26 May 2015

Fight or flight?

If you're following my blog you will know by now that I'm attempting to tackle an ongoing plight with anxiety which I believe is linked to my diagnosis of Ulcerative Colitis. To date I've briefly mentioned it both HERE and HERE but I've not really taken the time to understand the true meaning of anxiety. It's important to stress that I am merely a blogger not a doctor so please note that I am only documenting my personal experiences with both Ulcerative Colitis and Anxiety. Therefore should you need to please seek help through the appropriate channels (Hint; I am not one of them).

When I first experienced the physical symptoms of anxiety I wasn't quite sure what to make of it all. I felt frightened, a bit silly and overall exhausted by the whole process. Most of all I felt alone... that was until I stumbled upon another blogger who happened to mention that she too had dealt with anxiety. Knowing that others with Crohn's Disease or Ulcerative Colitis were experiencing the same thing as myself was extremely reassuring. So with that said I hope to continue the chain by allowing you all to accompany me on my journey of learning, tackling and hopefully overcoming or at the very least managing the physical symptoms brought on by anxiety.

What is anxiety? I hear you shout. Great question!
'Anxiety is the feeling we get when our body responds to a frightening or threatening experience. It has been called the fight or flight response. It is simply your body preparing for action, either to fight danger or to run away from it as fast as possible'
^ Understanding this basic explanation I found to be very insightful and calmed a lot of my initial worries and fears... 'The purpose of the physical symptoms of anxiety therefore is to prepare your body to cope with threat'. [An extract taken from the NHS's anxiety self help guide of which I'll explain a bit more of later on.]

So you see the jelly legs, panic, trembling and all out crying is all a part of your body's response as it tries to decide if you're going to stay where you are and tackle whatever it is that you're feeling worried about or whether (like me) you act on an overwhelming urge to leave your current surroundings which you feel uneasy in. 'Even before I get there I start to worry about all the things that might go wrong. When I arrive my heart starts to pound, my legs turn to jelly and I just know I'm going to make a fool of myself. I have to get out' [Again another extract from the NHS self help guide]

How does anxiety manifest itself?
Symptoms of general anxiety disorder listed on the NHS's website are as follows;

Psychological symptoms
   * restlessness
   * a sense of dread
   * feeling constantly 'on edge'
   * difficulty concentrating
   * irritability

Physical symptoms 
   * dizziness
   * tiredness
   * a noticeably strong, fast or irregular heartbeat
   *  muscle ache and tension
   * trembling or shaking
   * dry mouth
   * excessive sweating
   * shortness of breath
   * stomach ache
   * feeling sick
   * headache
   * pins and needles
   * difficulty falling or staying asleep
For more information about anxiety see the NHS website by CLICKING HERE

Knowing that your thought processes are being validated was of a great comfort to me. To know the reasoning why you're acting bizarrely and not overall just dulally has helped me with coming to terms of having anxiety.

According to this self help guide there are four different areas that we can work on in trying to overcome anxiety, these are;
* understanding anxiety better and beginning to tackle some of the causes.
* reducing physical symptoms.
* altering thoughts related to anxiety.
* changing behaviours related to anxiety.

Okay so to be completely honest I didn't take too much away from the NHS' anxiety self help guide but it was a great place to start in my journey. I found the guide to be a bit hit and miss with regards to having anxiety related to a diagnosis of Inflammatory Bowel Disease but it definitely gave me some areas to think about and to work on.

Assemble an anxiety diary!
If you're at the beginning of your troubles with anxiety then I thought the suggested idea of assembling an anxiety diary was a great tool to have. You're encouraged to list down over a period of two weeks (or longer) any instances when you feel uneasy. 'Rate your anxiety from 0-10 and note down anything that seems important. Were you at work or home? Who were you with? What were you doing? What were you thinking about?'
The hope is that you build up a picture of the times when you're feeling most uneasy about your thoughts, feelings or surroundings. Is there a 'trigger' to your worrying. Of course once you can pin point this then you can work towards counteracting your behaviour.  

If you've read my previous post 'feeling caged' then you'll know that my chosen strategy has been to take things one small step at a time. I've found that over time our thought processes can become a little excessive and out of proportion to the situations we face. Staying at home, head shoved firmly under the duvet (although most comfortable and the easiest option) only seems to exacerbate things. It's far too easy to snuggle up enjoying those pajama days than it is to put on a brave face and challenge the outside world. At one point I had gotten myself into such a pickle that it was easier to just stay indoors. However over time I started challenging myself, whether it be a super short car journey or a brisk walk up the road. Find an excuse to get out of the house, no matter how close by you remain until you rebuild your confidence. Slowly but surly over time you will pick yourself back up and come to realise that what you think 'the worst case scenario' is...won't always happen, if it even happens at all!
One way I am tackling my anxiety is by doing just so. I try to keep moving by little outings here and there. More likely than not they are spur of the moment rather than making any formal plans which do nothing but pile on the pressure for those of us with Inflammatory Bowel Disease. One of my usual jaunts is to the post box and back, a round journey of 15 minutes or so. It may not seem like much but it helps to clear the mind and whilst out I get clarity as to how disproportionate my feelings become whilst I am cooped up at home. Turns out I rather enjoy the outside world even if at the minute I spend most of my time avoiding it.

Set your sights on something!
Life passes us by at a super quick speed. It's easy to get lost from day to day. Truth be told there have been many occasions when I've lost track of which day of the week we are on. For when cooped up within the confines of your own home things such as the time or the day of the week pale into insignificance. One thing I set my sights on was a relaxed cup of tea not too far from home. This has been something I've put off for a REALLY long time. Although I've wanted to go, at the time when I made the plans it was a step too far for me. Yesterday I GOT THERE! Yes, little worried me made it as far as the coffee shop without freaking out and wanting to flea to the safety of my own home. To some this may feel like a small feat but to me it is hopefully another steppingstone on my road to overcoming these hurdles in life.

Am I rid of my battles with anxiety? Nope but I do definitely feel that I've come a long way since the symptoms of anxiety started to creep up on me. As of yet I do not have many of the answers needed to overcome these niggling feelings but I am hopeful that slow and steady will win the race.

If you are in need of extra support because of anxiety please contact your healthcare providers.

13 May 2015

'My illness doesn't define me'

My illness does not define me...
Here's a quote that I've heard many times over. For a long time I sat on the side of the fence which declared 'my illness doesn't define me' and in some respects you're correct, your illness (can be) a small portion of your life. In the sense that there is so much more to you, there are many more building blocks/puzzle pieces that make you into the person that you are today. You may choose to use your illness as a way of pushing yourself to reach for goals that you'd otherwise not have aimed for or maybe you're stronger today due to what battles you've had to overcome.

There is no denying that having a chronic illness impacts your daily life whether we choose to embrace this fact or not. In my case having Inflammatory Bowel Disease means that a lot of the days decisions are based around taking medications, avoiding certain foods, filtering through the types of invitations to certain events/days out and activities etc. It's a constant thought whether you're aware of it or not, it's usually lurking at the back of the mind.

Obviously I can't speak for everyone but I'm sure that many would agree with me when I say that having a chronic illness has an impact on the people who they surround themselves with. I've heard countless times of how once someone is diagnosed with either Crohn's Disease or Ulcerative Colitis that a portion of people pack their bags and run off. Which is such a shame in a sense as at the time of diagnosis you need your friends/ loved ones more than ever. However the opposite tends to happen where a certain portion of people who were once present in your life move on to other pastures. Those who are left are the ones we all treasure most; the friends, family and loved ones who stand by us through thick and thin not the flimsy acquaintances who never made the cut.
Truth be told the only option those diagnosed with these illnesses have is to 'suck it up and get on with it' (What a stupid saying anyways...) We are supposed to 'make the most of it' and take life by the horns. Usually this is how the years pan out as we all simply take it one day at a time HOWEVER there are times/days when I shut down, I curl up into a ball and I want to ball my eyes out.
(Yes, me...the woman fundraising, advocating and running a global awareness campaign I cry :P Get over it ha)

'Just don't think about it' <-- hands up how many of us battling a daily fight with Inflammatory Bowel Disease have been told to 'not think about it' or 'think positive'.
'Not thinking about it' is not an option for me as my illness effects many of the choices I make throughout the day. Have I drunk enough? Which foods will land me up in A&E? Have I remembered my medication? Have I ordered enough medication? When's my next appointment/check up? Have I filled in all of the outstanding paperwork? How many people will I end up unintentionally p*ssing off today?

'You're getting consumed by your illness' <-- anyone heard this one? Yep me too! Truth be told, it's nay on impossible to get through a single day without thinking about my chronic illness in some way shape or form. Most days I 'make the most of it' as complaining and shouting 'why me' gets you absolutely nowhere but doing so doesn't stop the random moments when it all becomes too much and I become tired of playing this game.
I am tired of being poorly I'm sure many others would agree, but I too am tired of not being able to enjoy the simple things in life. I miss the simple pleasures in life that everyone takes for granted. IBD is a HUGE part of a person's life, not only for the person diagnosed but it effects the whole family and your network of friends.

I find myself encouraging you all to find your own voice, mainly because I have seen first had what an impact one lone voice can make. One lone voice is helping to educate others, one lone voice is helping to fund-raise, one lone voice CAN and DOES make a difference! You only have one life, so why spend it hiding? Be the person you were always meant to be ....or at least be the person you deserve to be, without hiding. You are you and you have a lot to give! So what if your body is broken or you are an emotional wreck...so was I! So am I. I feel I can sit here and push you to gain a better/brighter future...for I have been through the same journey myself. I have NO IDEA where I am going, what the heck I am up to or where I will find myself in another years time. All I do know is that I hope I am still trying, for that's all I can ask of myself.

When I began my blog my mind was turning to mush as it had been so long since it was put to good use. I found myself doing puzzles and quiz books just to keep my mind active. These days I have the creativity and outlet to express things through my blogging, advocacy and campaign work which reinstates my belief that although my body is broken I still have a huge amount to give the world! As you do too..find that one thing which challenges you. I'm sure you've had to abandon some of life's plans along the way but make new ones. Set yourselves something to look forward to for these days help us to get through the rocky road ahead.

Am I at peace with my illness...NO; but I am learning to live alongside my illness. I am not as of yet at one with my illness but I am slowly navigating my way through life alongside my chronic illness. My wish is for you to become comfortable discussing your own journeys with Inflammatory Bowel Disease, adapt life to better suit your needs and that you too can find a support system that works well for you.

So again we come back to the question of, how can we say a diagnosis of a chronic illness doesn't define a person when it impacts so heavily on the choices we make, the people we surround ourselves with and the ways in which we adapt our behaviour, careers and routines? I suppose in some ways we try to push our illness to the back of our minds so that it doesn't take up all of our time but I mean that's still a pretty difficult feat. Maybe accepting that your chronic illness defines you is in some ways 'letting the illness win'? We'd all like to prove that we are stronger and ready to tackle it head on right? I believe that your chronic illness shapes the person you are today whether for better or worse, you have a small part of your character which is defined by your chronic illness.