All people I know who have chronic illness challenges struggle at some point or another emotionally. There are times when our emotional suffering can overtake our physical suffering. Fear can grab a hold of us and spiral out of control, turning into anxiety or panic attacks. Thoughts turn dark and the spiral becomes depression or despair.
We’ve already explored the difficulties one faces at the onset of our illness; loss and the fears that often go hand-in-hand with it (refer to my previous post of April 8, 2019 Excerpt from My “Book” “Introduction and Initiation to Loss”). But, there are other scenarios that can cause difficult emotional responses, making it hard to maintain our equilibrium. One might be that we’ll go through a period of time when our symptoms are minimal and we have more choices available to us, our life opens up again. We might start to make plans, we may think we can get our career back on track. We may even believe that we are restored to perfect health, never to deal with the illness again. Then gradually, or perhaps suddenly, something shifts again, and we take a turn for the worse. It’s easy to see that these sets of circumstances could trigger our old fears of isolation and dysfunction or launch us into depression.
But sometimes, even if we’re doing okay physically, intense, dark emotions seem to rise out of nowhere and we are carried away by despair, hopelessness or dread. What’s going on here and what can be done to ease our minds and hearts in all types of scenarios?
First of all, it’s important to understand that because of the intricate relationship among them, when the body is in a weakened state, so is the mind and therefore, the emotions, creating an atmosphere that most of us find very challenging. I notice this with able-bodied people as well and more clearly, when they get something like the flu. At first, they’re unperturbed, and take remedies or pills and rest, knowing it will pass. But then, as the days go by and they realize this particular strain of flu might go on for a few days, they become grumpy. But then, if the flu goes on for weeks and the symptoms are difficult; high fever or stomach cramps, accompanied by sore muscles, for example, their usual cheery and determined disposition changes. They become a little nervous: When’s this going to end? They exhibit insecurity and question their significant other: Do you still love me? As people dealing with chronic illness, our challenge is on-going, which includes our emotional and mental reactions to our ill health, as well.
Secondly, it’s important to understand that some of the emotional and mental challenges that arise for people with chronic illness can be symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This understanding took me years to realize. It wasn’t until I saw a tv program about a Vietnam vet with PTSD, that I recognized myself – a lot of his symptoms were similar to mine: insomnia (although I believe mine is partially due to my neurological makeup), hypervigilance (for me, during the night: what if I have a seizure?) and occasional panic attacks (heart pounding, stomach in knots, persistent anxious thoughts). To come to the understanding that I have PTSD, was an enormous revelation for me and extremely validating.
In the past, when I exhibited these symptoms, I felt a certain shame with it: Why am I so weak-minded? Why can’t I sleep like everyone else? Why am I so fearful? Now I had a name and a reason for these particular reactions, which made me feel better about myself and therefore, more compassionate. I understood that for me, having grand mal seizures are traumatic, and that even though it’s been 20 years since I last had one, the fear of grand mal seizures is still great.
Because of this understanding, I could become kinder to myself and admit, with less shame (I’m still a work in progress), that I needed help. So, I hired caregivers. This way, at night, for example, when my anxiety becomes too much for me, when depression enters the room once again, I don’t feel like I have to “power through” – I can get up, wake up my caregiver and we can talk, have a cup of tea, and I can calm down more, and maybe even laugh!
Here are some of the classic symptoms of PTSD:
irritability, angry outbursts, guilt, shame, despair, disgust, anxiety, panic, nervousness, sadness, loss, depression, and overwhelm
sleep disturbances, hypervigilance, difficulty at work, impulsive destructive behavior, problems with concentration, strained relationships, changes in personality, loss of identity and sense of purpose
Physical symptoms of PTSD
headaches, colitis, and respiratory issues, ulcers
Of course, some of these things could be attributed to other causes, as well. It’s probably best to talk with a practitioner who is familiar with PTSD in people who are chronically ill, but if you have some of these symptoms and something resonates in you that their cause is PTSD, then I’d say chances are you are right.
As people living with chronic illness, we can feel we no longer trust our bodies, that they aren’t safe or reliable. This feeling affects the very core of our being. We feel unprotected. We live with the fear of a recurrence of our worst symptoms. We sometimes feel unsupported and misunderstood by our friends, family and doctors who think it’s all in our head, or that we aren’t trying enough to get well. This can further compound our doubts, fears and shame about our innermost selves and cause further isolation from community and society at large. Our financial position may change drastically, which affects us on a core survival level: How will we pay for any medical help? All this can be very traumatic and shouldn’t be minimized.
A direct quote from Counseling and Psychotherapy reads:
“A recent study showed that people whose worst event was a life event such as chronic illness, had more PTSD symptoms on average, than people whose worst life event was typically traumatic, such as an accident or disaster”. I feel the truth of this statement in my bones and I believe the reason for this truth is that our trauma is on-going, not a one-time occurrence.
According to studies, treatment for PTSD is multi-faceted, using a combination of education, medication, and therapies to address the effects. This is certainly true for me. In order for me to have any hope of even a fair night’s sleep, with my psychological and neurological makeup, I need a combination of hypnosis techniques, emotional support, medication and remedies. If you think you suffer from PTSD, it’s probably best to tell your practitioners (ones that understand this phenomenon) to get the help you need. It may take experimentation to figure out what works best for you, and what might make the best combination of therapies, support, medication and/or remedies. Understand that you may not ever “get over” the feeling of being traumatized but can look towards improving the quality of your life.