Monday, October 7, 2013

Dealing with Pain, Stress and Worry.

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Pain is something that, as a cancer patient, I'm... well... let's just say, familiar with.

From having needles drilled into my hip bones, calves, lungs and veins to bouts of diarrhea and gut pain lasting weeks to spending 20 days with bleeding gums and a throat so clogged up with ulcers that even swallowing saliva led to excruciating pain, saying I've been through a bit of pain over the last two years would be a massive understatement.

You'd think that after going through this, I'd have gotten used to it by now. That the body would adapt to it all somehow. That my pain threshold had increased.  

Unfortunately... it hasn't.

Christopher Paolini aptly named pain the "Obliterator." While you're going through pain, the only thing you think about is getting out of it.

Pain is pain. There's no escaping it, and at times in your life, you will have to go through it.

What you CAN control, however, is HOW you let it affect you.

You see, the biggest pain we feel is the one we put on ourselves.

Worry, stress and panic causes more distress than an actual procedure ever could.

And no, this isn't just limited to circumstances that involve physical pain. Before walking into an exam room, or a job interview or before a big game, how often do you find yourself pacing around nervously, doubting yourself to the point that you second guess yourself? How often do those doubts manifest as panic as you forget the answers to simple questions you know you'd get normally, or bouts of stuttering in the middle of conversation or a second delay which made you miss that open shot? After finishing the event, how often do you think back and wish you'd done something different?

Looking back on how you've acted in the past, do you ever wonder why you did all those things? 

Did it end up accomplishing anything? 
Wouldn't you have given yourself a better chance of succeeding, or just saved yourself some suffering by changing yourself to NOT worry or stress about things you can't control?

Well, it isn't always easy to do this. Sometimes, you'll find yourself doing it subconsciously, or just as a habit. And you may think it's something you have to bear with.

Well, it isn't!

The same, simple, lessons I took from learning to stay positive in cancer can help you see past these things too.

Whether you be dreading an upcoming surgery, or panicking before you enter your exam hall or just getting worked up as you're running late for work, next time you find yourself in a stressful situation, just do these 3 things.

1) Take a step back and re-examine situation.
2) Ask yourself WHY you're panicking, or worrying. Soon you'll see that the stress you're putting on yourself isn't doing anything but harming yourself.
3) Instead, focus your mind on the future and HOW you can make yourself more likely to succeed. By doing this you'll not only be more likely to be successful, you'll also be HAPPIER along the way.

This can help you get over your worry before, during and after an event. It won't reduce the pain you have to feel, or the work you'll have do. But it will increase your chances of success and reduce your suffering immensely.

So how has this attitude helped me prepare for pain?

For the first few months of my cancer treatment, I hated getting needles. Unfortunately though, it was something that had to happen. I'd never been that afraid of needles before, to be honest, but the sheer number I'd had, and a few missed injections made me even more paranoid of getting jabbed than ever before.
This fear got so bad, that one night I refused to have blood cultures done by anyone even though I'd spiked a fever while my blood counts were low - a very dangerous predicament that needs to be dealt with quickly.

The next day, I found out how important that blood test was the hard way. I developed a throbbing pain and diarrhoea from an unknown infection and within a few days, I found myself having chunks of tissue removed from my calf to diagnose the infection that hadn't been found because no culture was done.

I was pissed off. Angry at myself.

But, after a while, I resolved to do what I'd done to stay happy through my cancer. I took a step back and looked at what had happened without all the emotions and ask myself one question.

Why I was scared?

It was on that night that I realised that the intense fear I'd work myself up to before they'd take blood was more painful than the actual jab itself could ever be! That the pain I'd felt while they took some blood was nowhere near the potential harm, possibly even death, that would come from an infection that wasn't treated early!

And, looking at myself in the present, that the self-loathing I had from not doing the blood test was not accomplishing anything.

That was a huge turning point for me. It was the night I learnt that it was ME who was harming myself.

It's not like I cut out that worry immediately after seeing that... I mean, it's not like I like getting needles now... I don't think anyone does.

But you know what? I no longer let things I can't change, or things that have to be, affect me.

And you can too.

So the next time you find yourself wondering why you hadn't started preparing earlier for an exam the next day, take a step back and ask: Why am I doing that?

By lamenting over what you hadn't done, you're just stopping yourself from studying that little bit more or from getting that bit of extra sleep, which would keep you alert in the exam. It could be the difference between passing and failing.

If you're worrying before your grand final and afraid of failing, ask yourself why you're doubting yourself and what that worrying is accomplishing. If you've done the work and put in the effort, be confident in that, and focus on possible plays or the opponent's weak points instead. I mean, isn't that the most logical, best thing to do in that case? And by simply playing your game best, you'll give yourself the best chance of winning.

Over time, you'll get better and better at doing this. And you can apply it to all aspects of life. And with it, you can conquer your fear, your nervousness and your shyness.

But what about while you're going through something?

How do you stop yourself from stressing or panicking when you're in the midst of a problem?

If you'd read my post on Mary Johnson before, you'd know about that night I had a reaction to some of my blood products. After the bag of platelets was half empty, about twenty minutes in, I noticed my face was starting to itch. In fact, I found myself itching everywhere, and soon enough, my lips were swelling up to twice their normal size.

I pressed the emergency button and nurses and the emergency doctors started streaming in.

They were amazing, finding out what was wrong, getting medications up and ready and, most importantly, keeping me calm, so I didn't end up pulling out my lines or lapsing into unconsciousness.

It was all going fine... 
Until my throat began to swell.

That's when I felt myself start to panic. Eyes wide, I glanced around in all directions, looking for help. I tried to sputter out what was happening, but panicked even more as I found my words weren't even coming out. My mind was telling me to lurch out, to pull away at the nebuliser that felt like it was constricting me, to kick at the nurses and doctors who, despite all their assurances and calmness were scaring me with their sudden presence.

Then, in the middle of all of this, I took as deep a breath as I could. I stepped back and asked myself WHY. Why did I want to pull the nebuliser away? The mask may feel constricting to my face, but it was the only thing keeping my airways open at the time. Why was I scared that there were so many doctors and nurses in the room? That they were here was actually a good sign and that they were calm and focussed meant they'd been through this all before and that I'd be fine. Why was I panicking about it all? It may be uncomfortable at the moment, but by simply laying back and observing things as they went along, and being curious about what was happening (I'll probably have to be the one administering the care to someone going through something similar in the future), I'd distract myself from all those things and recover quicker from this episode as I wouldn't have an exceedingly high heart rate or other complications which could make the emergency worse.

By doing that, in my mind, I changed that experience from a frightening, horrible experience, that could have turned out much worse had I continued to panic, into a lesson.

If I was a doctor who had to walk into an emergency situation like mine, I'd handle it the same way.

First off, I'd take a breath and step back and control the panicking urges by just asking WHY.

Why should I doubt my skills or my knowledge? That wouldn't accomplish anything other than making me  more likely to hesitate, and hence more likely to fail, right? Why should I be scared of the consequences of failing? In doing that, I'd be losing time and energy that could be focused on getting the poor guy on the bed through all this.

So HOW could I get the patient through this. Other than all the emergency protocols and knowledge that I knew - what were the best things I could do for him?

One of the biggest things that comes to mind, considering my own experience, would be to keep the patient calm. I mean it's only logical. By keeping them calm, I'd reduce the chances of the patient lashing out, I'd reduce the risk of unconsciousness due to increases in heart rate and respiratory rate and I'd keep them subdued. So it's only logical that I should try to do this.

How? One way would be to talk the patient through it all. You could tell them about how many people come through their emergency just fine, or tell them how well the procedure is going or even encourage them to practice those three steps I preach on about themselves. Acting confidently, even if circumstances are bad is something that helps too! From my own experience, it's something which is extremely reassuring when you're going through hard times.

So again, by taking a step back, asking WHY until you clear your doubts and focusing instead on how you can best win past that situation, you'll give yourself the best chance of winning something. Indeed, if you think about it, it's only logical that you do this!

What about the pain we cause ourselves after an event?
The nightmares about the past? The longing to go back and go for that kiss or to change that answer from "A" to "C?"

One thing I've learnt is that THE PAST CAN ONLY AFFECT YOU IF YOU LET IT.

If you're worrying about the results of the test you've just done, if you're wondering whether or not your presentation came off as expected or if you're punishing yourself otherwise for something you've already done - take a step back and ask yourself WHY? In the end, you're only making yourself unhappy.

I know you're probably tired of me saying it, but in the end it's the message I'm trying to put through.

YOUR MIND is what perceives everything that happens to you in your life.

That means YOU decide how you feel.

And I hope by reading this, you can, if not escape pain, at least realise that you don't have to let it control you. <-- If you or a loved one needs help or if you enjoy my blogs or if you're interested in medicine, like my page on facebook =]


  1. Studying for an exam tomorrow and this calmed me down :D

  2. Good to hear buddy - I'm assuming it's the HSC english? Good luck for it =]


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