The unhealthy alliance of stress and fear

IMAGE:  World Heart Day 2015

WESTBOROUGH, MA April 20, 2016 I have read several great blogs including the post linked below by Andrea Dinardo in 2016.  The link between stress and feelings of fear is well established and undeniable.  I work with patients every day with a host of physical maladies which leave them terrified. Health-related anxiety is a real problem in America. Patients with health related anxiety over utilize their primary care doctors for reassurance that they are not gravely ill.  Yet even when told they have nothing seriously wrong with them they insist on more tests and referrals to specialists. Some who suffer with health anxiety wrongly believe they are terribly sick even dying. Even when all tests rule out illness some patients believe they are afflicted with a rare disease that no physician has yet to consider. I am working with a 54-year old woman who told some of her friends she was dying from an undiagnosed affliction due to chronic musculoskeletal pain from a motor vehicle crash.  She is very angry and frustrated with her primary care team.

I observed the complete range of emotions while working at Tolman Clinical Laboratory as a cardiac technician in Massachusetts. People referred to the Tolman Lab were having their cardiac rhythms monitored for a single day or up to 30 days in order to identify what was happening to them and what they were feeling.  Some had cardiac arrhythmia’s  but most were experiencing the result of years of stress that led them to a cardiologist – and to Tolman.

In her post, Dr. Dinardo  illustrates what I firmly believe.  People respond to internal feelings – perhaps a fluttering in the chest – with a sense of alarm – ‘I need to fight or I must flee.’  Slowly, this alarm can change to feelings of dread in a person who misreads bodily cues and automatically labels them a threat – something to be feared. The psychology of cardiology is something in which I am very interested. Our environment contributes to the perception of stress.  The autonomic nervous system is highly susceptible to chronic stress responding with elevated heart rate, hypertension, and inflammation.  Efforts to comfort anxious patients and adjust the trajectory of their lives to reduce stress and manage anxiety can be found all over.  But true change comes when someone confronts one’s fear and slowly puts the brakes on their system of arousal by learning to relax.  A good friend always says it is about the journey not about the destination so take time to watch where you are going.


3 thoughts on “The unhealthy alliance of stress and fear

  1. My best friend struggles with health anxiety. It all started when her mother got diagnosed with a very rare autoimmune disease. She was an incredibly healthy woman, and then one day it was like a light switch went off in her body and she became gravely ill. My friend’s mother’s illness changed her. I, too, experience it from time to time. My mother died of colon cancer in June, and my father is in remission. My dad’s cancer was in his neck and sinuses, so I feel my neck every morning. I try to put the brakes on, and some days I succeed, and others I don’t. Anyways, great article!

    • Wow, that is a sad story. Fortunately rare conditions like you describe are just that – very uncommon. The key is to manage stress, keep busy, sing songs, and read a poem once in a while. Find a way to have a few moments of joy each day. Thanks for sharing and for your fine words.

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