Managing Anxiety Triggered by Chronic Illness
“Anxiety feels like impending doom; [one is constantly] scared. It stimulates stress and is out of proportion to the actual reality.” --John Tsilimparis, MFT, author of RETRAIN YOUR ANXIOUS BRAIN
John Tsilimparis ought to know. An anxiety sufferer since childhood, the author shares his own experiences as a frightened, self-isolating child followed by a reprieve in early adulthood, only to be revisited later on. Trained as a therapist with a specialty in treating anxiety, Tsilimparis’s familiarity with this disorder informs his approach to helping others manage it.
The burden of anxiety
Forty million people in the US suffer some form of anxiety but few seek treatment, states Tsilimparis. Although anxiety is less stigmatized now than it used to be, the majority of sufferers feel shame over it, still seeing it as a weakness, isolating themselves and suffering alone. Tsilimparis validates this growing phenomenon by pointing out that life in this country has many stress triggers these days from unemployment, terrorism, and natural disasters. Add chronic illness to that list too. The stress of managing multiple sclerosis can trigger anxiety for those susceptible to it.
The difference between stress and anxiety
The author describes stress as a normal part of life, an “edgy, worried reaction to specific life events such as divorce. It is a gentler arousal than a panic attack and lasts a short time.” By contrast, anxiety is a mental health disorder that persists, wearing down the sufferer with often false messages about the world and the sufferer’s role in it. Often we try to control what’s happening around us as a way to manage anxiety. But Tsilimparis suggests a more effective approach.
Focusing inward and retraining our responses
His approach to treating anxiety involves “… developing tools that change our internal responses to the things that make us anxious and scared.” The benefit of focusing inward and retraining our responses is that we can be much more successful at controlling our own reactions than trying to reduce anxiety by attempting to control external things that, let’s face it, are mostly beyond our control. We simply can’t control people’s behavior, stock market crashes, catastrophic illness and accidents, and a host of other events we didn’t create.
Taking hold of our inner fear narrative
For example, anticipating a medical appointment can bring on a great deal of dread. We might recall past appointments that were bad and start worrying about a repeat performance. Perhaps we felt the doctor was dismissive of our narrative about troubling symptoms. Or we dread the prospect of changing our disease-modifying drugs to something that carries more risk than the one we’re taking. Our interior monologue is driven mainly by our fears, creating a distorted reality that might be full of misinformation. But we can take hold of that inner fear narrative and infuse it with new messages.
A new narrative
With the help of a new narrative, we can head off worry and stress. For example, a lot of people can’t tolerate statins. Yet, our docs urge us to keep trying new ones. We can choose to hear that as being part of a larger agenda of the cardiovascular field to prevent heart disease rather than taking it as a personal slight. Chances are that if you can’t tolerate one statin then you can’t tolerate any of them. And yet our docs insist on torturing people with one statin after another based on the fact that our arteries won’t get clogged with plaque as long as we’re on a statin, therefore we should suffer from intolerable side effects every day.
A risk-benefit analysis
Your new inner narrative can know this and then give you permission to stand your ground. You can, for instance, choose to stop all statins and accept the risk of plaque buildup down the road in exchange for better daily quality of life now. After all, no doc has a crystal ball and can tell you unequivocally that you will have open heart surgery if you don’t take a statin. The risk-benefit analysis is a good inner narrative to develop and can be applied to so many situations. You might even ask the doc if there are any non-statin alternatives. There is one called Zetia but since we can’t count on external forces sharing valuable information, we can adopt a narrative of independent study and find such information ourselves. We are in control of that, at least.
John Tsilimparis would call this practice a part of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. It doesn’t mean you won’t have upset feelings when the doc dismisses your pain. But you can learn how to handle those feelings in a way that won’t heighten anxiety.
Do you have a fear of needles and take medication that requires injection?