Question: A few months ago I had a medical emergency that required surgery. I recovered well and everything is fine. The problem is that I am having huge anxiety now every time I feel a pain or any kind of upset stomach. This seems to almost be getting worse and I can convince myself in these times that I have a terminal illness. I know this is silly but I can’t make it stop. Do you have any ideas for me?
Anxiety and/or depression following medical procedures such as surgery is very common.
There are many reasons why our brains may perceive disease or injury, and the medical interventions that treat them, as a threat. These include damage to our body, potential threat to our lives, loss of ability, and loss of control over ourselves during surgery or other treatments.
We can reason with our brains and tell ourselves that the surgery or treatment worked and that we are now okay, but our brains remain on alert for any sign of a similar threat.
The fact that you are experiencing anxiety when a pain or digestive system upset occurs means that your brain’s alarm system is working well. It is alerting you to the possibility of a threat to your health. The problem is that our alarm systems are all-or-nothing affairs, much like real alarm clocks. Once set they will continue to go off when the event that they have been set for occurs.
The good news is that, like an alarm clock, our alarm systems can be re-set.
The bad news is that re-setting our alarm systems is a lot more work than turning off the alarm setting on a clock.
We need to learn and use strategies for dealing with the thoughts, feelings and physical aspects associated with the anxiety that occurs when we become alarmed. Often we need some help with this, particularly when it has been going on for a long time and is interfering in our day-to-day lives.
Given that you are noticing that your anxiety is not resolving after several months it may be time for you to consider speaking with a professional trained in treating anxiety. In the meantime, talking with someone who has experienced the same type of surgery as you have and is now healthy may help. It will also be helpful to practice relaxation routines and get regular exercise.
I hope this gets better for you soon.
To ask a question of the counsellors, for a response in future columns, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Consult a Counsellor is provided by registered clinical counsellors Nancy Bock, Diane Davies Leslie Wells, Andrew Lochhead, Bruce Muir, Sara-Lynn Kang and Carolyn Howard at Pacific Therapy & Consulting inc.