Understanding the Light and Dark Sides to Anxiety with Chronic Illness

Kim Tocker avatar

by Kim Tocker |

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flare-up, anxiety, soul fatigue

Scleroderma and the Ordinary Girl

My guess is that most chronically unwell patients experience some level of anxiety on a regular basis. After all, our minds are constantly preoccupied with matters involving serious health issues, which can consequently lead to thoughts about our longevity. Anxiety can be exacerbated or caused by the experience of constant pain blended with feeling exhausted and unwell.

For some, anxiety may mean a struggle to function daily because of constant apprehension, sometimes accompanied by panic attacks. For others, it could involve feelings of dread and distress before procedures, specialist appointments, or other stressful occasions. There are lots of variations in between, and we all have particular triggers that can cause our anxiety to go into overdrive.  

So, what is the deal with anxiety? Do we always “bring it on ourselves,” or does it have a mind of its own, with all its seemingly endless levels of severity and presentation? Is there anything at all good about being anxious?

I’ve been giving my scleroderma-related anxiety a great deal of thought recently, and have realized that I seem to have two types. Since I couldn’t think of anything clever or fancy to name each one, I’m going out on a limb and labeling them “functional” and “dysfunctional.”  

Following are examples of each:

Dysfunctional anxiety

I noticed my feelings of stress rose considerably after I had two really good days. Yes, that’s right, after two extremely good days of excellent energy levels and manageable pain. I couldn’t get to sleep because I became overwrought thinking that my health might go backward again. Back to square one, as they say. Two steps forward and three back. Part of me just couldn’t face that, despite understanding the illogical variations in daily severity levels that scleroderma brings.

As I lie there at 2 a.m., my anxiety levels increased layer upon layer, and it metamorphosed into something the scale of the Grand Canyon. In the end, I was worried about my worry, knowing it was keeping me awake and that, indeed, this lack of sleep would make me sick again the next day. Around and around it went until I fell into an exhausted state of unconsciousness an hour before the alarm went off. This is what I would most certainly refer to as my “dysfunctional” anxiety. It wasn’t serving me at all.

On the other hand, it is dysfunctional anxiety that stops me from running headlong into the road during peak hour traffic, or from walking through dark alleyways on my own at 2 a.m.

Functional anxiety

I recall feeling extremely anxious about going to have a procedure done with a specialist. At the consultation several weeks prior, he had certainly said all the right things. But there was a feeling of inauthenticity to his empathy, and his words seemed rehearsed.

Despite my strong trepidation, I attended the procedure, where I experienced a rushed theater prep and a painful administration of the anesthetic. However, it was the lack of reassurance and bedside manner when he was under pressure that upset me the most. My anxiety had been a reliable warning system. Had I taken it seriously, I could have avoided a damaging and traumatic situation. Clearly, that was my “functional” anxiety at its finest.

Approaching Zen

When I feel that familiar gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach and my mind begins its angst-laden inner dialogue, I have decided to ask myself a question: “Hello, Kim … Is this anxiousness here to serve you, or not serve you? How will worrying about this enhance your life?”

I’ve had to work hard to train myself to ask these questions, and I’ve learned it’s best not to do so out loud in the supermarket queue. But I’m pleased to report that it does actually help me to avoid so much more of the unhelpful dysfunctional anxiety I have been experiencing.

 I’m feeling more Zen, sleeping a little better, and smiling a lot more.


Note: Scleroderma News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Scleroderma News or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to scleroderma.


Marilyn Mayhall avatar

Marilyn Mayhall

My husband thinks he has panic attacks because he can’t catch his breath due to his scleroderma. His diaphragm due to fasciitis makes it difficult to breath coming up stairs. He becomes panicked and doesn’t know what to do as he can’t catch his breath. Could someone give advice.


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