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The stressful search for the cause of health issues


Photo by GattoTere on Unsplash


How many times has the process of searching for answers to health issues felt like a stressful and overwhelming ordeal? You experience pain and bloating and reach out to the GP for a solution. You explain your symptoms and they offer a treatment that doesn’t seem relevant, but you reluctantly give it a go any way in the hope it will help. That doesn’t work and you’re referred on for a further appointment. But that takes months and you’re left on your own to deal with the symptoms in the meantime.


The appointment comes up and you hold on to hope that you’ll finally be offered the solution – but the symptoms are put down to stress, constipation or something else that doesn’t fit with your experience. Disappointed and frustrated, you carry on trying to cope. More symptoms come on and you repeat the arduous cycle of reaching out for help again.


The uncertainty leaves you feeling helpless and out of control, so naturally problem-solving mode kicks in. You pay attention to your symptoms and try to look for clues and make links to figure out the cause to relieve the symptoms. Nothing seems to stick, and you feel caught in a vicious cycle of chasing the solution.


We reach out to healthcare services with the trust and belief that they will have the answer and solution to a health problem. However, when that isn’t the case and you’re left with no answers or ambiguity, an urgent sense of panic steps in – if a healthcare professional can’t help, who is going to help? Will I have to live like this forever? What will happen to me? I need to try and figure it out so I can fix it before it gets worse.


Our brains don’t like uncertainty, even more so when the situation is threatening. When we don’t know what’s causing a symptom or condition, all sorts of worst-case scenarios start to come up. The fear of the unknown can make you feel helpless and out of control, only adding to stress. On top of the uncertainty and worries is the mounting pressure to figure it all out there could be dire consequences if not.


These experiences overall have a physical impact and feed into what is going on in the body. The nervous system perceives threat as well as stress so responds by activating the fight-or-flight mechanism. Although it’s an adaptive reaction and helpful in the short-term to deal with stress, navigating healthcare systems and dealing with health issues is often a longer-term pursuit and excessive activation can contribute to a vicious cycle of chronic illness and chronic stress.


The pursuit of a root cause typically means that we home in on only one piece of the puzzle. Health is impacted by of a complex network of interactions. Although there are symptoms and the biological (physiological) processes, it is also influenced by our thoughts, feelings, and experiences. The body and mind operate as one machine with millions of networks and connections within it. If a machine (e.g. a computer) develops a new issue or breaks down, how many times have you tried to scope out the source of the problem and change a setting or replace one specific part and it still doesn’t work? If you have done this before, you probably noticed frustration and stress building up. Either your efforts lead nowhere, or it works temporarily and stops again, putting you back in square one of finding a solution and leaving you feeling helpless.


Taking a step back and examining the machine as a whole, figuring out how the different parts connect and work together helps with making sense of the bigger picture (i.e. the fault). You might conclude that you need to adjust the settings on a few things that influence each other rather than only the one you thought to help the machine work smoothly. Similar to health issues, focusing on finding “the” cause may add more stress than it takes away. Particularly once all the tests and procedures have been conducted and there are no definitive answers. It’s hard to know when is enough diligence in the search for answers. Particularly as diagnoses do get missed and require advocating for yourself in a disparate, non-integrated healthcare system.

The way the healthcare system is set up doesn’t make the search any easier. A non-integrated healthcare system means looking at the bigger picture isn’t so simple. One healthcare professional may investigate one area and you’re referred on and someone looks at a different area. Each person you come across looks at a different part of the machine or software on its own and it repeatedly looks like nothing is majorly wrong. When you begin to look at the different parts at the same time, the bigger picture starts to unfold - the different parts may be out of sync or the connection between them is disrupted, which you would only be able to see by approaching it from a wider lens and a holistic viewpoint.


How do you then approach the challenges served up? Understanding the wider picture and how all the parts fit together is integral to taking productive next steps. Standing in a position where you have a better view of your experience already begins to reduce uncertainty and the stress and burden of figuring it all out. It also helps with identifying what parts of the overall picture you do have control and influence over and where you don’t, allowing you to redirect your efforts where it is more helpful for you. If you’re not sure where to start or interested in learning more, a free workbook has been created with you and your experiences in mind on Reclaiming Life from Chronic Stress & Illness.

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