I was working as a crisis clinician when the twin towers fell. My colleagues and I saw an increase in the number of people needing help with anxiety-related mental health issues. Sheldon Solomon, PhD, explained this phenomenon with his terror management theory – which is concerned with how humans manage threats to our survival, both real and imagined.
Parkinson’s disease (PD) threatens and terrorizes me. This “disease thief” invades my mind, body, and home — and there is nothing I can do to stop it. I live with the fear of knowing that it will show up each year and take something else from me.
This disease thief has taken my three careers: professional geologist/scientist, therapist, and professor. It took away my favorite hobby, rock collecting. I suffered significant losses of income, social networking, and personal identity. My careers represented a large part of how I saw myself in society. I retrained and now use a computer to continue my connection with my former careers. While it’s not the same as face-to-face, I’m using some of the skills I’ve acquired over the years so I can still teach. Yet, as I continue to reshape my identity, I fear the disease thief lurking in the shadows waiting to invade my life again.
In the past, I actively practiced being centered and calm. Until recently, I’d never felt terrorized or anxious, except for a short time in active combat in Vietnam. Stress has a way of exaggerating emotions, and life has been quite stressful over the past few years. We moved into a new home, had to leave our pets behind, and had trouble finding quality neurologists to treat the unique form of PD that I have. At one time, it looked like everything would fall apart. I felt that my survival was at risk.
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I tend to feel things intensely; I cry at movies and feel other people’s pain as if it were my own. I am an empath, and I wrote my PhD dissertation on advanced levels of empathy. PD changes the emotional filters and alters the perception of reality connected to those emotions. It’s another aspect of scenario looping breakdown.
Dealing with the disease thief requires terror management.
Following are the steps I take:
1. With intense emotion, good or bad, stop and breathe.
2. Do not act on the emotion.
3. Do not spin in thought around the emotion.
I begin these steps as soon as possible after the emotion hits. If I wait too long, the risk of emotional dysfunction increases. If I do nothing, emotional noise will rush in to fill the void. I follow the steps with meditation. When I am calm, I can rationally examine the emotive events.
Being terrorized by the disease thief is one example of exaggerated emotions. Many situations produce emotions, and with PD, emotions are exaggerated. My quality of life is linked to my ability to manage my emotions. It is part of my rehab plan, which includes mental attentiveness, recognizing triggers, rest, exercise, and avoidance of particular foods or chemicals. With this plan in place, I’m ready to confront the disease thief.
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