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. 

 

 

#JanGoals: Week Three Recap

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So I faced my first real hurdle this week – I injured my knee! It happens to me usually once or twice a year. My knees have caused me issues off and on since high school. (And yes, in true health anxiety fashion I’ve had the issues diagnosed/treated repeatedly). Usually what happens is I do “something” to it, and BOOM, my knee begins to feel tight, it sometimes swells, and becomes painful to bend. Sitting at my desk becomes awkward, stairs are now the enemy, and it just sucks. So cue me being incredibly frustrated because I’ve been off to such an awesome start this January.

And this is the thing – I don’t like being forced to rest. I am terrible at it. On Wednesday morning I spent the first couple of hours that I was awake practically screaming at myself (in my head) “YOU HAVE TO REST TONIGHT. IT WILL BE OKAY IF YOU DON’T WORKOUT. YOU MIGHT MAKE THE INJURY WORSE IF YOU PUSH TOO HARD”. You can ask my mom – even as a kid I hated staying home from school if I was sick. I hate thinking I’ll fall behind. I like to be in control and on top of things. (Classic OCD/anxiety, I know). And it’s also because I hold myself to incredibly high standards. If I tell myself I am working out 5x a week, and I don’t meet that – I consider it a failure. Doesn’t matter the reason.

Obviously – there are ways I can make up for taking a night off. I can double up a workout later this week, for example. And I also know I need to take this as a sign from my body that I am pushing it too hard, too fast. I am definitely the type to run the risk of burning out because I often don’t know when to allow myself to relax and take a break. It’s also difficult to shake the thought that “I failed”. My obsessive thinking goes in all kinds of directions. I start to berate myself  “people with similar injuries still work out!” or “you’re just making an excuse not to workout!” or “you’ll get fat! It’ll ruin everything!!”

Withdrawal 

So this week I started taking Pristiq every third day, and I can honestly say I think I am finally starting to feel the side effects of coming off the drug. On Tuesday I felt nauseous, had a pounding headache, and had moments of feeling “off” all throughout the day. I wasn’t sure though, at the time, if it was the drugs or because the weather was terrible. (When it rains, I feel like crap usually).

And further to the above with my knee – I became incredibly emotional this week. I woke up Saturday morning and immediately starting crying because my knee was still sore. I had been so hopeful that I’d be back to the gym, crushing HIIT workouts. I was a mess. I cried off and on for the better part of a couple hours.

I felt at a loss with what to do with myself Saturday and it largely relates to what I’ve already touched on – I do not like being forced to rest. If I set out to do 5 workouts, then I MUST achieve that. To put it in OCD terms – I need to complete the goal in order to be “perfect”. And so I cried because I knew I wouldn’t be “perfect” this week. I also took the advice of Sean and my BFF Marie-Claude, and rested on Saturday. I did what my therapist often challenges me to do – and I confronted my discomfort. I challenged the idea that I needed to do the workout in order to be “perfect”. I knew deep down that resting was the best option because it’s clear I put my body through too much too soon this month. I also needed to prove to myself that not working out as much this week wouldn’t result in me suddenly gaining 10lbs, or not having any results by the end of the month. I have to show myself that being so hard on myself is a detriment – not a motivator.

I am trying to view this week as a time for learning and reflection, rather than a failure. However, it’s going to take time for that to sink in.

A Note on Rewards 

I was thinking a lot this week too about how to “reward” myself for a job well done this month, and I thought back to some advice I received several years ago when I did a fitness bootcamp. The instructor encouraged everyone not to set goals that included buying new clothing. She was primarily concerned that if someone didn’t quite meet their goal, that they’d become discouraged and stop trying to improve themselves. I think this is a valid reason and I want to throw another reason why you shouldn’t set “size” goals. I tried on some skirts at the mall on Saturday and it is hilarious how wildly sizes can vary from store to store and style to style. I realized I was trying on a size 10 pencil skirt and then looked at my jacket and realized it was a size 2. Riddle me that. So ladies, don’t hold yourself to a size – I am convinced each store just makes it up as they go along anyways.

Mindfulness 

So I bought the book “The Little Pocket Book of Mindfulness” and so far I love it. My favourite new mindfulness technique is an activity the book recommends you try in the shower; but I am finding myself trying it out while getting ready for bed. It’s called “Who are you showering with?” and essentially it forces you to pause your thought cycle, and think about “who” is in the room with you. I use it at night when I find myself going over the events of the day, or what’s going to possibly happen tomorrow. I stop, think about the people I am worrying about – and then in my mind, kick them out of my room! And so far its helped! So I am already happy I spent $20 on this little book.

Booze Count: 3 drinks and I am totally fine with that.

We’re in the home stretch of January! I hope you all are forgiving yourself if you stumble, and sticking to your new goals as best you can! What have you learned about yourself so far?

 

The Things We Leave Behind

I’ve been trying to write a new blog post for about a month now. I have about three half finished posts, just sitting in my Drafts. I thought as we all reel from the news of Gord Downie, and grapple with one more amazing person about to be lost to cancer, that perhaps this was the post I needed to finish, and share with you all. 

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Late in April, I said goodbye to my “Granny”. She was a fierce woman, and a personality that my family will miss dearly. It was my first time losing an immediate family member. I’ve been very fortunate. I am very uncomfortable with death, and am so grateful that up until now, I’ve only had to go to a handful of funerals and memorials. I know others have not been so lucky.

But one absolutely positive thing to come out of the heartbreak of losing Granny is that death gives perspective. It forces you to pause, and reflect. You suddenly become acutely aware of your place in the universe, and what you’ll leave behind.

As we cleaned out my grandmother’s things from the nursing home, my cousin spoke about how you just leave “stuff” behind, and what matters is the memories that your loved ones have of you. Of course we always see quotes that like when we scroll across our social media news feeds, but until you’re there, cleaning out the home of a dead loved one, that message really doesn’t sink in. The clothes I worry about on a day to day basis, will eventually just get donated or turned to rags. No one will remember that I accidentally wore a stained shirt one day to work. Certainly no one cares at this moment that when I first moved to Toronto I really had no idea what the word “style” really meant. It’s also true of the items we fill our homes with.

So from those little “ah-ha” moments during that time, I am trying to get back to loving myself more, and forgiving myself. I say this all too often, but I waste so much time being hard on myself. There’s so much I can’t control. But I have such a hard time dealing with that. I need to be in control. I’m impatient. I’m a perfectionist. I also have a pretty good memory, and I remember what I looked like when I was in better shape. It’s hard to forget that. I don’t feel proud of my body right now. So I need to work on getting that back.

Aside from the feelings associated with my body, dealing with a death always triggers a lot of deeper anxiety for me. I have a real problem with death. It terrifies me. I have so many fears. I have days where I am convinced of the Afterlife and that something awaits, but then others I think that can’t be possible, and that there really isn’t anything beyond this life. My mind starts to think “how can there be heaven if we have so much suffering? What is the point of creating a world where depending on where you live you might have a great life, or a really, really horrible one?”, and it goes on and on.

But really, I am just scared to say goodbye to the people I love and care about. My family means the world to me, and I can’t bear to think of saying goodbye to everyone. Change doesn’t allow me to be in control. When suddenly that one person won’t be at Christmas Dinner anymore, I get so anxious thinking about how different things will be. How will I cope without certain people? I suppose you could call it the world’s worst case of “FOMO” as well. I get sick thinking about all the things I could miss out on one day, especially if I die young.

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My Granny & I 

So how do you become more comfortable with the idea of death? For me, the only way would be knowing with 1000000% certainty that an Afterlife exists, and that YES you get reunited with everyone. That’s the controlling nature in me, the anxiety that needs ABSOLUTE CERTAINTY. But that doesn’t exist in life. Maybe what losing Granny has also taught me is that in addition to spending time working on my mental health, I need to work on my spiritual health. Because the day will come when I will have an even more devastating death to mourn, and I want to make sure I can get through.

And then, with some of the roots of my anxiety laid bare, we return to the original point of this post. Only the memories are what matter. The relationships you forge – whether it’s family, friends, animal companions, whatever, that is what transcends everything else. I can’t take six pack abs with me to the Afterlife, and certainly they won’t be on display at a memorial. (Seriously, have you ever seen anyone’s ACTUAL body at a funeral? Another reason I should stop worrying about what my stomach looks like). Sure, you can be remembered for being an active, athletic person, but is that why people truly love you? Is it the only reason they’ll always be there for you? Odds are, no.

So with that being said, it’s about doing what all of those internet quotes tell you to do: “Live. Laugh. Love”. With doing that, hopefully I can find peace and eventually accept that one day, everything will be out of my control.

Thank you, as always, for reading and of course, share any advice you may have for myself or others.