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 Two Recap

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This week, I feel I stuck to my goals with only one stumbling point. I had 3 glasses of wine on Saturday night! I know- The horror!!! Sean & I hosted some friends over for dinner, and they brought along some really nice red wine for us to have. My original plan for the night was to only have 2 glasses, but in the end I had 3. And I have really mixed emotions about it. On one hand – I didn’t get drunk, so I didn’t wake up with any sort of hangover. I spaced out all of the wine with lots of water & club soda. The impact on my diet will probably not be that bad. (I did have chocolate cake Saturday night, which is theoretically WAY worse for me! But come on, it’s chocolate!!) AND, I did go to a Raptors game on Tuesday night and ignored beer entirely! Usually when I go to a sporting event, I’ll have a beer since they go hand in hand so well. But on Tuesday, I decided to avoid beer and use my “booze allowance” for the week on Saturday night.

However – I feel like in a way I let myself down by having the third glass. I didn’t need it. And this is where I want to touch on the downside of setting goals – the anger you can put on yourself when you don’t live up to your own expectations of yourself. I am trying not to be upset with myself. It could have been different – if I hadn’t told myself to keep it at 2 drinks, maybe I would have had 4 or 5! I’d be spending Sunday with a pounding headache! What I need to tell myself to focus on, is that overall, I’ve stuck to my goals and stayed “somewhat sober”. The point of reducing my alcohol intake isn’t to deprive myself; it’s to re-teach myself moderation after the overindulgence of Christmas. So I just need to relax, forgive myself and remember that a new week is about to begin with new goals.

Staying Motivated

To keep up my enthusiasm for exercising, I decided to ramp up my workout “journalling” and instead of just keeping a day to day log, I’d start a full workout binder. I went to the dollar store and bought some basic supplies: a binder (obviously..), and some dividers. Next I Googled like a maniac until I found some free templates to use to log my workouts. (My favourite being this one). For now I plan to keep the binder simple – weekly logs, goals, and a yearly calendar template to mark off days when I’ve worked out. The goal being it will allow me to keep track like I did last year. From there, I may add in workouts I’ve found online, measurement info, weight loss stats, etc. I don’t plan to keep a written food journal – I can use the MyFitnessPal app for that (since it does all the calorie counting/nutrient info for me).

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Fitness Binder!!

I am also happy to report I stuck to 5 workouts again this week! I also went to my first spin class in months and performed a lot better than I thought I would! I guess when I catch myself feeling disappointed about the alcohol, I also need to remind myself I was a badass this week at the gym and focus on the positive.

Little Things

I’ve been feeling really inspired for Bell Let’s Talk Day – and it all started because I booked an appointment with my family doctor. I wanted to ask some nagging questions I’ve had about some symptoms. Everything, of course, turned out to be fine, explainable and solvable, but it got me thinking about how my health anxiety has impacted my ability to trust my body and the signals it sends me. So stayed tuned for  more on that on January 25th!

Also, I have a confession to make. I think I have become a full blown Starbucks addict. They have introduced almond milk to their menu and I am in love. And I kind of hate myself for this because it’s an extra 70 cents to get it, and their drinks are already SO EXPENSIVE. But OHMYGOD it is so delicious. So that made me really happy this week…. my bank account less happy.

Withdrawing from Pristiq has still been going well. I feel ready to take the next step and start taking it every third day, and see what happens. I feel that perhaps this is when I will start to see more withdrawal symptoms, so I am a little nervous.

The biggest “ah-ha” moment that I have had so far this month is realizing that no matter what happens this month – if I have a couple drinks, eat cake, miss a workout, or have a panic attack, I am still starting ahead of where I was a year ago, and that’s important. It would take a lot of sabotaging myself to end up where I was in January 2016, and that feels good to know. And when I feel down about things, I feel this is what I am going to focus on. The steps may be small, but it’s forward progress nonetheless!

Thanks for following along! How is your month going so far?

If you missed my earlier posts in the #JanGoals series, go here & here!