I have met a lot of anxious people in my professional work teaching math to adults. Ever calm and patient, I would work with math-anxious students to help them manage the often-overwhelming anxiety they felt trying to make sense of a subject I loved, trying to help them feel more at ease taking tests. We’d talk about strategies to help them relax their minds and bodies so they could access all the knowledge I knew they had inside.
As for myself, feeling anxious wasn’t part of who I thought I was.
Then my mother had a stroke, 2,000 miles away. She never returned to her home after entering the hospital. When I visited her in the early weeks after the stroke, I stayed alone in her empty house, lying in her bed at night unable to fall asleep, my heart pounding, my pulse racing. Worry for my mother turned into worry for myself.
I was going to have a stroke before I turned sixty, I knew for certain. I thought about the lifetime history of migraines that my mother and I shared. A doctor-relative of mine had once told me that not only the migraines themselves but also the kind of medicine I take for them might make me more susceptible to stroke. His words came back to me as I lay awake in my mother’s bed, my anxiety more and more uncontrolled.
My mother died three years later. It took me another three years before I no longer awakened in the middle of the night from time to time, filled with dread, with grief and anxiety intermingled.
Recently, I was diagnosed with osteoporosis in my lumbar spine and hips. I’ve never broken a bone in my life, my balance is excellent, and I’m in pretty good overall health, but now I worry about my bones–even though I know that the worry itself may be detrimental to my well-being, harmful to my bones.
After her stroke, while living with assistance for her daily needs and using a wheelchair, but still vibrant and full of life, my mother fell one day and broke her hip–or maybe suffered a spontaneous break that caused her to fall. Shockingly, she died 36 hours later. Maybe my bones are like my mother’s bones. I try to keep fit, I do weight-bearing exercise, I walk around my neighborhood, but I worry.
Why can’t I take the same advice I used to give my anxious students?
East Lansing, Michigan