As part of our policy of publishing guest posts submitted to us (normally but not exclusively) by members, I am delighted to be able to share the following guest post from one of our more recent members – Julie Mariner. Who’s personal blog can be found by clicking here.
Julie’s blog and especially the following post (written for us and published with her permission) offers some interesting information and techniques in dealing with an illness which is probably one of the lesser-known ones within the metal health blogging world. And, as we all know to our personal cost, being lesser-known does not make it any the less important or the less difficult to deal with. And so we are extremely grateful to Julie for writing this for us and sharing this with us.
Health anxiety – A new way of coping. By Julie Mariner
If you suffer with health anxiety then you’ll know what a lonely illness it is. Whilst there are forums online where other sufferers offer support, often what we want to write about will be a trigger for someone else. Or maybe you are like me and are terrified of such places in case you read something that then becomes a trigger for you. So what do you do when you are in the grips of the worst fear possible?
I have been a health anxiety sufferer for thirty-two years. At times, my anxiety has laid dormant (the longest time being three years) but it always rears its ugly head again. I have had counselling, CBT, psychotherapy and more medicines than you can shake a stick at. I have fought so hard to beat this fear of cancer but no matter what I throw at it, it always wins. When I am at my worst all I want to do is hide away from the world. We all know that talking through our problems is a much better solution but who do we talk to? If you are lucky enough to have a family member or close friend that you can lean on then fine. For me, it was my Mum and a friend who lives many miles away. I know I can call them any time of the day or night and they will help me but for some reason I rarely do that now. Instead I find myself becoming a recluse and fighting it alone. I have no idea why I do this but I suspect it’s because talking about it makes it more real and also I have a huge fear that they’ll say the wrong thing like ‘you should get that checked out’ and that would send me into a complete meltdown. You’ll know that avoidance is a hard habit to break and I have yet to manage it.
I always think of that saying ‘You have to experience something to be able to understand it completely.’ and I often wonder just how many doctors, counsellors and therapists have ever experienced true anxiety. Don’t get me wrong, I think they all do a wonderful job but how can they truly understand what it feels like to experience such crippling fear on a daily basis. So we try and explain it and we pour our hearts out to a complete stranger who then comes up with a plan of action. This will usually be something along the lines of CBT, medicines and a whole load of printed sheets on coping strategies.
Some of the strategies we are given are really helpful but nearly all of them are physical such as standing under a cold shower, squeezing a tennis ball, getting some exercise etc. These are all well and good for some people but not terribly helpful for others. I could do all of the physical strategies and my brain would still be trying to convince me that I’m dying at the same time. Over the course of my thirty two years of this crippling mental illness I have learnt some ‘mental’ coping skills that really do help in my darkest and most frightening moments. I make no apology for how whacky they may seem. They often work for me and maybe they’ll help you too. I call these my ‘voice strategies.’
Let me explain why for me ‘voice strategies’ work better than physical ones. As human beings we can physically multi task which means we are capable of doing more than one thing at once. A physical strategy might well occupy your hands and body but for many of us it doesn’t quieten the mind. I can be doing the housework and still convince myself I’m dying. A mental strategy however is very different. You can only think one thought at a time. You might be having racing thoughts one after
another, quick as a flash but you simply cannot think two thoughts at once. When you think a thought you are effectively talking to yourself. You are hearing yourself, your voice as you think and this is where ‘voice strategies’ really do help. I’d like to share them with you. These are my top four.
No matter how hard it is, when you are gripped in the middle of anxiety and panic, focus on singing. It doesn’t matter if you sing silently in your head or belt it out for the neighbourhood to hear. Either play a song that you love or sing one in your head but the secret to this coping strategy is to sing along to the correct words. Keep replaying if you have to until you’ve got it right. Pretend you are on the stage and cannot get it wrong. Turn the volume up and concentrate really hard on the words. Your brain cannot do this and focus on your health at the same time. The second your brain deviates from the song you need to get back on track. Dance too if you want and lose yourself in the moment of stardom. You will honestly be surprised how much this distracts you and actually lifts your mood.
Yes I know it sounds whacky but I actually do this a lot and it really works. When I’m truly convinced I’m dying of cancer this has worked wonders for me. If you are not alone then go somewhere quiet. Sit yourself down and start an interview with yourself. Ask yourself a question silently in your head (this will be the interviewer) and then answer out loud as yourself. You have to be completely honest in your answers and your questions can be anything that springs to mind apart from anything anxiety related. Interview yourself about your career, your parenting skills, your finances etc. Nine times out of ten your first question will be on something that you would really like to know the answer too. My first question, without any real thought, was ‘Why haven’t you written a book yet?’ I answered myself and those questions so honestly that it was almost therapy in itself and I promise you that it took my mind way from anything to do with health. This coping strategy has been great for me. My book on my thirty two years of health anxiety is currently being written and coming along nicely. I talked myself into starting this blog site with this method too.
You can write about anything but not health in any way. You don’t have to write it, you can type if you prefer. This is what you do. A famous movie producer has approached you and asked you to write at least a 500 word synopsis of a great movie idea. You accept and you sit down and get on with it. Stay focused. Don’t give up or let your mind wander. Come up with the most amazing film storyline that you can. You’ll be amazed at what a great distraction this is. If you enjoy it and go over the 500 words then great. At least you’re not convinced you’re dying right now.
My maths ability is now quite remarkable. Many times I have sat down and written out the most ridiculously hard sums without giving any thought to the numbers themselves and then tried to solve them. Maths for anxiety is great because you need to stay focused and concentrate to come up with the answer. If you find it easy, write harder ones. If you find it hard, don’t give up. Many times I’ve spent several hours working out seemingly impossible sums just to get the right answer. Never use a calculator :-)
Some more of my tips.
When you are going through a particularly bad bout of health anxiety distraction is vital. If you have children then announce that you are all going to have a fun spelling or maths tests. Once you’ve committed, you can’t let them down can you? If you have a partner, then ask them to dance and have a laugh. If you have pets and are alone then try some trick training. Always try to have music or TV on to distract you from those frightening thoughts. Avoid jigsaw puzzles and drawing at these times as they are easy to lose focus on. It is so easy to end up chewing on the end of your pencil and staring out of the window. Remember the ‘mental not physical’ rule. Ultimately you need your mind to be trying to work something out, to solve a problem or create something wonderful.
Coping strategies will be different for everyone but I hope this article helps you in some way.
Thirty two years of fear and I’m still here and right now I’m coping quite well.
© Julie Mariner.
[Editor’s Note: As I have already said above, I am extremely grateful to Julie for writing this post for us and sharing it with us. I often get submissions for guest posts which sadly have already been published elsewhere and thus cannot use them. This being because our guidelines state that – so as not to flood member’s in boxes with articles they have already read elsewhere – guest posts must have been written specifically for first publication on the guild and not have been previously published. So it really is a joy to have received this submission and especially because of it’s focus and content. I hope members will pop over and visit Julie’s blog.]