finch: (dragon: reach out)
[personal profile] finch posting in [community profile] anxietysupport
(cut for discussion of physical illness, please don't read if that will upset you)

My brain tumor diagnosis came completely out of the blue. The MRI was for my vertigo symptoms, purely a precaution, and on the wrong side to boot. Relatively quickly (within two weeks) I got a diagnosis of benign and a recommendation for brain surgery, and I immediately started worrying about all the ways surgery could kill me. (I had a panic attack at the hospital the morning of my surgery, but I think that's understandable.) Once I woke up afterward, I figured I was in the clear.

It wasn't until months after, when I was explaining to a coworker how the brain tumor was totally asymptomatic, that it occurred to me that it might have killed me without my ever having a symptom. It was in my brainstem, after all. Could have displaced the wrong thing and stopped my heart or my lungs before it ever gave me a seizure or a headache. (And hell, I'm prone to headaches as it is.)

I've had issues with panic attacks and health anxiety since I was a teen. (Whoever decided that panic attacks should present JUST LIKE HEART ATTACKS anyway?) For the longest time, my health scares were minor, and I was able to tell myself that it was probably nothing, and I should keep an eye on it, and it would go away. And it did, for the most part.

But now there's this obsessive thought that I get stuck with, that this wrong thing is still there, still in my brain, growing back. (And that's actually true; chances of recurrence are incredibly good.) And a few cells could come loose. Or it could happen to grow in a slightly different direction this time. And it could kill me at any time.

This is worse than virtually anything else I've dealt with before as far as health anxiety goes. It's a real thing, so I can't break the loop that way. It's slow growing, so there's no definite end or treatment in sight, unlike the wait for surgery. I've been trying to work on Buddhist meditations on mortality and that's helped a little, but not much.


Short version: Any advice for dealing with an obsessive fear of something that's real and possible and you can't do anything to mitigate? None of my coping mechanisms really cover it.

Thanks.

Date: 2011-04-29 01:36 pm (UTC)
lizcommotion: Lily and Chance squished in a cat pile-up on top of a cat tree (buff tabby, black cat with red collar) (Crazy sign)
From: [personal profile] lizcommotion
Okay, this is hard to explain via the internet (and it's so much better when trained professionals explain it). But here goes an explanation of how I deal with a lot of things.

There are a lot of things that I can worry about that are actually pretty shitty that might happen (or are even likely to). That's why the anxiety is so gripping - because I can't prove that it won't happen. There's some form of logic there, even though the average person might go, "That's ridiculous, why are you worried about that?"

I've heard anxiety referred to as a diva. Big attention getting drama-queen. And "she" wants to get your attention any way she can, so she'll put on all these different costumes (read: anxiety narratives about how I'm going to die) to get me to obsess over her. But even though they might happen - they're not real.

Part of this is a bit of the mindfulness meditation-style thinking of: "I know I'm having this anxiety and I'm going to name it as anxiety - 'just' anxiety. And it sucks right now but it will eventually go away."

Because just naming it as anxiety is like, okay, great, but I still feel like shit.

Second coping mechanism: the anxiety is going to make me feel like shit before it goes away. There's sort of an anxiety bell curve where all of this adrenaline and stuff gets released, and then eventually it reaches anxiety climax and other body chemicals I don't know the names of help clear away all the adrenaline to get you out of fight/flight land. Part of my dealing with anxiety is waiting for the anxiety to peak and go away on its own. (Sounds masochistic, huh?)

I've also heard it described that people with anxiety disorders don't have confidence that they can get through anxiety (because it is so terrible). So a lot of time we'll do things to try to mitigate the anxiety that end up avoiding the anxiety peak, and then our bodies' natural responses to decreasing it. Things like: having sex, watching an entire season of Star Trek in one day, self-injuring, drinking/doing drugs, reading wikipedia for hours, overeating, undereating, etc.

The trick (for me, not necessarily for everyone) is to endure the horrible, awful feelings of anxiety until they go away. And to tell myself over and over that it's "just" the anxiety diva, and that it will go away. I might do the occasional thing to calm down (listening to a song, meditating, petting my dog), but mainly I just try to get through it. It's awful - the feeling of the anxiety in my body is the worst, like someone is pouring caffeine into my bloodstream. But it does go away. I've managed to get through a panic attack with no medication (I was very proud).

This technique may not be for everyone, but I will say that I haven't been on anti-anxiety meds for a year and I haven't been depressed since December. I've had bouts of anxiety that really annoy me because I keep thinking "Oh yeah, I'm done with this, I don't need to worry about anxiety anymore" and then it'll bite me in the arse again. But overall I've had less anxiety, and it's been less terrible when it does happen.

Does that make sense at all?

Date: 2011-04-29 01:47 pm (UTC)
st_aurafina: A ceramic head marked with phrenology detail  (Brain: Phrenology)
From: [personal profile] st_aurafina
My anxiety is tied up with medical fears, too - my partner had thyroid cancer, and we've just come through a big year of medical palaver related to that. During that time, my panic attacks got to the point where I had to seek professional help, and I started seeing a psychologist.

There's two things that were really helpful to me - I don't know if they'll help you or not, but it might give you somewhere to start researching, maybe.

She asked me when was the last time that I didn't feel anxious or under stress, and it was really disturbing to discover that I couldn't remember a time like that. She said that living under that kind of constant stress takes a physical toll. It sets me up to massively overreact to small things in my day, and it means that the anxiety propagates itself.

To combat this, she asked me to make fifteen minutes in the day where I actively didn't worry about these things. I basically sat in a chair, closed my eyes and told myself things were going to be okay. It felt really artificial - I mean, there was no way that I believed it - but I did it anyway. I found that overall, my baseline level of anxiety lowered. I still had panic attacks, and I still had moments of intense anxiety, but it was weirdly more specific. I worried about the upcoming medical stuff, I didn't waste so much energy worrying about little stuff like whether my cat was going to run away, or if my computer was going to break. I didn't realise how constantly keyed up I was, and how relieved I was for that fifteen minutes of artificial relief. I still do this - I've worked from a mantra of "there is nothing to worry about" to "I am not going to worry about this", and I use a deep breathing app on my phone. I find I take lots of little breaks through the day, rather than one long period of meditation, though I can move it up and down depending on how I'm feeling.

The other thing was tracking my moods/bad thought cycles/obsessive thoughts. It taught me a lot about the way my mind works. If I'm tired, if I'm underslept, if I've been eating in a disordered way - I'm much, much more vulnerable to these cascades of bad thoughts. I'm much less able to put strategies into place. I don't keep my mood journal so diligently now, as things are not so bad right now (lazy me!) but it was really useful to see that there's a physical aspect to my anxiety.

One thing we tried but didn't work was mindfulness - I couldn't click with this philosophy at all. The idea of being "in the moment" and accepting what is happening right now - that freaked me out, big time. I know it helps a lot of people, but to me, it felt like I had to prepare myself for the worst or something. But my psych was awesome - said "That's not for you, so let's find another way" and moved on.

I know none of this mitigates the actual fear that you're going to die (or that my partner is going to die) but it did make life much easier to get through day to day. I do find myself dwelling less, day to day - though we're through the year of medical stuff now, and admittedly, there is less to worry about on the whole, but still. The anxiety disorder that makes me dwell on things is still there, even if the main stressor is removed. I have GAD, and I know that's not going to go away but I feel better with coping strategies that help.

I don't know if this is helpful to you or not - and I really hope I haven't trivialised your own anxieties in anyway - but sometimes knowing what works for one person can bring up something new that might work for you.

Just a random thought

Date: 2011-04-29 05:45 pm (UTC)
rydra_wong: Text: BAD BRAIN DAY. Picture: Azula, having one. (a:tla -- bad brain day)
From: [personal profile] rydra_wong
Is it possible that there's an element of PTSD in this, feeding into the pre-existing health anxiety? Having a brain tumour diagnosis and surgery is a real trauma!

I have some similar issues with anxiety about my mental state after the Great Psychiatric Clusterfuck Of 2009, so the "obsessive fear of something that's real and possible and you can't do anything to mitigate" is very close to home. And for me at least, trauma does seem to be a factor.

Date: 2011-04-29 11:35 pm (UTC)
delight: (gold star)
From: [personal profile] delight
I have this exact. same. thing. This is just a comment of commisseration, and thank you for asking for the help, so I can read it too. ♥

Date: 2011-05-04 09:59 am (UTC)
aquaeri: My nose is being washed by my cat (Default)
From: [personal profile] aquaeri
You've had some great responses!

One thing that sometimes works for me: will me worrying about it change the chances it will happen? (generally NO) Will my worrying be useful or not if it does happen? (If it makes me learn stuff that will be useful, yes; if it's just going to mean I had an unpleasant anxious time beforehand and then had less "cope" if/when it did happen, no).

Also, sometimes I thank my anxiety for its concern, and how much it cares about my health and existence.

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