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.


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.

Date: 2011-05-06 12:07 am (UTC)
st_aurafina: A ceramic head marked with phrenology detail  (Brain: Phrenology)
From: [personal profile] st_aurafina
I actually started to believe it after a while, or at least, it helped me to see things in perspective - these bad things *might* happen, there's a good chunk of *might not* in there, too.

But most of all, it gave my poor brain a rest - I think, as part of the cycle of superstitious thinking, I felt guilty for not worrying, because I might in some way be leaving myself vulnerable. But I could say "It's only fifteen minutes, it's not going to make something happen."

Small steps.

Date: 2011-05-02 03:40 pm (UTC)
vanessagalore: (Default)
From: [personal profile] vanessagalore
This was very helpful.

Date: 2011-05-06 12:07 am (UTC)
st_aurafina: A ceramic head marked with phrenology detail  (Brain: Phrenology)
From: [personal profile] st_aurafina
Glad it could help!

Date: 2011-05-05 09:34 pm (UTC)
sapote: The TARDIS sits near a tree in sunlight (Default)
From: [personal profile] sapote
Thank you. I'm not a member of the comm but this comment has really helped me this week.

Date: 2011-05-06 12:08 am (UTC)
st_aurafina: A ceramic head marked with phrenology detail  (Brain: Phrenology)
From: [personal profile] st_aurafina
That's really great - I'm glad it could help you.


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