A test of one of my greatest fears and anxiety
I think all life events and experiences are learning lessons so in my articles and blogs I share different things I have gone through to try and help others. I recently had a medical procedure which challenged some of my greatest fears. I want to share it with you because fear can either be a motivating factor or it can keep us from taking action because it makes us feel paralyzed.
For years, after developing a life changing health condition called dystonia in 2001, I began to experience intense anxiety that I never had previously. Anxiety is not part of this health condition, but when your life changes on a dime and you can’t physically function like you used to, you can’t keep up with work and social life, travel, or play sports or do hobbies to name just a few things, it can make you wonder where you fit into the world. You feel like a square peg in a round hole, making nearly every experience daunting because you feel so completely out of place.
Anxiety gives us an illusion that life is to be feared. And that is all anxiety is… an illusion, which is critical for those who experience it to understand. Anxiety is heightened emotions that make things appear differently than they really are, which changes how we perceive life events. Many people with anxiety also ruminate to the point where their imagination takes over and further promotes the illusion of life experiences. When I speak of illusion, what I am referring to is seeing things differently than they really are. For example, being afraid of something that doesn’t warrant being fearful, such as walking to your mailbox and fearing you may pass out because you are dizzy, when you have never in your life ever passed out. In other words, if there is no evidence from past experiences that this will happen, why do we choose to believe this thought? There is no reason to, but anxiety tricks us into believing what is not real.
Why do we fear things? Usually because we think they might physically or mentally hurt us, because of the unknown, because it sometimes requires change which most of us don’t like, but more than anything I think it is because of lack of practice and experience. When we are not familiar with something or we are doing something new, it is scary. Take, for example, public speaking. Most people hate it, but the more they do it, if they have to, the more experience they have with it and the more comfortable it becomes because with practice they know what to expect. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld said, “according to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” Whether this study is true or not, I always found this to be a unique and funny way to put fear into perspective.
For anything that causes us anxiety and fear, it is important for us to face up to it. Otherwise the fear and anxiety win, and the fear and anxiety get stronger. It’s perfectly normal and perfectly fine to feel fear, but we can’t allow it to prevent us from living our life and doing what needs to be done. A popular saying is, “feel the fear and do it anyway.” The key word here is “feel.” Feel it, sit with it, embrace it, and be okay with it because fear is normal and natural, and don’t let the feeling of fear stop you from doing anything, especially things you know are in your best interest.
Dr. Claire Weekes has a wonderful program called, Pass Through Panic, where she talks about first fear and second fear. First fear is a normal response to something threatening. Second fear is fear of the feelings (pounding heartbeat, sweaty palms, shaky legs, dizziness, etc.) that accompany the first fear . This is when we panic and worry when there is no reason to be worry or be fearful. The mind is just tricked into thinking it is supposed to be afraid because it is caught in a vicious cycle of fear, adrenaline, worry, and panic, which cycles over and over until we intercept it.
So back to my story…as I mentioned, since 2001, I have lived with pain from cervical dystonia. The first 5 to 10 years I experienced pain unlike anything ever before. I literally lived on my floor all day long, except to get up to grab some food or go to the bathroom. The rest of the day I rolled around trying to find some semblance of comfort. I have learned a lot of different things to do to help me work through my pain and better manage it, but it can still be a struggle. One would think, after having been through everything I have, that not too many things related to pain would scare me. Enter the dentist and my recent surgery…
Ever since I was a little boy I have had a great fear of the dentist. Unfortunately, I had a bad experience with my childhood dentist who caused incredible pain. I’ve never had too much difficulty with any other dentists after that experience, but it stuck with me so much that it was hard to let go of that fear. This is an example of how powerful fear can be. I recently cracked my lower left wisdom tooth and it had to be removed. As soon as it was cracked, I knew that I was in for some extensive work on my mouth. Fear set in to say the least!
I went to my regular dentist for a consult and they said they could get it out easily in just a few minutes after I was numbed up, but because the tooth was so close to my nerve they didn’t want to take a chance, so they sent me to an oral surgeon. I was so relieved when the dentist said it would be easy to remove, but then I got to the oral surgeon. He shared more details with me and didn’t say anything to put me at ease. Instead, he talked about how hard it would be because of the shape of the root of my tooth. I wanted to run! However, after some checking around, I found out that he was one of the best surgeons in my area so I decided to stick with him regardless of the additional fear he put in me.
I also did some self-coaching to put my mind at ease. I told myself what I believe he should have told me, similar to the following: “Tom, despite the shape of your tooth, there is nothing to fear because I do this all day long and have for decades. This is easy for me, no different than a mechanic changing the oil in your car.” What a difference it would have made if this came out of his mouth rather than me having to conjure it up, but this kind of self-coaching can be a very useful tool for many things in life so I am actually grateful I had to find a way to talk myself down.
My appointment was set for two weeks after my consult so I had plenty of time to think about the surgery. Surprisingly, I didn’t think all that much about it. It would cross my mind every once in a while, but I would not let myself focus on it. I mainly focused on the best way to prep for it, I made sure to provide the office with a thorough history of my neck problem (cervical dystonia) so I was in a safe position during the surgery, and it gave me time to go over which sedatives and medications were best for me because of my dystonia where there might be some interactions; this is because some medications may contribute to the onset of dystonia or worsen symptoms that already exist. I have an extensive list of these medications in my book if you want to check it out.
Rather than let myself go into fear mode, I learned as much as I could. I researched it, I talked to the doctor, I reached out to friends and others who have been through similar experiences, I asked for advice, I thought of all the other times that I have been through tough challenges successfully, I put to memory affirmations and prayers, and I visualized how much better I would feel when it was all over.
I am the kind of person who is more at ease the more I know a lot about something. Others prefer knowing as little as possible which is also a totally fine approach. In my case, because I had never been sedated in my life and because I still have this ongoing fear of dental work, let alone the fear of what it might do to my neck and what the recovery would be like, going into research mode and gathering as much information as I could, kept my anxiety and fear from taking over.
For some of you, this whole story may sound melodramatic, but you have to understand that one of my greatest fears in life, besides being trapped in an elevator, is going to the dentist. Actually, I like nothing at all to do with anything medically related, which is one reason why I practice so many self-care activities. I prefer to live in prevention mode the best I can so I can avoid the pain of dealing with additional problems beyond the pain I already experience from dystonia.
The day finally came. I was in the waiting room and I became very aware of the muscles in my entire body tensing up because of my anticipation. Not just the part of my body that is normally contracted and tense because of my cervical (neck) dystonia, but every part of me. Rather than worry about how tense I felt and go into fight or flight mode which would have been very easy to do, I let myself become even more aware of how I felt by focusing on my entire body and breathing through the tension to let it go.
There was no way to avoid what had to be done so I fell into the moment the best I could and embraced the experience from beginning to end. That was the absolute key for me. I HAD to let the fear come, sit with it, talk to it rationally, and then release it. As crazy as it may sound, I had to embrace with enthusiasm the experience I was about to have.
When I was called to go back, I had a rush of fear for a split second, and then casually walked to the treatment room, making small talk with the nurse. After being prepped, I was given the general anesthesia. My biggest fear about anesthesia was not being in control, but the second I was asleep I could care less because I had no awareness of control. Literally within a few seconds of the medication being given to me, as far as I was aware, the procedure never happened. It was as if no time had passed. My last memory was them putting the oxygen over my nose. My next memory was being put in the wheelchair and brought to the car waiting outside to take me home. It was so surreal and cool and calming all at the same time. I made it through with flying colors with another experience under my belt that I can use going forward.
Why was I so afraid??? The unknown of course, which is why it is so important, for me at least, to learn as much as possible beforehand so I can know as much as I can about the unknown. Also critically important was for me to go to my rational mind and talk to my fear rather than react to my fear. Reacting to fear is what creates panic, which is what we want to avoid. Remember that fear is normal and useful. It is when we become fearful of the feelings that accompany fear where we run into trouble. If you are someone who is on this kind of cycle, it needs to be addressed because a chronic fight or flight lifestyle breeds health problems. In this state, the body is physiologically unable to be at ease and heal. Please understand that fear and anxiety always seems real, but it is only in our minds where we allow it to create a reality that often doesn’t even exist.
NASCAR driver Brad Keselowski said, “too many people run from pain, but that’s the wrong way to do it. Over time, you start to realize that pain is your body flushing out weakness. Take whatever is hardest or most difficult in life and appreciate it because it’s teaching you something. It’s making you stronger.” This is exactly what my experience at the oral surgeon did for me.
Tom Seaman is a Certified Professional Life Coach in the area of health and wellness, and the author of 2 books: Diagnosis Dystonia: Navigating the Journey (2015) and Beyond Pain and Suffering: Adapting to Adversity and Life Challenges (2021. He is also a motivational speaker, chronic pain and dystonia awareness advocate, health blogger, volunteer for the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation (DMRF) as a support group leader, and is a member and writer for Chronic Illness Bloggers Network, The Mighty, Patient Worthy, and The Wellness Universe. To learn more about Tom, get a copy of his books (also on Amazon), or schedule a free life coaching consult, visit www.tomseamancoaching.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dystoniabook1 and Instagram.