Living With Polio

Anxiety from Past Hospital Treatment

Post-Polio Health, (Volume 31, Number 3) Summer 2015

QUESTION: Sixty years later I still live daily with anxiety stemming from hospital treatment, not abusive but certainly traumatic for a child. Do you have suggestions on how I can reduce the stress of this anxiety?

Dr. Stephanie T. Machell is a psychologist in independent practice in the Greater Boston area and consultant to the International Rehabilitation Center for Polio, Spaulding- Framingham Outpatient Center, Framingham, Massachusetts.

Her father was a polio survivor.

Response from Stephanie T. Machell, PsyD: So many of my clients struggle with this! The hospital experience was indeed traumatic. You had a serious lifethreatening disease that in its acute phase included severe pain, a high fever and the inability to move and/or breathe on your own. Your family was absent and often unable to visit even briefly. And the treatments themselves could be painful and at times humiliating.

And no one was explaining why any of this was happening or letting you express your fears. If you tried, you were told to be brave, that big girls and boys don’t cry, or something similar. At that time pediatric professionals believed that children didn’t experience depression or anxiety and that only disturbed children would suffer long-term emotional effects from polio.

Of course that wasn’t true. And because what isn’t addressed cannot heal, you like so many others still suffer the aftereffects.

Anxiety can manifest as panic, worry, ruminations, obsessions, compulsions, frightening intrusive memories or nightmares, phobias, fears, a sense that something terrible might happen, avoidance of places or experiences (for example, medical care or wearing heavy clothing). Most likely you have more than one of these symptoms.

There are many self-help techniques for reducing anxiety. Mind-body techniques such as meditation, relaxation, guided imagery, gentle yoga, or tai chi “reset” an overactive autonomic nervous system.

Grounding techniques interrupt panic or flashbacks. For example: Open your eyes.
Feel your feet on the floor and/or your butt in the chair. Breathe steadily. Look at something that reminds you you’re safe.

Worriers can set a worry time of 15 minutes at the same time every day. For the other 23 hours and 45 minutes, when you catch yourself worrying, stop and say, “I need to save this for worry time.” When worry time comes you MUST worry for 15 minutes. When the time is up, you MUST stop worrying until the next worry time.

Writing can be helpful. Part of what makes trauma traumatic is that it is unspoken and unshared. Putting your experience into words, even if just for yourself in a journal, helps you process and make meaning of your experiences. Others have used art in this way.

Reading about the trauma of polio helps some and overwhelms others, so use your judgment. Along with the many memoirs there are some useful articles about trauma and the polio survivor. The best one, “Bridges to Wellness” by
Linda Bieniek, is on the PHI website. The Lincolnshire Post-Polio Library contains some excellent articles. Though not specific to polio there are also workbooks and self-help books for reducing anxiety and other aftereffects of trauma.

Have you seen a psychotherapist? If no one in your area works specifically with polio survivors, look for someone who deals with trauma and/or disability. Many of my clients have found that once they dealt with their trauma, they had a reduction in their PPS symptoms, especially fatigue and cognitive difficulties. Finding a therapist and going through therapy isn’t easy. But healing is worth it.

Tags for this article:
Mental Health
Psychological Health