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How I fell asleep during an MRI despite my anxiety

How to cope with anxiety

How to fall asleep despite anxiety

Have you ever experienced an MRI or a magnetic resonance imaging of your body part(s)? This procedure may be required if you have an injury, suspected concussion or have a foreign substance in your body.

Many years ago I had previously experienced an MRI to eliminate suspected concussion. For those who haven’t experienced it I will briefly describe the process.

Whilst lying on a movable bed you, or the relevant part of your body, is pushed inside a tunnel. It is quite a snug fit – some would say claustrophobically so – as the upper circumference of the tunnel is only about 20cm away from your head.

As the images are taken you are requested to remain very still. The images are taken to the accompaniment of loud discordant mechanized sounds. These sounds seemed to leap from the past during the Industrial Revolution.

I found the whole experience quite bizarre. However, the high-resolution images produced by this technology are remarkably clear and detailed.

I have known many people who would rather jump through “hoops of fire” than subject themselves to an MRI experience. They find the experience quite traumatic as their anxiety levels skyrocket.

Fortunately, I had not experienced such anxiety…until recently.

After I sustained a left shoulder injury my GP agreed with my request for an MRI. Following several months of treatment by an Osteopath, my range of movement had improved. But the low-grade pain persisted – as did my restricted movement.

Just before my radiologist pushed my white-coated figure headlong into the tunnel, he asked me what radio station I would like to listen to. I requested ABC Classic FM as I hoped it would soothe away the post-modern industrial Blues.

Through the headphones, I heard my radiologist politely commanding me to keep very still, particularly my left shoulder, which was ensconced in a padded brace. Then the cacophony began. Of course, the headphones were not the noise-cancelling type. The discordant industrial Blues competed with a high-pitched frenzied violin concerto to produce something I had not previously experienced in the tunnel, namely, anxiety.

I was aware of thoughts darting around my brain like wild mice in a grain store. My breathing was rapid and shallow.  I felt the walls of the tunnel start to close in on me.

I knew what to do.

I deliberately deepened my breath past my chest and towards my diaphragm. I also focussed on the riotous jangling sounds instead of resisting them. I engaged and anchored my concentration on the sounds. Meanwhile, the polite commands continued through the audible fog – “Please keep very still now!” – as the next wave of images was being taken.

Once I was engaged with the sound I began to lessen my diaphragmatic breaths. Not only did a reduction in my breathing help me keep still it increased my CO₂ and nitric oxide levels. After a minute or two, instead of feeling terrified, I began to see the humour in the battle of the crazy sounds. I was now observing the sound like a detached curious bystander. Its ability to affect me started to diminish.

I felt my anxiety drop away. I recall my radiologist complimenting me on my deathly stillness. …until, remarkably, I fell asleep!

I recall opening my eyes sometime later looking at the roof of the tunnel and being utterly bewildered. Where was I? Then I remembered where I was.

I had no idea how long I had fallen asleep. But it must have been a deep NREM sleep given my disorientation upon waking up.

After gently sliding out from the all-enveloping tunnel I felt a little dazed but not confused and actually a little refreshed after my power nap!

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