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.
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.