For a few weeks last year I went to see a counsellor. It was at a particularly low point in my life when nothing seemed to be going to plan. I was also struggling with my deteriorating health and trying to come to some sort of mutual arrangement with my disease that would allow us both more of an equal share of my body. (Obviously the end goal was ideally 60 – 40 in my favour but keep that under your hat I don’t want to rock the boat).
During my time with the counsellor, (let’s call her Carol, as that was her name), she quickly established that I was suffering from severe anxiety. She taught me all about the ‘fight or flight’ response; that anxiety at its core is an ‘in built’ response our bodies have to perceived threats. It allows us to do whatever we deem necessary to protect ourselves when we encounter ‘danger’. She explained that the origins of this response date back to ancient times when our ancestors lived amongst natural predators; e.g. a lion approaches looking to eat you, your fight or flight responses kick in and you either punch the lion square in its furry face (inadvisable) or bolt in the opposite direction faster than the speed of light to find a hiding place (more advisable).
Well this hypothetical tale is all well and good, but as I live in Central Scotland where not many lions tend to roam free, it didn’t quite hit home, so Carol elaborated and explained how anxiety affects the body in a more day-to-day sense.
So not many of you may know this, but I have a PHD in science and stuff I received from my studies at the Laboratoire Garnier or whatever, so allow me to share my (and Carol’s) vast knowledge with you.
Here comes the science bit.
So anxiety is like the bodies alarm that alerts you to these perceived ‘dangers’. It then sends chemical messages through your body like adrenalin, which causes your heart to beat faster and stronger, increasing your blood pressure. This in turn moves blood into the larger muscles you use to ‘fight’; many of your muscle groups tense up when this happens. Blood flow is diverted away from your skins surface causing paleness, tingling and cold feet and hands. Your breathing will also change, from shallow slow breaths from your stomach to rapid breathing higher in your chest and this can lead to dizziness and hot flushes. You’ll sweat, your pupils will dilate and your whole digestive system will shut down causing everything from a dry mouth to constipation.
‘But, Professor Nicholls, how does all of this relate to IBD?’ I hear you cry. Well let me explain. Anxiety and IBD go hand in colon like your consultant on scope day. Ever felt yourself panic and perspire when in a strange place with unfamiliar surroundings and a sudden urge for the toilet? – ANXIETY. Ever been wheeled into the hospital and left in a ward with no explanation of what’s in store for you and your rear end? – ANXIOUS MUCH? Ever been walking to the shops to pick up your prescription when the local lion walks towards you? – ANXIETY OVERLOAD I CANNAE TAKE IT CAPTAIN ETCETC.
Most of our days as sufferers from IBD are spent thinking about our conditions, and anyone with a chronic illness will have experienced anxiety at some point in their lives. If not EVERYDAY, like myself. I am far more inclined to assume the worst case scenario Post-Crohn’s. I’m far more likely to fret about every potential situation that may occur ‘P.C’, and I’m faaaaaaaar more likely to plan every outing with military precision than I did ‘P.C’
So what can we do to combat this invisible menace thwarting our daily lives at every turn? Here are a few tips from Carol (and myself; let’s not get ideas above our station CAROL), to help swat away the anxiety like the pest it is.
- - Learn what triggers your anxiety - Perhaps keep a diary of what situation you were in when you felt yourself panic. Establish if there is a pattern to these episodes and allow yourself to plan these encounters better, or avoid them if possible. Is it something you can handle in a different way next time?
- - Count to 10 slowly - Speaks for itself really. Try 20 if you are Scottish and speak at 500mph like myself. Breathe in and out on each count to slow down your breathing.
- - Limit alcohol and caffeine - Both can trigger panic attacks and aggravate anxiety. Unless your anxiety trigger is alcohol or caffeine, then we’ll need to try something else, wont we CAROL.
- - Accept you can’t control everything – Try to put your worries into perspective where possible, is it really as bad as you think? Don’t patronise me, CAROL.
- - Get plenty of sleep – When it’s stressed your body needs additional rest, try to placate it where you can and get enough.
- - Talk to someone – Tell friends and family you are feeling overwhelmed, let them know how they can help you. Talk to your doctor or a therapist for professional help. You can even call me, Carol, on 0300 20… WOAH, WOAH! BACK OFF CAROL!
Sorry about that. Carol gets ahead of herself sometimes. It makes me anxious, but I faced it head on and I feel better about that. Wait a gosh-darned minute... Reverse psychology? Carol you absolute genius!
Anyway, hope this little blog-therapy session has helped YOU understand how to beat YOUR anxiety. Hope it hasn’t made you anxious as my writing often does. Carol and I are off to drive off the edge of a cliff like Thelma and Louise; she says it’s therapeutic and not at all terrifying and deadly! She knows her stuff does Carol!