What Can I Do When Physical Illness Affects My Mental Illness? Plenty, I Hope.


Just when I think I’m out, it pulls me back in. Last fall was the first time ever that I got to experience life mostly anxiety-free. I started medication, I wrote about my anxiety here on the Mighty, I did a lot of yoga, and I was feelin’ so fine.

Unfortunately, 2017 had others things in mind for me. The day before New Year’s Eve I woke up in the middle of the night with the worst heartburn of my entire life. I have had heartburn issues on and off since I got pregnant seven years ago, but this was something different. Not only could I not lie down, I couldn’t really even recline in any way. I was up for hours, miserable with the feeling that the contents of my stomach were now residing somewhere just behind my sternum.

These episodes turned into a weekly occurrence. Long story short, I got myself to a doctor, had an endoscopy, and was diagnosed with gastritis. This is a condition where the lining of my stomach is inflamed. I was put on medication, which took away that imminent barfing feeling but left me nauseous and still waking up a lot at night. And the lovely part was the endoscopy detected no real reason for me having this, which means I have no way to treat the underlying cause.

So what does that have to do with my anxiety? Plenty. First, as many others like me with mental illness will know, a lack of sleep has a direct affect on my mental state. Second, feeling nauseous most of the time really saps my motivation to do pretty much anything. Therefore I don’t, and that builds up stress.

I can’t find a way to be OK with my lack of a clear diagnosis. I end up looking for information on gastritis at least once a day, hoping to find some answer and trying to not read the paragraphs that talk about associated cancer risks.

So yeah, a recipe for an anxiety souffle. A perfect mix of fluffy, free-floating fear mixed with a creamy base of physical misery. I find my anxiety has returned in a number of familiar ways, from general misery to feeling on the verge of tears for no immediate reason, to wanting to hide in my bed.

But this article isn’t just meant to be an “Oh poor me” exercise, although I like that part of it, too. I’m trying to make sense of it all. I’m trying to see this as a situation I can cope with and not let myself fall back into the dark places I spent a good portion of my life inhabiting.

With those goals in mind, I’m working on an action plan:

1. Eat all the healthy foods. Up those leafy greens, whole grains, and omega-3 rich fish.Instead of considering it a restrictive diet, consider it fortifying my body with the equipment it needs to get me well and keep me there.

2. Serious stress reduction efforts. Yoga, classical music, aromatherapy, but also cutting myself a break. I had set some intense exercise goals at the start of the year, but now I need to admit I can’t reach all of them because I’m just not well enough to work at a high intensity on a lot of days.

3. Never, never, never give up. Yes, I want to lay down all the time, but I’m not going to. I still need to do the things. I need to play with my son and get my deadlifts in. But I can modify. I can do lighter weight and I can suggest we play a board game instead of wrestling on the floor.

4. Admit I’m not OK right now. Say it to my husband, say it to my mom, tell it to my son. I tried to be superwoman after my son was born and I was struggling with postpartum anxiety. I’m not going to make that mistake again with this battle. I can’t fight it alone, and I’m not even going to try.

5. Buy myself flowers. This last one may seem out of place, but it’s in there for a reason. I have spent over a decade wanting to buy flowers every time I walked into a grocery store. I never did; it seemed like a waste of money. But just last month a bunch of roses was too gorgeous to resist and I bought it. And then the next week I did it again. And you know what? Those flowers on my counter make me smile every day. So I’m putting it in the plan.

That’s what I’ve got so far. I don’t know how well it will work. I don’t know how long this condition will last. There doesn’t seem to be a consensus on that from what I have read. Maybe it will only be another month, maybe it will be another year, maybe it won’t go away at all. My anxiety brain hates that uncertainty. But I’m working on it.

I would love to hear from anyone else who has had to battle both mental and physical illness at the same time. Please feel free to post in comments your experiences and impart your wisdom. Let’s lift each other up and hold tight to the hope that we can create happiness for ourselves no matter what condition we find ourselves in.

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Thinkstock photo by hypotekyfidler

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