My husband kissed me hello after he walked in the door today. “Thanks for not having cancer…again.” A suspicious lump had me racing to my local breast center last week, and the biopsy results came in today (benign – whew!) Seven months ago, I had brain surgery to remove a tumor that turned out also to be benign. While these problems had a happy ending, they represent times of worry and alarm in our already medically challenged household. (Both of my children and I have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and suffer chronic pain and injury as a result of our hypermobile joints.)
It’s true that I go through a lot. I have become somewhat of a connoisseur of the human experience of endurance through my personal experience with it, as well as my training and past career as a Pediatric Nurse. My friends know that they can turn to me when they have their own medical scares and questions, and they often do. Being the shoulder that people cry on for so many years has taught me a thing or two about facing my own medical anxieties. And people might freak out about their own health, but it’s nothing compared to how they react when they think something is wrong with a family member or worse their children (my specialty).
Here are three tips to reduce anxiety from a new diagnosis:
The first thing that parents often express when faced with a new diagnosis is guilt. “Why didn’t I notice this sooner? How could I have missed it? Did I cause this? What did I/didn’t I do?” Somehow, we parents have gotten the message that guilt is equated with love, and I am here to assure you that it is not. Guilt is not love. It is an exhausting, useless emotion that zaps the precious energy you will need to problem solve and stay in this race for the sprint or marathon before you. Whether an illness is acute or chronic, the early signs can be deceiving. I just told you I was a Pediatric Nurse, right? Do you know which parent in our house always knew that my kids had a fever or were about to vomit? Their dad. (whomp whomp!)
People miss things. Kids are not very body aware, are sometimes unable to verbally express themselves. Kids can also have a high pain tolerance. I’ve heard tons of stories about kids running around on broken limbs, having raging ear infections without complaint, losing weight (that’s a tough one, because it happens slowly,) and on and on. You figured out the problem when you did, and you got help when you did. If it was the right thing for you to go racing into the Pediatrician at the merest hint of an issue, then we would never get an appointment, because the waiting rooms would always be choked, and you would have no life. Looking backwards with hindsight after getting a diagnosis and saying, “Why didn’t I…? I should have…?” is not a helpful feeling, nor does it mean that you love your child any more. Strike that thought!
The second thing that happens after you get a new diagnosis is that you begin to settle into your “new normal.” Eventually, you will start to relax, joke, laugh, feel happy, and maybe some of the fear and anxiety that you initially felt will ease up from time to time. You might be tempted to call this a state of “complacency,” assuming that you are in “denial” of all of the things that initially worried you. Nope – the new normal is a good place to be. We return to a state of calm, simply because our brain cannot handle being in crisis mode all the time. We need to save the cortisol spikes for the occasional crisis times – it’s no way to live. So, enjoy this break from the mental stress, and don’t beat yourself up about it.
Now that you have learned how to unplug those two sources of anxiety, there is just one more to cover. The biggest challenge with a new diagnosis is how overwhelming it is. That is the single word that comes up again and again when I am listening to people: “This is all so overwhelming.” A new medical problem can change your life. There are tests, procedures, medications, diagnoses, and sometimes no diagnosis or answers, which can be even harder to cope with. As someone who waited 40 years for a proper diagnosis, I get it! I have been through it all, and I have had to develop the patience of a Jedi to get through some of this crap. What I have learned is that it is overwhelming…if you try to focus on all of it. So don’t. Just think about the next thing. I see each medical issue as a series of tasks, and I try to discipline myself to only focus on what is next: a phone call to make an appointment, a lab test, waiting for a result, finding a new specialist, starting a new therapy. A chronically ill person doesn’t have the luxury of looking at “all of it” and being overwhelmed, because this is our life. I will always be this way. There is no end date for me. It is my new normal, and I can’t live in the crisis zone anymore.
Just remember: whatever lies in front of you, yes, you can. Once you stop feeling guilty, allow the new normal to energize you, and take it one task at a time. You can do this. And don’t forget to let people help you, because you can’t do it all.
Have a coping skill that works for you? Leave it in the comments section, and help other people who may be struggling right now!
(Please note, I am no longer a medical professional. I do not diagnose or treat problems. If you have any serious medical concerns, seek the attention of a professional.)