Posts Tagged ‘health anxiety’

That Time I had a Wild Panic Attack in a BART Station

Six years ago I walked onto an outbound BART train at Montgomery Station after work. It was like any ordinary day taking the train home except for the fact that I was particularly incensed by work issues as a then land use planner. Clients were being difficult and I felt trapped. As the doors closed, I stood by the doorway, fired up and ready to go… home, I guess.

The train sped along the various stops, and slowly I started breathing deeply and harshly. My mind was running in circles and trying to tell my body to do something. Once my home stop was announced, I was already hyperventilating. Soon, the body sensations of the bends kicked in and my disassociated mind came back to reality.

I confusingly held onto the bar handle until the train stopped at my station. Something was wrong, my body shouldn’t be feeling this way. Is this a heart attack? The doors opened and I sheepishly walked onto the platform, trying to make it look like all was normal and fine. By the exterior I probably was totally fine but my mind was creating a new narrative.

Instead of powering through and dismissing the obvious work-related feelings, I sat down on the cold concrete bench at Glen Park Station. Something was wrong! My hands tingled, my chest felt heavy or stuffy. I was doing deep breathing, it’s a panic attack, nothing to worry about… or was it?

I regained my senses and walked toward the escalators, pretending very hard that I was a perfectly normal person doing perfectly normal things. The slow escalator ride wasn’t helping. Instead of exiting the station into the light, I decided to sit down on a bench and breathe it out. Maybe this could be something. My mind ran through loops trying to decide if what I was feeling was true or not. I wasn’t in pain, I just felt a little off, a little breathless. Or was I actually just fine and a little scared.

I don’t recall what but some feeling in my body pushed me over the edge into disbelief. I asked a lady sitting nearby if I looked pale and she said maybe. I bought it hook line and sinker, I was having a heart attack, or dying… of something. Anything. This was it. She told the gate agent to call 911. I asked her to hold my hand.

The minutes were agony as I lay on the cold platform. I looked up at the brutalist concrete skylights as if through a looking glass of my mind. I was there but wasn’t. Suddenly the EMTs came rushing in. It was like I wasn’t in my body. They ripped my shirt apart to check for signs and kept asking if I had taken any drugs.

When I got into the ambulance they ran the usual checks, I was completely dazed at this point, expecting the worst. Then in a few minutes they said it looked like I was fine. I was stunned. I didn’t believe them, I wanted verification. Ironically I can remember everything up until about now, I can’t really remember what they did to pull me out of my psychosis. They probably showed me that my heart rate and EKG were fine.

I walked out of the ambulance sheepishly, after declining to not go. My aunt and uncle were standing there on the sidewalk. I cried. We went home.

The entire incident was traumatic and shameful. I locked it out of my mind for a long time, thinking it was a one off. But it clearly pointed to the mental scars of my surgery just a year earlier. I thought I was a ticking time bomb and for long after I poorly managed reoccurring health anxiety. It was my very first public panic attack where I went into the deep end, so to speak. For anyone recovering from surgery, I would highly recommend follow-up with a therapist if any doubts linger in your mind even after doctors have cleared you.

Dealing with Uncertainty, Higher Power, and FOMO

I learn so much about what’s happening to me by hearing others convey the same experience. This week’s group therapy dealt with uncertainty. It was so incredible to hear others share their health anxiety thoughts and immediately I felt relieved to know I wasn’t the only one dealing with them. Of course I’ve prowled the internet long enough to watch every YouTube video on this kind of anxiety to hear every story imagined but something about hearing it in real time was freeing and I felt seen.

Obsessive thinking simply latches onto uncertainty with a vengeance. For me, nothing can ever exist in a range, in ambiguity, even when medical science says it’s ok. I don’t like it, I hate it. I had a very difficult session with my therapist on this, as it is currently really underlying things. I’ve been so good all my life at being specific and detailed in creative and professional pursuits, that I never thought I’d be turning it against me.

I know very well I’m not a logical person. As an ENFP, I think in feeling and externalities. And yet I am so confident about diagnosing myself through Google or applying second guessing to doctor’s advice. Their answers are never good enough for me, even when the answer is “you’re fine.” Self-imposed uncertainty is brutal.

Something telling for me in the group were the usually vocal people who were not as chatty. I thought about the things they were dealing with, death, great loss, betrayal, very deeply impacting but yet external events. They noted they had to accept the world wasn’t fair and that they couldn’t change what had happened. Obsessing over oneself would seem a far cry from losing a loved one who defined their future. In a way they gave into a higher power.

Certainly age had a role in this topic, as older members had settled into a life, a home, and accepted its conditions. Younger folk, or rather, the new adults, are confronted with too many choices amidst an atmosphere of uncertainty. I haven’t formed a sense of permanence anywhere on this planet and social media constantly shows I can just jet off to Bangkok where an AirBnb is waiting for me.

I’m missing out on something, or am I? What is this millennial grasping that pervades so many of our decisions. Why isn’t just going on vacation good enough? Again, it points to something about precisely what I want from myself. As yet I don’t have great insight.

I’m Not Gonna Die So Do a Worry Worksheet

Lately my focus has been on “curing” my “health anxiety.” I’ll imprecisely call it hypochondria since that’s more well known, but it is more a general anxiety than the defined somatic disorder. Ever since being diagnosed with hyperaldosteronism and subsequent surgery eight years ago I’ve essentially been in regular fear that my heart could give out at any time. It waxes and wanes, originally it was kind of like a mosquito that bit me from time to time. I would worry for a little bit then it faded. In more recent years it merged with other traumas to culminate in 911 calls and doctor visits, with days of body checking and Google searches. At times this fear has created other faux illnesses.

I’ve been applying the question and answer techniques to my fears in order to fully understand and face the underlying reasons these thoughts keep occurring. Doing so could present its own problems by creating more worry but I think the status quo of unrooted worry is less desirable. If you Google “worry worksheet” you’ll get plenty of great worksheets out there that all serve the same purpose to question and experience your thoughts to discover the real fears.

Worry Worksheet Example

A good worksheet will go from difficult questions to more helpful questions. Face your fear, distill it, then present new perspectives on it.

  1. What am I worried about right now?
  2. Why is it helpful to worry about it?
  3. What if it is true?
  4. What actions have you taken in the past?
  5. Did they help?
  6. What has helped?

So I ask the questions and in each answer I ask for all the feelings that come up.

  1. What am I worried about right now? My heart and passing out. I am scared, I feel uncomfortable, I am feeling sensations.
  2. Why is it helpful to worry about it? I am alone and scared no one will find me. I want there to be someone here in case.
  3. What if it is true? Then I will die and everyone will be sad. No one will be here to pick up the pieces of my life.
  4. What’s the better outcome? The doctors will save me and I will end up recovering but it will disrupt my life.
  5. What actions have you taken in the past that did not help? Calling 911 and visiting and emailing the doctor.
  6. What actions did help? Talking to a friend, talking to my therapist, meditation, going for exercise.

This is a very abbreviated example as I could go on and on. But essentially now you have to assume the objective scientist role and pick apart your responses. Our language is really telling as to what we actually are concerned about.

  1. I am not actually concerned about my heart, I’m concerned about dying. Death is a natural fear.
  2. It’s helpful because I want to survive. I value life and value staying alive! I also may want someone around because I value people and perhaps I am lacking connection in my life because it doesn’t make sense given how long I’ve lived independently alone.
  3. If I am dead then game over. But a ha, I am more concerned about what will happen to my things than I am about myself. That’s telling!
  4. I can envision a good outcome, I survive whatever this mysterious illness is, and yet I still find reason to find worry. It points to worry as the actual problem!
  5. I already know what actions don’t result in satisfaction.
  6. What has worked is ironically the very thing we doubt.

From here, I’d probably take some pieces out to explore on. For example is my fear actually loneliness manifesting through being knocked out? Certainly with COVID, we are very alone, then why in the good times do we fiercely value independence and alone time. An underlying fear could also just be death and likely spurred by grandparents or loved ones who have died in our presence. My sudden grappling with my earthly possessions also points to something there.

Applying raw logic to our emotions can be uncomfortable and disturbing. Unfortunately that’s the human condition we have to accept. I think of worry as a helper on our journey in life. It can be used for a lot of good things to obtain benefits and help others. But the problem is that it can takeover our entire perspective on something and force us to solve in the moment.

A thing that makes worry problematic for me is my quick ability to project that entire thought into my being. Just as we can imagine being on a beautiful beach and viscerally experiencing that in our bodies, so too can we imagine the worst case scenario. Doing a worry worksheet is one technique at knocking the mind-body back to reality.