We all know someone who really, really hates going to the doctor. They ignore even the most glaringly obvious symptoms, think Google is “basically a GP”, and probably have a stash of supermarket-bought painkillers big enough to take down a rhino.
For those of us with chronic illnesses, however, total avoidance of medical professionals is pretty much impossible. And if you’ve had arthritis since childhood, you can safely call yourself a clinic veteran by age 21.
“Have you ever had a blood test before?” Oh, honey.
So, we’re immune to pre-appointment stress, yes? With all that experience, you would think we’d be used to all things medical. Waiting rooms, important phone calls, stripping down to your bare essentials for a rheumatology examination – business as usual, right?
Yes, most of us have probably been to more appointments than we can count. But the more you go to, the higher the chances are of having a bad experience that could make you seriously apprehensive about your future appointments.
What do I mean by ‘bad experience’? It can be as simple as being dismissed or disbelieved by a doctor – suddenly you might not feel so confident talking to professionals anymore. It leads to the development of, to call it by its technical name, a ‘thing’.
Synonyms: a hang-up, a specific dislike or fear.
Use in a sentence: “I have a ‘thing’ about creatures with more than seven legs.”
The Panic Chord
A lot of the time, the ‘thing’ is related to pain. Despite the miracle of modern medicine, a lot of procedures can still be uncomfortable and painful. Worse – we have to force ourselves to sit there and take it. We may know intellectually that it’s for our own good, but that doesn’t necessarily mean our bodies do.
Our bodies are very smart, though, and they remember the stress they were put under. So, if it looks like you’re going in to a similar situation, it might trigger a panic response. It’s a basic survival tactic. But when you have a chronic illness it can get pretty problematic because you often can’t (or at least, shouldn’t) avoid facing that situation again.
If you’ve been with me from the beginning (hi mum!) you’ll know that six months ago I had steroid injections in my knees. It turned out to be another of those modern medicine miracles in the long run, but in the short term it was definitely a ‘bad experience’. So, when I got a phone call telling me it might be happening again, I felt like my legs were going to give way. In the days leading up to the appointment I felt constantly nauseous and couldn’t sleep.
I couldn’t work out what was wrong with me – why was I so stressed? I’ve never been scared of needles and have self-injected many times since September. But the less rational part of my brain latched on to ‘joint injections’, and my oh-so-clever body pulled the panic chord.
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Stopping the spiral
Yet, like most of us, I also had a normal life to get on with in the meantime. And unless I’m actually a complete Wet Wipe, I’m pretty sure a lot of people will be able to relate to that feeling of dread and anxiety around appointments.
There were two things that really helped me get through it: grounding and distraction.
Grounding is a useful technique to deal with any kind of acute mental stress, and if you’ve dabbled in mindfulness you’ll probably have heard of it. In a nutshell, grounding is all about focusing on the immediate present. When we panic, our thoughts and emotions tend to spiral out of control, but by using grounding techniques we can bring ourselves back to earth (pun completely intended).
One of the best ways to do this, I’ve found, is by focusing on the senses. When I’d start to feel daunted by my looming appointment, I’d grab the fluffiest, most tactile object I could get my hands on (sorry, cat). The trick is to focus on the exact, physical feeling of it. Having a hot drink or shower can also help you focus on your immediate sensations.
If you’re not near a shower/kettle/extremely tolerant family pet, try playing the five senses game. Name five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste.
Okay, so it isn’t the most thrilling game in the world, but it is a really basic, useful way of getting grounded when you feel yourself spiralling.
Moving your mind away
The other thing that really helped me was distraction. Anyone with experience of the medical system knows that there’s often a long wait for appointments, which can mean a long build-up of stress.
It’s not always easy, but the best thing to do is to keep living your life as normally as possible. Dwelling on your ‘thing’, especially when it’s unavoidable, will only make you feel worse. Try to get on with work/school/hobbies, and make sure you have plenty of social time. When you’re alone it’s far too easy to get stuck in your own head, and suddenly your worries seem huge. Being with other people will keep you aware of the rest of your life which, believe it or not, is much more than your ‘thing’.
For me, the silver lining of it all was that in my quest be distracted, I threw myself in to life harder than ever. I agreed to every plan, read every book my prof set me and joined an MMA club – I was out so much that my housemate started to wonder if I was missing.
You don’t necessarily have to go that extreme (although I do recommend MMA- hitting stuff is fun), but anything is better than isolating yourself with your worries.
Finally, don’t feel embarrassed for being scared – its your body’s natural reaction to a stressful situation. It doesn’t make you childish or unreasonable, and you certainly aren’t the only one. Nobody is the master of zen all the time, it just isn’t possible.
Wishing you luck in all your autoimmune (or otherwise) endeavours,
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(Any opinions expressed in Izzie’s blog are not necessarily shared by Arthur’s Place. Nothing that you read in Izzie’s blog constitutes medical advice.)