In Like a Lion

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Missing the soothing waters of the Gulf!

So February absolutely flew by! Between a quick trip to Montreal as part of Sean’s Christmas gift, and my BFF vacation to Mexico, it’s hard to believe that March is already in full swing. I have to admit, I missed having specific goals in February like I did in January. Being busy is good, but the OCD in me loves rules, guidelines, and deadlines!

Coming back from Mexico, I was hit with the infamous stomach bug that travelers often face when heading South to resorts. So I went back on the IR and couldn’t exercise immediately following my return to Canada. This was at first hard to accept because there were so many times on vacation where I’d look at photos of myself in a bikini and be disgusted at what I saw. I hated my stomach. In some pictures it would look OK, but in others all I saw was fat. I was so embarrassed of myself. I thought I had no business in a bikini.

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One of many photos of myself that left me feeling horrible about my body. In hindsight, I realize how foolish I am to judge so harshly.

Whenever I get sick I struggle so much with being “forced” to do things differently. I like to do things on my terms. So when an illness keeps me from running, biking, or eating what I want, it makes me upset. I get down on myself. I start to think I’m going to lose all of the strength I’ve built up. I wonder how many people I will let down. I think about how it means I’ll be awful at the Ride to Conquer Cancer. One morning when I sat on the couch bawling, and saying all of these things to Sean he asked me “why do you keep piling on?! Why are you doing this to yourself?”

Honestly, I don’t know. Anxiety just catches me sometimes and gets on top of me. When I am sick, it’s harder to fight it. It makes it easy to think I will never get healthy again. Then the little voice creeps in and says “what if this is actually some form of cancer? Or other terminal illness?” I become less inclined to challenge my thought cycles. This is why I need to stick to therapy and continue to  get back in the habit of recognizing my destructive thought patterns, so when my defenses are down I can still stand as tall as I possibly can. I can’t let being sick absolutely tear down all of my self-esteem and confidence. Being sick is a reality of life, so I can’t let every stomach ache turn into an immediate death sentence. So right here, right now, I am vowing to DESTROY the month of March!

March Goals: 

  • Try at least one new recipe a week from my new cookbook!
  • Get better at getting up early! (I want to get up earlier during the week to focus more on better breakfasts and possibly even sneaking in some early running)
  • LISTEN to my body! Don’t be afraid to SLOW DOWN (It won’t undo ALL of my hard work)
  • Journal more! (I’ve fallen behind and need to get better at my mood journal and challenging my upsetting thoughts)
  • Get my bike tuned up! (I went to the Toronto Bike Show and am feeling inspired to train hard for the Ride to Conquer Cancer! It’s also made me realize that Spring is nearly here, which means getting outside more!)

I am hoping that having some goals and ideas in mind will help keep me motivated, and continue to force me to focus on other challenges other than just getting in shape. I am also really working to try and shift my thinking in terms of finding “happiness” and “satisfaction”. I need to keep asking myself questions like “Why do I think I look bad in a bathing suit?” “What dictates my feelings about myself?” “Would my life truly be “better” if I thought I “looked better” in a bathing suit?” And so on… so far I’ve started reading “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck” which isn’t a book about being disconnected and uncaring, it’s actually about challenging “positive thinking” and making a case for the beauty of suffering, and carefully selecting WHAT to give a f*ck about. So far I am really enjoying it, and am really using it to constructively think about HOW I value things and why!

To tie this all together – going back to my bathing suit photos. I’ve already started asking myself “Would the vacation have been ANY different if I had looked ‘better’?” The answer is, of course, no! I had an absolute blast in Mexico, and how I looked in a bathing suit, workout gear, shorts, WHATEVER, had no bearing on that. The follow-up question is also one my therapist would likely ask me – if I am so unhappy with how I look; how do I know that my “goal” image would actually satisfy me? If I weighed 10lbs less, would I actually be happier? Would I then say “that’s enough” or would I instead turn my focus to something else to criticize. I think we all know it would be the latter – I’d just continue to find something else to pick on, instead of looking at what I need to appreciate.

And this will be my overall task for March – while I strive to keep improving, I can’t lose sight of what gives my life value and satisfaction now despite whether or not I achieve some of my other goals.

What are you doing to keep yourself motivated through these last final wintery weeks?

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.