One evening a few weeks ago I noticed an itchy sensation on my chest. Given that I’m a female, it was far from appropriate to whip my shirt off to investigate, so I ignored the problem until time to change for bed. Upon removing my t-shirt I noticed a red spot with a black “something” in the center. I swiped at the “something” to knock it off, but it appeared to have latched on to me. So . . . I panicked. ‘Oh my goodness! It’s a tick! There’s a tick on me! I have a red circle around the bite. I obviously have Lyme Disesase! Or maybe it’s Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (or Spotty Mountain Rocket Fever?)? Could it be both? I think I feel achy. Maybe a little feverish?’ During my meltdown I moved a little closer to a mirror to further investigate my newfound parasite. Upon closer inspection, I realized the tick attack was actually nothing more than a wayward watermelon seed that had fallen down my shirt while snacking.
I get it. I’m ridiculous. Normal people don’t automatically assume that a somewhat itchy spot is a tick rather than another clumsy eating venture. Normal people see a spot, investigate the spot, and think, “My, I’m quite the enthusiastic eater of watermelon.” Not me. I envision doctors’ appointments, IV antibiotics, and new symptoms. But at this point, I don’t even apologize for my ridiculousness. “Normal people” expect logical outcomes to things that happen to their bodies. If they get sick, they get better. For those of us living with chronic illness, life isn’t always that simple and predictable. We know that our bodies can and probably will betray us. “Simple” illnesses are never actually very simple.
I haven’t always been a negative person, and in some ways I still don’t feel like I am. I just feel an overwhelming need to be prepared for whatever my body throws at me next. After my body had a few totally unexpected meltdowns, I developed a little bit of anxiety about illness and the possibility for illness. I’ve developed a few methods of coping that keep me from absolutely becoming consumed with fear when something does go wrong. I’ll share them with you in hopes that they help someone else, and I definitely want to know if you have any secrets to handling your own anxieties about illness.
1. Make a plan.
It is within my realm of normal to run a fever. If I’m tired, I’m feverish. If I have a headache, I’m feverish. If anything stresses my body in the least, there’s a good chance I’ll have a low grade fever (and NEED ice cream or grape slushes to cope). However, if the fever lingers for a while I start to worry. I think that maybe I have an infection. Or maybe it’s an autoimmune flare up? Or . . . maybe it’s just one of those weird things that I have to accept that it’s part of my body. To keep myself from going to the doctor every single time I have a fever (which would have been daily for a few years), I set parameters. If my fever goes above a certain number (normally 101), THEN I’ll call my doctor. If it doesn’t, I’ll accept it as part of my normal. If I have a plan in place of what I will do if something out of the ordinary happens, then I am better able to handle the ordinary things that happen sometimes and cause concern.
2. Find a distraction.
Once you have a plan, you’re free to distract yourself from your woes unless your symptoms get out of control. My husband, Joe, is better at this than I am. He’s a pro at finding something to do (a fun night out, a silly movie via Netflix, a late night conversation to scheme and dream about our next vacation) to distract me or at least make difficult times less terrible. It’s okay to NOT think about what is wrong with you for a while. This is difficult, of course, because pain typically demands to be felt, but it is completely acceptable to take a break from worrying and think about something less consuming.
Joe and I are strong believers in the “spoon full of sugar” method to life (Cue Mary Poppins singing . . .). No matter what we are facing, a doctor’s appointment, test results, surgery, or even just a day of feeling rough, we try to soften the blow. If we go out of town for a doctor’s appointment, we try to have a fun night beforehand to enjoy whatever the town has to offer. (Thank goodness most of my doctors are in Nashville, so there’s plenty to do!) Recently on the night before a surgical procedure that I was really nervous about, we took a carriage ride through downtown Nashville and spent the evening listening to one of our favorite bands with a close friend. It’s hard to remember that I’m worried when I’m waving at traffic from a Cinderella worthy carriage on the streets of Music City, USA.
3. Avoid Dr. Google.
If Google charged a co-pay for its medical advice, I would be broke. I am guilty of googling my symptoms, and I know that is an excellent way to make myself overreact. No matter what symptoms you look up, Google will let you know that it’s possibly cancer, or a brain tumor, or maybe Ebola. While the Internet is great for empowering patients, helping them connect and learn more about their illness, and making them an advocate and partner in their own medical care, we also have to realize it also has a lot of worst case scenarios listed. If you’re already concerned about a symptom, bypass Google and call your doctor’s office, nurse’s hotline, or on-call doctor. Google won’t tell you how unlikely it is that you have the worst case scenario illness; it will only tell you that you could have it. That’s an incredibly bad idea if you’re already riddled with anxiety.
Obviously, if I had gone through this list BEFORE I had my watermelon seed/ tick bite situation, I could have saved myself some stress induced tachycardia. I get it. It’s easy to jump to the worst possible conclusion. Heck, some of my best exercise comes from jumping to conclusions (Sorry. Horrible pun.). But . . . let’s try to take a deep breath, develop a plan of action, and distract ourselves with something more fun when possible. May each of you have low stress, worry free days!
Peace, love, and health.