Can You Get PTSD/Anxiety From Constant Sickness?

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*Content warning: this post contains anxiety and vomit. *

The other afternoon I was doing some organizing. I’d just finished watching the second season of Netflix’s Get Organized with The Home Edit, so I was inspired. I’d already reorganized my kids’ books into a rainbow (that lasted maybe three days tops), and I was tackling my pajama drawer. I use the term “pajama” loosely because it’s basically just a drawer full of old t-shirts, tank tops, and stretchy pants. I promised myself that when I was done breastfeeding, I would get some actual cute matching pajama sets as a reward for my hard work and to celebrate no longer having to choose clothing based on how easily I could access the milk makers at 2 a.m.

So, I was sorting through my old t-shirts trying to free up some space for my aspirational sleepwear, when it happened. I held up a t-shirt and was trying to make a decision about whether or not I could get rid of it. Suddenly, I remembered that exact shirt being covered in toddler vomit when my son got the stomach bug last month. I should probably keep all my old t-shirts because I had to change shirts so many times that night and what if it happens again? At that thought, my stomach twisted and started churning, I started sweating, and my heart started racing. What was happening? 

Anxiety. 

That’s what was happening. I started googling “can you have health related PTSD?” Then I called my husband. “Yeah. That’s anxiety,” he said. “You probably had a mini panic attack.” 

Cool. I was on the floor of my bedroom being sent into a panic spiral by a t-shirt. 

Webcomic “On Fire,” Artist KC Green, 2013

It’s been happening a lot lately. In the last twelve months, we’ve been through sinus infections (me), clogged milk ducts (me), two hospitalizations for appendicitis (my husband), COVID (my husband), salmonella (both kids), stomach bug (both kids and me), suspected food poisoning (all of us), recurrent back issues (my husband), the flu (my son), ear infections (my daughter), adenovirus (my son), and multiple fevers, colds, random bumps and bruises and other scares. 

The Flu.

Basically, at the first sign of any health issue, my anxiety shoots through the roof. I start getting flashbacks of all the sleepless nights rocking sick kids, doing laundry and scrubbing stains out of carpet and furniture, and long days of worrying and sitting on the couch with miserable, feverish kids. 

My kids were both a bit burpy one night after dinner, and my brain immediately jumped to “they’re going to throw up tonight.” I inspect every diaper and bathroom visit for signs of illness. My daughter told me that her stomach hurt one day, and I panicked until she told me that she’d bumped herself on a toy. If my son wakes up at night because his diaper leaked or he’s congested or cold, the first thing I do is run my hand down his front and around the crib, feeling for throw up. If anything at all is out of the ordinary, I have trouble sleeping. I start getting anxious, my stomach starts getting queasy, which only makes me MORE anxious, and so on in a vicious cycle. 

I planned three birthday parties that got canceled. We’ve canceled multiple visits from family and plans with friends, and missed work and community events and plenty of other things we’d looked forward to. 

Stomach bug for me and the kids, back issues for my husband.

I don’t get excited about things anymore. What’s the point when it might not even happen? Anything I put on my calendar is a “maybe.” I find myself qualifying everything – IF we’re able to do that, IF they’re able to come, IF nothing bad happens, IF IF IF. It’s hard to commit to doing anything. I don’t tell my kids any of our plans until they’re already happening. I wait until the grandparents are actually on the road to visit or show up at our door to tell the kids that they’re coming. I wait until we’re in the car headed to the zoo to tell them where we’re going. We’ve had to disappoint them too many times already. I used to love to let the anticipation of something exciting build. We’d talk about what we were going to do or who we were going to see. I don’t anymore. 

If I feel myself getting too excited about something, I remind myself that it’s only a possibility, and there’s a very real chance it won’t happen in order to lessen the blow of potential disappointment. The days leading up to a full weekend are extra stressful. Especially the nights. I don’t sleep much at all on busy weekends because I’m waiting for something awful to happen and preparing myself to cancel everything. I make a mental list: call this person, reschedule that, email this other person, we’re just going to have to skip that, etc. Then when it’s all over, I have a strange “coming down” time where I realize that everything went as planned, and I don’t have to stress about it anymore. Until the next thing.

I know we are not alone. A lot of people with small children I’ve talked to have had a similar laundry list of calamity. Every time we’re at the pediatrician’s office they tell me that things are crazy. That helps a little. Misery loves company. Or maybe I just don’t want to feel alone in this. My friends with older kids say it gets better, and I have to believe them so I can maintain hope. This is just a season, and one day life won’t be this particular kind of hard. It’s just going to take time. And possibly anxiety meds. Whichever. 

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Sarah Savage
Sarah Savage is originally from Crestview, Florida, but has called the Auburn/Opelika area home for the last 13 years. She graduated from Auburn in 2012 with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a minor in Human Development and Family Studies. She and her husband, Jonathan, have a five year old daughter and a two year old son. Sarah works part time from home as a Communications Editor for Auburn University, but spends most of her time attempting to keep her kids from climbing—and subsequently falling off—furniture and providing an endless supply of snacks. She enjoys working out, reading, baking, listening to podcasts, and post dinner stroller walks with her family.