Reason Has Limits

Learning From Experience, Pt. 3

I consider myself quite a reasonable fellow, but there are few chinks in my chainmail of reason, and (unfortunately) concerns over my own health leave me most exposed. From 1998 to 2004 (ages 18-24), I was in urgent cares or emergency departments once or twice per year with panic attacks. Some would call my condition ‘hypochondria’, I prefer to call it “Medical Student Anxiety”.

I don’t think I have any disease, rather I consider (for a brief period of time) the possibility that my symptoms may be consistent with a horrible or scary disease and – even though I know the odds are low – I (despite my best efforts to direct my attention elsewhere) perseverate on the possibility of dying a terrible and unlikely death as I lack the differential diagnosis skills and Bayesian analyses to right my own cognitive ship.

Eventually, I lose sensation in my arms as my heart rate and blood pressure escalate. I go to the hospital with a heart rate of about 180-200 BPM and a blood pressure that exceeds 200/100 mmHg. I am outwardly calm as I explain to the doctor (for instance) how I was showering after a basketball game and noticed a lump in my axilla the size of a large marble. I explain that last week (in class) I learned that men can have breast cancer too, and that I got really nervous when I noticed this non-tender nodule adjacent to my lymph nodes. He understands where my panic comes from, until he palpates the region and doesn’t feel anything.

I explain that I wouldn’t think that he find anything now – it went away about 2 hours after the shower (the doctor later explains it was probably a clogged sweat gland). “You do realize that tumors don’t come and go, right?” he asked. I did, but I had already begun panicking for 2 hours, my arms were numb, my heart was racing and now I was panicking because I didn’t know how to “stop fleeing.”.

That was my first attack in 1998. Since then, I have had attacks about the concerns of various cancers, ALS, cardiac conditions and thyroid issues. Thankfully, I haven’t had a significant event since 2004.

Since 2004 I have gone through limited counseling, have a healthier relationship with my lack of belief in the divine, have become a parent and stay away from the internet when I fall ill. Somehow, that all seems to help – for now anyway.


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