photo of thistle weed for article on Anxiety by Dr FIona Williams

Anxiety in the body – Anxiety in Medicine; Deconstructing our ‘Normal’

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Let’s be honest, as doctors and health professionals we learn to live with anxiety in the body. Not all at once perhaps, but by degrees. For most, its presence is accepted as part of the cut and thrust of exam preparation, competitive job placement and daily ward or practice life. In fact, learning to work under stress and deal with anxiety is considered an integral part of preparing you to be a doctor, for if you cannot cope with anxiety in medicine, you are considered to be not cut out for the job.

It just is.

Maybe, like me, you may find it hard to pin down the exact moment when feeling anxiety became part of ‘normal’ working life – and that in itself should ring an alarm bell or two. Or perhaps you also became hardened to its insidious silencing effect on your expression – barely noticing it until a major life event or illness gave it legs and brought it out in the open.

If so, have you ever questioned why?

If fear is the contagion, then anxiety is the bodily disease that results. Anxiety is the lack of settlement or ‘ease’ in our bodies that undercuts the true quality of all we are. It short-circuits our nervous system, corrupting its true function of connection and communication into one of ‘fight or flight’, as the textbooks document. It blocks our true heart-felt expression and enrichment at work and in life, nudging us to withdraw and disconnect from ourselves and others.

Persistent anxiety in our body underpins the well-known phenomenon of ‘burnout’ which is gaining traction in the medical community. It is the unnoticed precursor in medical suicide – the hidden epidemic of our profession, yet to be globally acknowledged.

However, our awareness of anxiety is blocked by the ‘normalising’ of its presence in our lives.  Like a noxious weed, it is only considered abnormal when it has grown to a size that interferes with our daily function or our treatment of patients. Until then, the odd palpitation, knot in the stomach or unexplained shallow breathing are just considered well, ‘normal’, right? Symptoms that often go away with persistent ignoring, or are numbed by our ‘coping’ behaviours of excessive eating, drinking, perhaps taking other drugs, watching mind-numbing TV series, scrolling through social media feeds, and whatever else we resort to, to try not to feel what we cannot help but feel.

And yet despite all our attempts to numb and control it, anxiety related diseases remain a huge economic burden on our society and our medical systems. How did this happen?

In truth, our current medical systems are vast seas of anxiety – each with unique combinations of toxic currents. The interdepartmental tensions, institutionalised disempowerment of staff, academic competition and the endless stream of patient anxieties – all feed into the vortex. And let’s not forget the demands and fallacies of evidence-based medicine and now the COVID-19 regulation that we are required to comply with.

No wonder we all just learn to just get on and swim in it – donning our iron-man wetsuits of protection and hardness and taking our kit of anxiolytics – to get us through each day.

Yet when we normalise our own or others anxiety, no matter how small the dis-ease felt in our body, we are simply feeding the beast, allowing it to grow unchecked and silent in the background.  Our tacit acceptance ensures its power.

If we each allow this in ourselves, trying to manage the symptoms rather than deal with the underlying root cause, is it really so surprising then, that we end up with lifestyle diseases and mental health disorders? And if we are not dealing with our own anxiety, we are not able to truly help our patients to deal with theirs. All of which is currently being exacerbated by the enormous stresses that COVID-19 and its global consequences is adding to the mix.

So how to cure the dis-ease? How to rid us of the beast that is anxiety?

If anxiety targets our body, then it is the body and its quantumly divine, intelligent particles that hold the key to ‘de-normalising’ its access.

For me, humbly choosing to be aware of my body’s communications was a basic first step. Sometimes these were subtle, sometimes not. Importantly, it meant letting go of my learned evidence-based head-knowledge and putting my body firmly in the role of teacher. A simple heart-over-head trust scenario. Being my own science experiment and observing my own feelings and dis-ease in various situations felt unfamiliar at first, and yet it brought great honesty, awareness and growth.

Choosing connection to my body and beingness through gentle breathing techniques and loving exercise – set a clear intention that my body could respond to, showing me exactly what I could and could not tolerate. Sometimes this took the form of an accident or injury, an illness, a ‘fight or flight’ response or just feeling tired or dull on eating certain foods.  Honouring each of those bodily communications in each moment at work and home took practice, and still requires all my sensitivity, focus and self-love.  But it works.

This is the golden key in recalibrating a true normal in our body.

‘Normal’ has always simply been what the majority accepts as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – but it is not truth. And our bodies know this. The body cannot be lied to indefinitely and must discard what is not true for it, in one way or another, in physical life.

It is for this reason that anxiety is no longer an acceptable ‘norm’, no matter how it is ‘packaged’ or marketed to me.  No amount of ‘resilience’ training will convince me to let it take a foot-hold in my life again, let alone rule unchecked. I am wising up to its insidious ways. I see it for the weed it is, and now there is zero-tolerance for its growth.

What is normal for me is now based on the agreement of my entire body, not just my head or what I’ve accepted from other people’s heads.  When I allow my body to determine what is true for me, my colleagues, patients and family receive the true quality of ALL of me – unmasked and unapologetic – free from the compromises and coercions that anxiety imposes on my body.

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