTalk so Bell will donate money towards initiatives in this country to help those in need. 

 

 

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What Talking Taught Me

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It was nearly a year ago today that I opened up about my struggles with depression and anxiety. Today has been on my mind a lot. I’ve thought a lot about what to write, how I want to move forward, and how to encourage others to use this day as the beginning of their road to good mental health.

So, here are the top lessons I have learned from opening my mouth on #BellLetsTalk Day.

Opening Up is the Hardest Part

Admitting you need support is difficult. I waited until I was 29 to tell the world what I was going through. Before then, it was reserved only for partners and maybe a couple friends. Even then, no one knew the true depth of my pain. It’s easy to come up with conversations and scenarios in your mind of how you will tell people. The worst part of having anxiety, though, is that your mind will then come up with 100 reasons why you should keep your mouth shut: “Everyone will think you’re lying”, “no one will want to be your friend anymore”, “you won’t be loved anymore”, “you’ll be made fun of behind your back”, “people at work will think less of you and you won’t get promoted”, “nothing will change anyways, you’ll always be like this”, “your problems are stupid, there are people out there with REAL problems”, and it goes on and on. Before you know it, you’re crying into a bag of chips and feel a lot worse about yourself than when you started. I even know that feeling where you desperately want to say the words “I need help” but your lips feel like they’re sealed shut. I know it feels like you’d rather jump out of your skin and run away forever than have to actually verbalize those words. It’s horrible. It’s hard. But it’s worth it. Once you get over that hurdle, you will find your journey will begin, and you will be so happy to have the weight of the world off your shoulders.

(Side note, those “reasons” your mind comes up with are all why it’s so important for us to change the conversation around mental illness. Stigma kills and hurts in so many ways. By speaking up, and being supportive, you may not change the entire world, but you will change a small part of it.)

You Will Stumble, and Fall

No one is perfect, and no one is cured immediately. Sadly, getting to a place of good mental health takes a lot of work and dedication. I wish it were easy. I’d give anything to just snap my fingers and have all of my obsessive thoughts disappear. But remember, this is why you are strong for getting help, and not weak. The most important thing, though, I have really begun to learn is to not be too hard on myself. The key, for me, when I fall down is to have a plan for getting back up. For example, I am now keeping an Exercise Journal to hold myself accountable for getting back into shape. I mark off days in the calendar with a giant X so I can look back at the month and go “YEAH – Look at what I’ve achieved!”. That sense of accomplishment will help erase your feelings of failure. Will I miss a workout some days? Of course. Will I eat a cupcake instead of fruit? You bet. Just remember to step back, and forgive yourself. You’re not the only one to stumble.

Keep Busy

Find hobbies, and things to help calm your mind. I love my colouring books for example. I can’t meditate – my brain is always in overdrive and I can’t turn it off long enough to meditate properly. But colouring does force me to focus and not think about anything else except which marker to use next. I have also bought some knitting needles and plan to start giving that a try! I like being creative, so those options work best for me. Maybe you will find comfort in something else. You will find that the more you find joy in a small hobby, the less time you find wrapped in pain. And keep a journal! Write down your fears and challenge them when they don’t come true. Write down what made you happy each day. Write down something new you did, or learned. Write, write, write. Remind yourself each and everyday that it isn’t always bad. That even on the darkest days you can find a small bit of light. Even writing “I didn’t cry today” should be remembered as a big moment for a lot of us with depression and anxiety. Write it down so you don’t forget the good.

Turn Off Your Phone

This year, I am making a conscious effort to be checking my phone less and less after I get home from work. Instead of wasting time on social media, I am now researching new recipes, ideas for a balcony garden, or colouring. Now that I am spending less time comparing my life to others, I find myself much happier with who I am. And also, you can’t freak out and get upset over some random Instagram post when you never saw it to begin with. Social media is like gasoline to mental illness’ fire. Turn it off, and you’ll immediately notice a benefit.

Be Mindful 

If you ever find yourself in those never-ending thought cycles, the best way to break it is to instantly focus on exactly what you are doing in that moment. I used to find I would start to have anxious thoughts when doing the dishes. I would mull over moments from the day, and start to get worried about the next day. So I started forcing myself to stop those thoughts and instead think “Now I am washing this butter knife. Now I am rinsing it. It goes into the utensil holder on the drying rack”. It sounds tedious. It sounds boring. And it is, but it works. Do that for the remainder of the activity and you will forget about what was bothering you in the first place. And if it comes back, start it all over again. It also means re-engaging yourself in conversations with friends, loved ones, and co-workers. Start to make memories again. I know that when I spend so much time absorbed in my own thoughts, I find I barely remember where the days go.

Get Sweaty

Exercise in any shape or form can do wonders for depression and anxiety. There’s endless studies about the science behind why, and I’ll leave you to Google, but you really can’t beat a good workout to help calm your brain and unleash a lot of pent up energy. I know for depression, it’s often hard enough to get out of bed let alone go for a run, but maybe start small and promise yourself you’ll go for a walk each day, or do some yoga in the living room. Whatever you do, I’ve always found that it makes the biggest difference in my life.

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Remind Yourself You are Valuable 

I used to write myself really intense motivational messages like “YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL. YOU ARE STRONG. YOU ARE HEALTHY” and read them over and over again before bed. You might laugh, but it works. Repeating those mantras that YOU have value as a person and that YOU deserve happiness will help you see that you are worth fighting for. For a long time I didn’t think I was any of those things. I thought I was a worthless loser. But here I am, stronger than ever before with a purpose in life. Write down what you need to tell yourself to kick yourself into gear and find your confidence. And read it until you believe it deep into your core.

And finally, and this one is the most important: YOU ARE NOT ALONE. 

The moment I started talking, people starting sharing their struggles with me. It was incredible. And also very sad to know how many people I knew were also hurting. But there’s a strange comfort in numbers. It means you have people in your corner. It means that someone else can understand. It means someone else can help. There’s nothing defective about YOU. We’ve all comes across some form of mental illness in our lifetime. YOU are not broken beyond repair. WE are all here for you.

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So in a year, I’ve turned things around little by little. I still have my down days, and I still have those nagging thoughts that sometimes rear their ugly heads. But I battle through and move forward. I find happiness. I find purpose. You can to. Just take everything one step at a time.

Please don’t be afraid to talk, and also don’t be afraid to listen. We all need to change the way we view mental illness. It’s time we all find the love, comfort, and happiness we deserve.

Thank you for reading, and please share and spread the word to help those suffering in silence. Show them you care.

I’ll be tweeting about #BellLetsTalk all day today, join me and let’s raise some money for mental health initiatives in Canada. 

 

One for the Ladies

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This month I faced another fear, and made it through. At the end of August I went for my yearly pap smear, and to my horror I received the dreaded phone call “you have high grade abnormal cell changes, and you’ll be required for a colposcopy”. I had a colposcopy done last year when I had low grade changes. My biopsy thankfully came back clear and I was discharged. This time felt worse. I wanted a clean bill of health. I didn’t want more people poking around downstairs. But, that wasn’t my reality. And the fear started to sink in.

Getting told you have an abnormal pap doesn’t mean cancer. It can be anything. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have an STD either. Through my intense Googling over the years, I’ve learned that abnormal paps come from a wide variety of cell changes. But most importantly, the pap is there to help screen you for cells that could become cancerous over time. But for many of us, just hearing the word “abnormal” is enough to trigger anxiety. It’s scary. For me, it leads my mind right to a cancer diagnosis. So as I waited for my appointment at the colposcopy clinic, I did my best to keep myself from totally panicking.

The first step was telling people about the results, and seeking support. I couldn’t keep this to myself. I needed to know I wasn’t alone, and that if things went south that people would be there for me. I needed to hear stories of how others went through similar situations and are OK. My friends were amazing at helping me to stay calm.

It also helped to remind myself that this is exactly why women get pap smears, and why they’re so important. We do this so we can catch things early. Now, I know sometimes people aren’t always so lucky. I know someone right now going through treatment for cervical cancer and she did all the right things. Sadly, life sometimes kicks you in the crotch. I had to just hope that this wouldn’t be my story. I just had to hope that this is just the pap doing its job, and our health care system working in my favour to get early prevention. Therefore there was nothing to fear, because catching it early means not catching it too late. If I wasn’t taking these steps, then yes, I was allowed to worry.

It saddens me to read online stories of how many women are too scared to get their paps done because they fear the results. Or that they avoid their colposcopy for the same reason. Some use the excuse “I am just too busy and keep forgetting”. And assuming “everything is fine” isn’t OK either. I have zero symptoms that would point to me having abnormal results. And this is why I have decided to write about something so personal. We can’t be afraid, or not make time for ourselves ladies. In this case, my anxiety is potentially saving my life because it’s caused me to be diligent about doctor’s appointments. In Canada, especially here in Ontario, we have access to paps covered by our health care system. We are so lucky to have this type of access. We need to be open and honest with ourselves about our reproductive health. Don’t be afraid to go to the doctor and ask about any changes related to your body, or to ask for a checkup if you haven’t had one in awhile. The doctors won’t judge you. They’ve seen it all and you likely don’t have the craziest story to tell. They just want to know how busy your sex life is (or not busy in some cases), if you wear protection, and if you’ve had any changes. This helps them figure out what could potentially be causing any issues. Even if you haven’t had any changes, go get checked if you’re due! And ladies, get the HPV vaccine. You can still get it into your late 20s and 30s. I just had mine done this year because I couldn’t afford it when I was younger. Ask your health benefits provider if it’s covered. Even if it isn’t covered, save up for it, and then claim it on your income tax. It’s worth potentially keeping you protected from the really nasty strains of HPV. But please stop being scared. Please put yourself first. And let’s talk to each other. Keep each other reassured, and share our similar stories. It’s really a shame that so many women feel they can’t openly talk about their reproductive health with each other.

So time ticked on for me, and as the day approached for my exam, I went through a lot of emotions. I was ashamed if it was HPV related. I felt dirty. I was scared. What if it was more serious than the pap let on? I was anxious. I just wanted it over with so I could get rid of these cells. I was worried that if I did need LEEP or laser treatment, that I wouldn’t be able to exercise for a month. I am already struggling with losing weight, the last thing I needed was a month of not being able to bike or run. I was depressed. How did I let this happen to myself? But I was also hopeful, which is an emotion I usually don’t have leading up to a medical appointment. That really shows how far I’ve come. I was hopeful that the doctor would reassure me and tell me I wasn’t sick.

Thankfully, that’s exactly what happened. I was told the abnormal cells were quite a small area, and the doctor even told me he thought it was a stretch to call them “pre-cancerous”. He took a sample for biopsy. We’ve set an appointment six weeks from now for a LEEP procedure, but he feels confident that I won’t need it. I feel so much relief. Now, I just get to wait for my biopsy results, and I feel hopeful. And again, I often reflect on those who aren’t so lucky. Female reproductive cancer is no laughing matter. Getting clear test results just reminds me that along my journey to good mental health a strong part of that is embracing the health and wellness I have now, because anything can happen and one day I may not be so lucky. One day I will face adversity. So I need to enjoy myself, be happy, and be vigilant now.

And because things could have turned out so differently, doesn’t mean you (or gentlemen, someone you care about) shouldn’t go. Yes, I get scared about my health. I fear death. But I will never keep myself from getting help. My fear of not knowing far outweighs my fear of finding out.

Take care of yourself ladies. And if you need to talk, I am always here.

Thank you for reading as always. If you want to learn more about pap smears, their results, and next steps I found this website to be very helpful. But always talk to your doctor. If you don’t have one and are a resident of Ontario, you can get on a waiting list here