Getting through an MRI

A friend of mine called yesterday while she was sitting on her bed, legs crossed, breathing deeply, trying her best to contain her anxiety. She phoned me to say that, after many months of trying to figure out why she was having terrible sinus pain, she was having an MRI.

My friend is one of those people who hikes up the sides of mountains, skis across miles and miles of fresh powder, dives effortlessly in the ocean, and easily excels at any athletic endeavor she puts her mind to. She’s like that in her career as well, and has no fear about taking on new jobs and responsibilities and moves to keep moving up the corporate ladder. But this MRI business, it had her all shaken up.

It didn’t surprise me, partly because I’ve been there myself and partly because I knew the worries that were overwhelming her thoughts. What would they find when they peeked in there? Could it be something worrisome, something big, something devastating?

She’d been to the doctor several times and tried all kinds of remedies. During one visit, I insisted she try a neti pot. Like every other attempt, it worked for a day or two and then her pain returned. She felt miserable, and the worries built on themselves until they were as crazy-making as her throbbing headache. She and her doctor decided it was finally time for a closer look, and so the MRI was scheduled.

I’ve heard other friends say that just the idea of an MRI added stress to whatever pain or anxiety their condition brought. And not only are the what-ifs stressful, so is the idea of spending minutes or even hours inside the big, rattling machine.

It was getting in the MRI machine that sent me over the edge several years ago. My test was supposed to be two hours long, most of it spent inside a head guard that covered my face. But even before I got locked in, I was shaking.

I’d never been claustrophobic and I never anticipated I’d react so strongly so sliding into the tube, where I’d essentially be closing my eyes while images of my brain were snapped by technicians. I tried to schedule my MRI in an open machine, but for some reason, it wasn’t available. And as lay there, ready to be swallowed by the mouth of the standard machine, I got more and more worked up. No matter how much I tried to calm myself, I had a full-blown panic attack right there at the mouth of the MRI machine. It was so upsetting, I had to abandon the scan and leave the clinic. It was not my best moment.

Interestingly, this is exactly why my friend called me yesterday. She remembered what happened and she didn’t want her experience to be the same. My doctor and I found other ways to deal with my health issues at the time, but she needed to get through hers.

She asked me what set me off and how I thought she could avoid that kind of panic. I told her that I felt trapped in there and had a thought I’d never be able to get out. Of course, it wasn’t true. There was a red button to push to alert the nurse if I needed help, and my husband at the time was there holding my hand. She said that was her fear, too, especially since she’d be in the room alone.

“What if,” I said to her, “you countered that claustrophobic feeling by imagining you are out on a run. Take yourself mentally through the half-marathon you did last week?”

She was still sore from powering through that race, but also still proud of completing a challenging course.

“What if you take yourself through it, mile by mile, recalling the scenery, the other runners, how your body felt?”

She loved the idea. The MRI was scheduled to last almost exactly as long as the run took her, so the timing felt right. We talked more about the half-marathon so she would have plenty of details to call on while she was wearing the hospital gown.

This morning she called me again. With a deep breath and sounding much more relaxed, she said the visualization worked, the MRI was completed, and she was feeling relieved. As she waits for the results, and hopefully even more relief, she said she’s just going to keep bringing that run to mind. She said it worked for to think about all of this health issues, not just the MRI, as a mile-to-mile journey.

She paced herself, and it worked. And should I ever have to slide inside the MRI monster again, I will call her to remind me of how to take it.

MRIs are a saving grace of technology that can also bring up issues of anxiety for a lot of patients. What have your MRI experiences been like?