I have recently come to the stark realization that having a chronic disease for nearly 20 years has caused me to adopt a level of “health worrying” that I need to confront. I think it has been a part of my life for many of these 20 years, and perhaps, even before.
That said, I know that I likely worry about symptoms that may not be as dire as I think in the moment. I find myself, time and again, considering the worst possible outcomes. The result? Anxiety to the max!
I wonder if the fact it often takes years to diagnose RA is not partially to blame. The years I spent trying to sort out the symptoms before it was clinically diagnosed were hideous. I was tested for numerous conditions, some of which were far worse and immediately life-threatening than RA.
The fear and anxiety from that period of my life still induce a cold sweat to this day. Add to that the comorbidity aspect of RA and you have a serious recipe for “health worrying."
What is health worrying?
It's different from hypochondria
Some folks may wonder why I do not just use the term hypochondria to describe this. Well, I differentiate “health worrying” from hypochondria for a couple of reasons. First, the actual definition of hypochondria, according to the dictionary, is “an abnormal anxiety about one's health, especially with an unwarranted fear that one has a serious disease.” Well, we DO have a serious disease so that means there is a real foundation for our worry.
Secondly, we have to be more vigilant about our health than someone who does not have a chronic disease. Knowing the comorbidities that accompany RA, we have to pay attention to our heart health, our skin, our vision, our digestive systems, our liver, and kidneys and on and on.
Finding a balance in worrying about health
The key is finding that perfect balance between being alert to symptoms that are in need of attention and obsessing over every ache, pain, or sensation we feel. I have to admit; I struggle with this. I am currently experiencing some digestive issues that concern me because of a paraoesophageal hiatal hernia I had surgically repaired 5 years ago. Let me just say that it is keeping me awake at night. I have an appointment with my PCP in a couple of weeks and I have no doubt we will get this resolved. Now that is my rational brain speaking.
It's hard to keep irrational thoughts away
The irrational one is saying, "What if the hernia has returned? How will we deal with this? Will it mean another surgery? The first one was difficult, to say the least. Or is this something deadly? Do my symptoms indicate something far worse?" And soon, my thoughts spin to the point I cannot calm down, sleep or function very well.
To say I HATE THIS is a vast understatement. I know when my thoughts are heading to this point that it is not good. It is out of control. The question is how to cope with it? How do we reel in these emotions? Is that even possible?
How I try to cope with health worrying
Share your fears with people who can offer comfort
I think the answer is multifaceted. First, do not hold this inside, upspoken. Share these fears with friends and family, as that can be so comforting. They often offer us calming responses and bring us back around to the more rational way to approach the issue.
Make an appointment with your healthcare provider
Secondly, call your doctor and arrange an appointment to review the symptoms and determine what is going on. While calm and rational, decide how soon you need to see him/her. It may be necessary to see them sooner than later just to relieve your mind of the “health worry” and that is just as good a reason as any to set up an appointment promptly. Once that appointment is set, you can step back, knowing that you have proactively responded.
Find positive or healthy distractions
I also know that it is often when I am stressed that I react too acutely to symptoms. So, I try to counter that with meditation, massage, exercise, time with family and friends, and other positive and healthy distractions.
If none of this works, you may need to see your doctor sooner than later, if for no other reason than to deal with this anxiety. I have come to understand that this is nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed of. Given what we deal with day in and day out, it is just another aspect of RA that needs our attention.
When was your last flare?