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When Ignoring My Body Helps My Anxiety, but Makes Managing Chronic Illness Feel Impossible

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“If you listen to your body when it whispers, you won’t have to hear it scream.”

My body and I have spent years and years living this way. And I have put years and years into learning how to ignore it and live my life. It’s like a “boy who cried wolf” situation. So now, the body has to scream if it wants my attention. And even if it does, I have gotten a lot out of ignoring it.

Unfortunately, I’m learning quickly my anxiety disorder recovery is not a one-size-fits-all for all illnesses. While ignoring the anxiety fire helped it go away, ignoring my declining physical health is not making it go away. But I’m just so worried I am wrong, and I am giving into the anxiety again and again, and letting my life pass me by.

Having an anxiety disorder (that you put a lot of effort into recovering from) and then having chronic physical illness is really a special boat to be in. Which is why I’m writing this. This is why I don’t know how to listen to my autoimmune doctor, who doesn’t understand why I run myself into the ground when it seems obvious that is not going to help.

Doing what I do, pushing through the discomfort, did not always mean I was causing more damage. With anxiety, it meant I was liberating myself. My whole life has run on the notion that by ignoring my unpleasant feelings, they pass. And I’d say I’ve had a pretty successful life up until this point. How hard it is to change something that was working so well for such a long time.

When my body told me not to go somewhere because I felt sick, at first, I would listen. I stayed home many nights my friends went out, not feeling well, but not knowing why. I’d go down to the nurse’s office every single day during the winter of my freshman year of high school. I’d get sent home from school. I’d scream at my parents something was physically wrong with me and they were not listening. It’s what my body was telling me.

My recovery came from not listening. I had to go to the movies when I felt sick, stay in class when I felt like I might fall on the floor. To not listen meant to ignore the whispers, ignore the screams.

When I went out, I would eventually feel better. If I was dizzy, it would stop. If I was nauseous, I would get distracted by my friends and it would go away.

Now, my autoimmune doctor asks me why I can’t let myself rest and continue to push myself to exhaustion. I am told I need to listen to my body.

If I had listened to my body my whole childhood and adolescence, I probably would not have done anything I did. I most likely would have had to leave school. I would have not left the house. I probably would not have gone away to college, and definitely not taught abroad after. Ignoring the screams is how I came to experience so many amazing things in my life.

That equation isn’t working the same way when there’s a chronic illness in the picture that is not anxiety.

You have to understand, I spent years feeling nauseous, with my heart racing, randomly feeling like I couldn’t breathe. And I lost a lot of life following those signals, and gained so much back from ignoring them.

When it was anxiety, the alarms were false. Isn’t it hard to tell the difference between a false alarm and a real alarm, before damage has happened? How do people know if it’s a fire alarm, or a real fire? Nobody believes it’s a real fire until they see it, and by that point, it is already damaging the building.

It is a risk to push my body past its alarms.

Loss of brain functioning. Loss of time. Loss of quality of life.

It is also a risk to give into a false alarm.

Loss of joy. Loss of opportunity. Loss of quality of life.

And to acknowledge I am actually as sick as I feel, and that is is not just a false alarm, is also terrifying.

To retrain myself to hear the body screaming is a task in itself, and to determine if it is a real or false alarm, another task entirely. If you manage chronic illness after entering recovery from health anxiety, I definitely see you.

Unsplash image by Riccardo Mion

Originally published: February 21, 2020
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