Archives for Medical Anxiety
A few days ago, I received the following letter in the mail from Blue Cross Blue Shield, addressed to my father: Dear Paul, Managing a chronic condition can feel overwhelming. I am here to help! We just learned that you recently saw your physician about a new or existing health condition. I've enclosed some information to help you learn more about the condition and ways to manage it. Enclosed was a handy booklet on heart disease, complete with cartoonish diagrams of the human heart and stock photos of sweatsuit-clad seniors doing yoga at the park. The letter continued: Together we can find ways to improve your health and your overall sense of well-being...I look forward to hearing from you. Sincerely, Susan Stevens, RN, BSN Back to the booklet now. On page five, a drawing of a "normal artery", which looks something like an enclosed waterslide, and a drawing of an "artery narrowed by plaque", which, based on the artwork alone, convinces me that "plaque" must be housefly larvae. Page 14? A photo of legumes, grapes, walnuts, and bell peppers. Not pictured: my father's favorite foods. Think peanuts, steak, and salty pretzels. And then, the kicker on page 24: aspirin. He took aspirin every day. "Honey," he'd tell me, "see this? See how I carry all of these baby aspirins in my pocket? You just never know."
There's no easy way to say this, so I'll just blankly blurt it out as if it doesn't twist my insides into a million knots. My father died unexpectedly last week. Heart attack, right out of the blue. No warning; no (known) history of heart problems. My worst nightmare, basically, has come true.
Suddenly, you feel sort of woozy in an nebulous way. Something feels "off", but you can't put your finger on it. Then, your heart starts beating faster, and you feel the need to sit down. Or sleep. Or vomit. You know your body is pleading for something -- but what does it want? What does it need? You continue to wonder as your body begins to sweat. These symptoms worry you, of course. "Is this a panic attack?" you ask yourself. After all, you've experience severe anxiety before. You know these uncomfortable sensations. You know that a racing heart and a woozy head usually signify an intense head-on collision with panic is just around the corner. Or is something else amiss?
Feeling sick? You're probably not alone. It's that sneez-y, cough-y, mucus-y time of year. Delicious! So, if you're anything like me, you have an anxiety disorder and you hate being sick. In fact, maybe being sick in and of itself elevates your anxiety level. Throw some cold meds into the equation and you might really end up feeling bonkers. Medicines for cold and flu can be very powerful, and the side effects of their active ingredients can sometimes include disconcerting side effects, like dizziness or wooziness. (Think Sudafed, for example.) And that sucks. Because getting relief for a cold is awesome...unless the price for that "relief" is more than a tablespoon of anxiety. In yesterday's post, I wrote about how I often take smaller doses of OTC cold medication than the bottle recommends. The meds still end up working (to a degree), and save me from some of the side effect-related anxiety. But what if you're too scared to take any cold meds? Are you doomed to suffer?
'Tis the season, I suppose, for phlegm-y illnesses. Today, one of my most-read blog posts is this: "Cold Meds Got You Anxious? Know Your Ingredients!" It's a must-read for those of you who: have an anxiety disorder plan on getting at least a head cold before winter's end tend to react with heightened sensitivity to medicines I'm a huge advocate of understanding what you're putting into your body -- whether it be food, meds, or whatever else. I ask my doctors a billion questions every time they prescribe me a new drug, and I'm one to "test" new meds in a safe place (i.e., my home) to gauge my body's reaction before I begin taking them as directed. CONTROL OVER ANXIETY And why? As I'd mentioned in the above-linked post, understanding your body's reaction to a medicine gives you a sense of calming control: ...[G]etting to know the ingredients in your cold medicine gives you a greater sense of control over your illness. Knowing the effect that a specific medicine has on your body can be comforting — instead of attributing a mild sense of wooziness to an impending panic attack, wouldn’t it be nice to sit back and say with confidence that you KNOW diphenhydramine (an antihistamine) makes you feel this way? You know it’s the medicine, and it might be uncomfortable — but it doesn’t signify anything. Isn’t that a comforting thought? If you get to know how each of these ingredients personally affects your body, you can more easily come to terms with how they make you feel. I won't rehash the entire article for you here, but my intention today is sort of similar -- instead of talking about which cold med ingredients have certain physiological effects, I'm going to talk about ways you can reduce anxiety when you're feeling sick.
In my last post, I wrote about the contents of what I lovingly refer to as my "nausea bag", the shoulder bag I stuff with anti-emetics and throw in the car for long car rides. Not only do I tend to feel carsick naturally, even when I'm not anxious, but the tummy troubles are amplified (and, arguably, initiated) by anxiety. I shared some of my favorite remedies for quelling anxiety-related nausea, including lemon oil, Dramamine, and anti-nausea wristbands. In the words of the immortal-yet-late Billy Mays, but wait -- there's more.
(Trigger warning for emetophobes: the "N" and "V" words are used in this post.) I really wanted to do another "Win Wednesday" post yesterday, but I couldn't. And why, you might ask? Well, I was hanging out on the bathroom floor with a box of saltines, a bottle of Pepto Bismol, peppermint oil, anti-nausea wristbands, Xanax, ginger candy, Pepsi, ginger ale, and Emetrol. I'm deathly afraid of the stomach virus to the point where I have a legitimate phobia of throwing up. Believe it or not, this fear is incredibly common, and it has a name: emetophobia. EMETOPHOBIA: THE FEAR OF VOMITING When I first learned it had a name, I felt less alone. I didn't feel weird for engaging in bizarre preventative measures to prevent me from throwing up (even when puking would probably make me feel better). For example: chewing some ginger gum at the first sign of nausea. Wearing anti-nausea wristbands in the car even before you feel nauseated. Always carrying a tin of peppermint Altoids in your purse or pocket. Just in case. Yesterday, as I lay on the bathroom floor in a mess of misery and fear, I turned to YouTube for distraction. First, I watched cute videos of small animals. Then, for some reason, I entered "emetophobia" as a search term.
(If you missed the first three parts of this story, click here, then here , and then here.) The scene: a small road off of a two-lane state highway in the woods. The cell phone coverage: first none, then a single bar. My panic state: full blown. I was laying down in my car, following the EMT-in-training's instructions to avoid sitting up or moving around, and I was scared nearly to death. I shook, I gasped for air, and I palpitated. I hated every single second that slowly and dreadfully crawled by. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't even conjure up the energy or the clarity of mind to reach for my Ten Rules for Coping With Panic worksheet that lives in my wallet. I was in the middle of nowhere, I was stuck, and I couldn't escape without help. Not only was I about to receive medical help, but I'd had to call my husband and ask him to drive 40 miles to be with me. Ugh. Failure. The word kept repeating in my head: failure failure failure.
(If you missed the first two chunks of this story, click here first and here second.) This is the story of (one of) the worst panic attacks of my life. It happened in the middle of nowhere on a country road, geographically equidistant between my parents' house and my own apartment. Thirty-five miles both east and west of the closest "safe" place, and I felt both physically and mentally unable to complete the drive in either direction. I pulled back onto Schoolhouse Road after trying (and failing) to backtrack to the state park parking lot where I'd last had cell reception. I couldn't do it -- I felt lightheaded, the trees and the road and the sky felt cartoonish, and my body was uncontrollably shaking. I parked on the road between two houses, reclined my seat, and waited. And waited and waited and waited. I periodically checked my phone for service as I tried (unsuccessfully) to quell my symptoms. I managed to find a Xanax in my jacket pocket. I swallowed it with water and, for about a minute, felt a mild improvement thanks to the placebo effect. ARE YOU OKAY? Some young kid in a giant white pickup truck rolled up to my window and asked me if I was okay. "Yeah, I'm fine," I lied. "I'm just waiting for something. Thanks for checking." He drove off. Had I just missed my only opportunity to get help? My panic level increased.
(If you missed the first half of this story, click here first.) So, there I was: holding my cell phone and sitting in the driver's seat of my car on a small side road in the woods with no reception. Yeah. AM I GOING TO DIE? I was shaking like a leaf and I barely had any control over my limbs. What should I do next? I tried to think, but only one thought kept breaking through into my consciousness: you are going to die. You are going to die. You are going to die. First, because of how lightheaded I felt, I instinctively tugged at the lever that reclines the driver's seat. Wouldn't laying back -- and thus increasing bloodflow to the head -- prevent me from passing out? Yeah, that sounded good. It sounded like a good idea... ...for about three seconds, that is. It sounded like a good idea until the very fact that I was lying down in my car made me all the more aware that I was having a terrible panic attack. It's superstition, I guess: My panic resume boasts some real doozies, many of which involve either driving or being a passenger in a car -- and for the worst of those attacks, I laid back in the seat to keep that light-headed feeling at bay. The very fact that I was reclining reminded me of other panic attacks, which, in turn, made my panic worse.