One of the key problems with health anxiety is how quickly you can lose perspective. Anyone suffering from anxiety knows how quickly bleak thoughts can cloud the mind, and then it becomes a struggle to rationalise your symptoms, leading to a vicious circle of not being able to see any hope / point in fighting your anxiety.
I had a good example of this today. Despite having a good weekend, with few ‘symptoms’, I had an almighty wobble. The husband and I had decided to go for an afternoon walk in a nearby forest (no rude shenanigans…I’d only end up getting a prolapsed rectum or severe knee burns or suchlike). This forest path is hilly, covered in mud, and I was wearing my rubbish trainers that I use for city walking. Prior to this, we’d spent pretty much the entire weekend sitting around watching TV and relaxing (key word: sitting!).
During the forest walk, I noticed that my legs felt heavy and they were aching at the knees, which was a key trigger for my MS worries. I’ve actually managed to put the MS fears to bed, and I’ll talk about that in a later ramble. This set off a little ‘ticking’ in my mind – there’s something wrong…what is it…whilst you’re here, what about your eyes…are they shaking…your arms feel weak too…must be something serious…and so on.
This is where the snowball starts. ‘Normal’ me would have realised that my legs were aching because it was muddy, we had hardly moved all weekend, we were up and down stairs and hills and banks and my shoes were crap. The Husband even had the same thing in his legs. However, ‘anxious’ me took one symptom and health-anxiety thought, took it home with him, and dwelled, which ultimately culminated in a crying fit (fairly unusual for me – I’m not a crier!). The snowball was now an avalanche, completely out of control – I was crying because I thought there would be no escape – that either way, I’m doomed to a miserable life – if I have a muscle-wasting disease, I would be in pain – and if I haven’t got such a disease, then my symptoms are all in my head and THEN there really is no escape as I don’t have a cure. Then what happens? The anxiety REALLY blows up and that one symptom becomes THIS trainwreck of thoughts:
- illness or anxiety means I’m upset and depressed, which means…
- …I can’t cope with work, which means…
- …I’ll have to stop working and relying on my partner for an income…
- …which means he’ll end up resenting me…
- …which means I’ll end up alone, with no money, and only the voices in my head to chat to (shouldn’t joke, bit of a phobia about schizophrenia too)…
- …and then I’ll die from a horrid disease.
See how the anxious mind works? My CBT (which I may add, means an entirely different thing in the gay world – no wonder I was worried about starting it) teaching suggests that I am catastrophising – taking one simple situation and creating the worst case scenario in my head, and then worrying about that. The thought of dying alone, broke, trapped in a useless body terrifies anyone – so someone with anxiety is naturally going to over-react to it (or at least, I do).
So the key here is – perspective. Rather than looking coolly at the facts, I decided to let my emotions grab hold of me. There’s an even more delicious twist to the whole situation – prior to the walk, I was telling my husband that I was feeling better, and I was. I hadn’t noticed my eyes shaking, my legs aching as much or any of my usual anxious feelings. Did I remember that when I set off on my wobbles? No.
I know I’m a lucky person. Always have been. Stable upbringing, relatively clever, own my own house, fantastic caring husband. I would even go so far as to say I’ve still got my health, even if I’m determined to tell myself I haven’t. When I was wailing, my husband broke me off mid-ramble and told me bluntly that I was sounding spoilt, and I was. Whingeing about what COULD happen rather than looking at what HAS happened. Not realising what I’ve got but bemoaning what I don’t. There’s a strong element of truth in that, and whilst it won’t work for everyone, perhaps the next time I’m stringing out on a health anxiety attack, I’ll try and cool down by evaluating what I have got healthwise (no problems with my hearing for example, and I can grow a mean beard) as opposed to imagining what I have got and don’t want.
Ultimately, it comes down to one core truth. I’m worried that I have Parkinsons, so there’s two outcomes here:
- I have Parkinsons – in which case, there’s absolutely bugger all I can do to stop or halt it – what will be will be, and I just have to wait until it’s confirmed by a doctor then I have to suck it up and deal with it; or
- I don’t have Parkinsons, or something equally as horrible, and these ‘symptoms’ are all in the mind, or at least I’m attaching an artificial and dangerous importance to them to try and prove my ‘crazy’ theory. In which case, I deal with the anxiety. The what ‘if’ question of what happens if I treat my anxiety but I DO actually have Parkinsons – well, so what – nothing I can do about it.
So what have I learnt today? If I’ve got something now, there’s sweet FA I can do about it. There’s two lessons about perspective here – the initial perspective of remembering that I was feeling physically OK before I started my ‘wobble’, and the longer-term perspective that my life isn’t going to fall apart, whether I’m ill or not. It will take time, certainly, to fix whatever is wrong, but I have plenty of it.
I know this all relates to me and won’t work for everyone, but I hope it gives some solace to at least one person.