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Managing Fear in Medical Emergencies

Posted Aug 07 2009 7:16pm

Emotions in medical crises are predictable and manageable! Expect to feel any/all of the following: 

  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Suspicion
  • Helplessness
  • Discouragement

When our body, or the body of a loved one, signals trouble, fear arrives on the scene faster than an ambulance! Fear can be an overwhelming emotion, blocking our ability to make sound decisions and ask good questions. 
What do we fear? 

  • What might happen
  • A repetition of what has happened in the past
  • The unknown
  • Inability to control the outcome

Fear has a tendency to help us jump to worst-case scenarios. Dread takes over and can move into panic. 

Anger is often present. Frustration with a recurring problem, and/or dislike for the feeling of fear can help us to move into anger. Anger is a more comfortable emotion than fear, so we go to anger.  We feel more in control when we are angry.

Suspicion can also arise out of our fear and anger because we wonder whether our situation can actually get better, or will it get worse, how much the hospital or medical staff really knows, cares, pays attention, etc. Helplessness and discouragement arise when we fear we have a limited ability to affect the situation.

All these emotions are very useful! They alert us to the reality of a problem we need to manage. When we switch into management mode, the emotions can recede, allowing us to think clearly.

To switch into management mode, it can be helpful to briefly recall a skill you acquired during your adulthood. For instance, balancing a checkbook, finding a mortgage, painting a room, choosing car insurance , etc. Imagine yourself actually performing that skill. This thought process can help you switch into a more confident, competent frame of mind. Managing a medical crisis, talking to doctors, participating in the decision making process all require a degree of confidence. You do not have to understand everything about a mortgage to choose one. You do not have to understand everything about your body and medicine to make wise decisions.

Here’s an example from my own life. One of my sons at age 6 traveled with us by airplane. On the return trip, his ears hurt to such an extent he could not stop crying. Drinking water, chewing gum, yawning were of no help whatsoever. He was a little better at home, but within two days he had added fever, headache, and stiff neck to his earaches. Of course this all culminated at 7:00 on a Friday night: too late to call the doctor for an appointment! I knew these were the symptoms of meningitis. I was quite scared because meningitis can be fatal within a short time, and/or difficult to cure depending on which type of meningitis is present.

I needed to comfort my son and my husband and make some decisions with the doctors. If my son could sense my fear he would become more afraid, making exams and tests more difficult. I had to calm down. I took deep breaths, focused on being in capable adult mode and calmed down. The fear was still present of course, but not in control.

At the local emergency room, we began a series of tests. After several tests telling us next-to-nothing, the ER doctor wanted to do a lumbar puncture (also known as a spinal tap). In this procedure, which is rather painful, a needle is inserted between two bones in the spine, directly into the spinal cord to obtain fluid. Examining this fluid determines whether meningitis is the correct diagnosis. It seemed critical to rule out or confirm this disease.

Something inside told me this was not meningitis. I trusted myself. I began to ask questions. I said “No” to the lumbar puncture. It was the right decision. The ER doctor sat down and reviewed the history, reexamined my son and came to an accurate diagnosis. It was not meningitis. Treatment resolved the symptoms within 48 hours and health returned within 10 days.

If I had not pulled out of fear mode, the doctor would have performed the lumbar puncture. Ruling out meningitis through that test, the doctor would still have to sit down and rethink, reexamine my son and find the correct diagnosis.

Take time to breathe and become clear-headed in emergencies. It will serve you and your loved ones very well.

Emotions in medical crises are predictable and manageable! Expect to feel any/all of the following: 

  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Suspicion
  • Helplessness
  • Discouragement

When our body, or the body of a loved one, signals trouble, fear arrives on the scene faster than an ambulance! Fear can be an overwhelming emotion, blocking our ability to make sound decisions and ask good questions. 
What do we fear? 

  • What might happen
  • A repetition of what has happened in the past
  • The unknown
  • Inability to control the outcome

Fear has a tendency to help us jump to worst-case scenarios. Dread takes over and can move into panic. 

Anger is often present. Frustration with a recurring problem, and/or dislike for the feeling of fear can help us to move into anger. Anger is a more comfortable emotion than fear, so we go to anger.  We feel more in control when we are angry.

Suspicion can also arise out of our fear and anger because we wonder whether our situation can actually get better, or will it get worse, how much the hospital or medical staff really knows, cares, pays attention, etc. Helplessness and discouragement arise when we fear we have a limited ability to affect the situation.

All these emotions are very useful! They alert us to the reality of a problem we need to manage. When we switch into management mode, the emotions can recede, allowing us to think clearly.

To switch into management mode, it can be helpful to briefly recall a skill you acquired during your adulthood. For instance, balancing a checkbook, finding a mortgage, painting a room, choosing car insurance , etc. Imagine yourself actually performing that skill. This thought process can help you switch into a more confident, competent frame of mind. Managing a medical crisis, talking to doctors, participating in the decision making process all require a degree of confidence. You do not have to understand everything about a mortgage to choose one. You do not have to understand everything about your body and medicine to make wise decisions.

Here’s an example from my own life. One of my sons at age 6 traveled with us by airplane. On the return trip, his ears hurt to such an extent he could not stop crying. Drinking water, chewing gum, yawning were of no help whatsoever. He was a little better at home, but within two days he had added fever, headache, and stiff neck to his earaches. Of course this all culminated at 7:00 on a Friday night: too late to call the doctor for an appointment! I knew these were the symptoms of meningitis. I was quite scared because meningitis can be fatal within a short time, and/or difficult to cure depending on which type of meningitis is present.

I needed to comfort my son and my husband and make some decisions with the doctors. If my son could sense my fear he would become more afraid, making exams and tests more difficult. I had to calm down. I took deep breaths, focused on being in capable adult mode and calmed down. The fear was still present of course, but not in control.

At the local emergency room, we began a series of tests. After several tests telling us next-to-nothing, the ER doctor wanted to do a lumbar puncture (also known as a spinal tap). In this procedure, which is rather painful, a needle is inserted between two bones in the spine, directly into the spinal cord to obtain fluid. Examining this fluid determines whether meningitis is the correct diagnosis. It seemed critical to rule out or confirm this disease.

Something inside told me this was not meningitis. I trusted myself. I began to ask questions. I said “No” to the lumbar puncture. It was the right decision. The ER doctor sat down and reviewed the history, reexamined my son and came to an accurate diagnosis. It was not meningitis. Treatment resolved the symptoms within 48 hours and health returned within 10 days.

If I had not pulled out of fear mode, the doctor would have performed the lumbar puncture. Ruling out meningitis through that test, the doctor would still have to sit down and rethink, reexamine my son and find the correct diagnosis.

Take time to breathe and become clear-headed in emergencies. It will serve you and your loved ones very well.

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