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It’s OK If a Health Scare Makes You Depressed and Anxious (Even If It's a False Alarm)

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A couple of weeks ago, I had a health scare. It wasn’t a scare about a new condition, but rather something I thought I’d mostly overcome. It would have set back my healing and recovery about five years, if not more. I’m not sure if it’s worse being scared of the unknown when you have a health scare, or if it’s worse when it’s a devil you know. What startled me most was the intense depression and anxiety that came with this false alarm.

When you’ve overcome a lot of health issues, the fear of it returning is always in the back of your mind, and while it can be annoying, that fear also makes me more cautious about taking care of myself. My health is fragile, and sometimes I feel like I have to tiptoe around it so as not to “wake the sleeping giant.” I knew that in the days preceding, I had been putting my body through a lot of stress. I was traveling to different cities for work, was barely getting any sleep, and didn’t have much downtime at all to rest or decompress. My body was wearing thin, and I wasn’t in my usual environment.

I woke up that Saturday morning in my hotel room, and immediately felt like something was off. My heart was racing, I was lightheaded, and I didn’t know where I was (it didn’t help that I was in my fourth different bed in the span of a week). I immediately filled with dread, knowing that I had a full day ahead of me, and no idea how I was going to make it through after already being exhausted and anxious on Friday.

I use wearable technology to help track my heart rate, movement, and other health metrics, so that if I have a seizure, functional neurological disorder (FND) episode, or dissociative episode, I can track what happened. It hasn’t happened in ages, but the wearable is a safety net of sorts for a “just in case” situation. Every fiber of my being told me not to check my stats because I wasn’t sure I could handle the answer, and sure enough — all signs pointed to a seizure and dissociative episode. I watched as my heart rate spiked from 125 to 165 from the anxiety, and rushed to the bathroom when I felt the nausea rising within me.

When the initial shock wore off, my heart was still pounding in my chest when the depression started to set in. How could this happen? Why didn’t I try and stop this? Why don’t I remember any of this happening? What even happened? All these questions continued in my mind while the hopelessness and despair creeped in. It felt like years of progress were washed away in the blink of an eye. What’s the point in trying anymore?

I knew things weren’t quite adding up, and it didn’t make sense that I had no other evidence or indication of an episode occurring but I didn’t have time to think anymore, and had to get on with my day. I pushed my feelings down as hard as I could, trying to forget about the new reality I’d have to face, but my heart was still pounding the whole day and at any given moment I thought I might throw up again.

It wasn’t until Monday that I was finally able to start processing things. I didn’t get out of bed. I didn’t turn the lights on. I didn’t work. I think part of me needed that time to feel what I needed to feel and let myself be upset about something so scary. I just laid there, depressed and utterly hopeless. It didn’t make any sense — how had I dissociated for so long, and lost so much time? I finally mustered up enough energy to investigate further, and noticed inconsistencies in the data. I dug a little more, and reached out to the wearable company — sure enough, my tech had malfunctioned after a software update, and I probably didn’t have an episode after all. This made a lot more sense. Phew. It was a scare. It didn’t explain why I woke up feeling so tired, but that was probably just from being on-the-go for so long with no breaks.

Despite it being a scare and not a true health setback, the depression and anxiety lingered. I saw my therapist the next day because I needed help processing. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t relieved and back to being fine again. The thing is, just because a health scare is “just a scare,” it doesn’t mean that the feelings about that possibility aren’t real. It was only for a couple of days, but I genuinely felt like part of my life was coming crashing down. I didn’t know how to deal with that or change it, which made me feel hopeless. Though it was a scare and unconfirmed, the possibility alone was enough to make me spiral.

Over my many years of various health issues, I’ve felt anxious and frustrated when a diagnosis can’t be found and medical mysteries remain, and I’ve felt anxious and hopeless when a diagnosis feels big and scary, or like a permanent sentence. I’ve grieved over what my illnesses have taken away, and I’ve been anxious that I’ll never get better. But those are always from something concrete. I didn’t know that a scare, or a possibility, could make me feel such intense anxiety and depression. It’s important to talk about because you’re expected to just be relieved when you get good news about a false alarm. And don’t get me wrong, I’m extremely relieved! But that doesn’t make those feelings immediately disappear or make that experience any less valid. It’s still scary, and it’s OK if it takes time to bounce back.

I’m still not 100% OK after that experience, and I kind of shut down for a few days, but each day gets a little bit easier and the knot that formed in my stomach when it happened is loosening. I hope that talking about health scares and false alarms becomes more OK, and that we can allow all of our complicated feelings to exist, and validate that false alarms can bring about lingering stress long after the alarm stops ringing.

Getty Images photo by fizkes

Originally published: July 5, 2022
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