“So sick I am not, yet I am not well…” ~William Shakespeare (Cymbeline, IV, ii)
As I get older, the days of feeling well all the time are fewer and farther between. Most days, there seems to be something that makes me feel not-so-great. Nothing life-threatening or too deeply dire, just lots of mostly minor maladies here and there that add up to an overall sense of suckiness. Headaches, weird muscle aches, earaches, toothaches, overall body aches…it’s getting pretty tiring, both physically and mentally. And if I do have a few good days where everything seems in pretty good working order, they are inevitably then followed by about a week of bad days where I feel crappy…and then the cycle repeats itself.
I know no one likes to be sick or feel bad, and I realize there are many people out there that are dealing with a LOT worse than me, but the fact remains that when I don’t feel good, I seem to just…shut down. Or wind myself up. Or both at the same time. For me, being sick or hurt presents a mental roadblock that is pretty tough for me to push aside.
You see, I have a history of some pretty impressive health anxiety.
It used to be a lot worse than it is now, and I worked hard to bring it under manageable control with the help of a life-saving therapist — but I continue to grapple with it and have come to accept that it will probably always be a part of who I am and something I have to work to overcome.
For someone with health anxiety, the whys and whens and hows and what-ifs threaten to overwhelm a person when they get sick or hurt, or have any “unusual” symptoms: Why is this happening to me, what’s the exact, specific, pinpointed cause? (Because if I know the cause, I can then hopefully prevent it from happening again.) How and when did I catch this cold, or get this headache, or become short of breath? What if this headache is really the beginning of meningitis? What if this weird muscle spasm in my armpit is a sign that I have clogged heart arteries? What if those recurring cramps in my legs are because of life-threatening blood clots?
When we can’t get answers to these questions (which is most of the time), it just makes our anxiety worse, which then leads to more stress, which then causes even more health problems.
Stopping that fatalistic self-talk as it begins, and trying to not immediately imagine the worst possible scenario, is part of what I learned and practiced through therapy, back when the anxiety was at its worst. I was also not allowed to look up any of my symptoms on the internet, so as to not induce even more panic and feed the medical monster. I was banned from taking my pulse more than once/day or at times other than during exercise. Ultimately, I decided I had to quit my job as a health counselor where I talked about horrible health problems all day every day (the worst possible environment for me) and take myself out of that personal mine field.
For the most part, I still am able to enlist those calming strategies and avoid the full-blown panic attacks and vicious worry cycles that I used to incur on a pretty frequent basis. I remember my therapist’s teachings: to tell myself what the most likely and unlikely scenarios are, and then to logically handle the symptom and situation from there. To realize that everyone — especially as we get older — has aches and pains as the normal part of life. To also realize that life doesn’t always come with an explanation pamphlet for each scenario we encounter, and to learn to live with not always knowing why (as maddening as it may be). I’m happy to say that I’m no longer such a frequent flier at the doctor’s office, but I also still believe in timely visits for those issues that truly do warrant it and not ignoring what could be serious.
Health anxiety quietly hovers in the corner of the dark room that you usually try to keep closed off, but then sneaks out every once in a while when you least expect or want it.
People tease you about it, or avoid talking to you about any health topic whatsoever, in fear that you’ll just have some kind of fit-like meltdown. (This just makes us feel worse by the way, when we’re working so hard to improve.) I am kind of a worrier by nature anyway, something else that was in the genes and a trait which I just have to accept. Which means that, even when I am able to not panic out loud about an illness or strange symptom, I still quietly and subtly worry about it (for both me and for things happening to those closest to me).
And I admit that even that subdued level of worry is still enough to cause me to focus on the issue more than I should. I find myself making more mental room for it and sacrificing attention to other things on my to-do list that get waylaid by the worry. Every once in a while, I allow myself to guiltily look up a new symptom online, and then usually regret it as soon as I see all the uninformed prattle on the chat boards. I lose my appetite when I worry too much about what’s going on with my physical failings, but maybe that’s normal? Being “normal” and feeling “good” are what I wish for every day, so I guess I feel let down and anxious when the opposite happens.
As mentioned above, I also know that worrying about my health — or anything really — actually contributes to a negative circle of physiological health effects in and of itself. Not too long ago, I had a spectacular tension headache across the back of my head that lasted for a tight and burning 48 hours; nothing would make it go away but time, but what was most frustrating for me (in terms of figuring out why it was happening) was that I’d been feeling what I thought was relatively tension-free lately! I had a job that I really enjoyed, and my overt stress levels compared to past bad times were practically nil. But no one can ever be totally stress or worry-free, that’s unrealistic. Even minor stress levels over things like money, or the future, or family issues, can apparently cause your cranium to feel like it’s being clobbered by the Hulk.
So…it’s a work in progress, this tempering of my teetering.
I guess that because I don’t really know anyone else in my immediate circle who’s dealing with this, I feel alone in my anxiety journey most of the time, and I don’t usually like to talk about it; but I wanted to shed a little light on it today because I know I’m actually not alone, and I know MANY others out there are also struggling to get a handle on it too. It can get better, so hang in there. Get help if you need it. If you can, figure out the source and root cause of where this anxiety is coming from, as that’s how you’ll be able to start dealing with it. I’ve been lucky to have a few friends and family and therapists help me through it in the past, but it’s a constant effort that I have to work at mostly just by myself. Like Pam from ‘The Office’ said, “Pobody’s Nerfect.” Definitely not me…and I don’t want to be perfect anymore anyway (or nerfect).
Kristi Stillwell is the owner of Volunteer Abroad Consulting, which provides virtual and in-person application coaching services to adventurers wanting to volunteer abroad. She is a former Peace Corps Recruiter and served as a Peace Corps Volunteer herself in west Africa.
Originally published at medium.com