I’ll be honest, I was quite ignorant towards mental health problems before I was faced with demons of my own. It’s crazy to think there was a time when I didn’t believe mental health could have THAT much of an impact on someone’s life, until I saw it slowly squeezing away mine, how aware I became of the psychological and physical symptoms of anxiety I had myself.
If you’re reading this, and you too suffer with some form of anxiety, you’ll probably breath a sight of relief knowing YOU’RE NOT MAD.
Trust me, I went for years suffering behind closed doors with the draining effects of anxiety because I thought it was normal… I thought the unsure feelings in my head, and the headaches and general aches and pains were totally natural – just me feeling a bit, tired.
It wasn’t until August last year, when I suddenly woke in the night feeling like I was about to die, my heart pounding out my chest, ripping my pyjamas off as my skin heated up, sweat encompassing my entire body, my skin from the tips of my fingers down to the soles of my feet tingling like crazy.
My first panic attack. My first realisation that physical symptoms of anxiety are very, very real.
I’ve always known I was ‘a bit of a hypochondriac’ and would often joke about it because it was something that was often joked about in society in general. But when I actually realised I had a serious problem, and was formally diagnosed with health anxiety, I started my long (and still continuing) journey of understanding the severe impact anxiety has on one’s body.
Undergoing Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) was one of the best thing to ever happen to me. With the help of a therapist I was able to come to terms with the very real psychological and physical symptoms anxiety was giving me.
Googling ‘physical symptoms of anxiety’ will leave you with long lists of different symptoms from feeling sick, to severe headaches, to heart palpitations, to a general feeling of unease and dread.
Yep, these are all the ways your body reacts to anxiety. Unfair, right? But establishing that these feelings are a result of anxiety, and not a life-threatening illness, is the first step to actually kicking those symptoms in the butt for good (or having some control over them).
And it’s all well and good me saying that, because I’m still struggling and coming to terms with it all now. But it has got better, and I can see that light at the end of the tunnel, promise!
My physical symptoms are a little bit complicated than the average person with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Due to my health anxiety, my symptoms will often mimic the symptoms of an illness I’m worried about.
Thinking about MS would cause my entire body to twitch and tingle, heart attacks would cause my heart to start fluttering, my chest to feel tight, my breath to feel shorter. And I’ve experienced everything from four-day headaches to severe stomach cramps, and even loss in vision (yep, I know). In fact, as I write this I’ve had a constant twitch in my left eye for about two weeks now that I know is my body’s way of telling me I’m stressed, and generally anxious.
And of course, these physical symptoms would make my anxiety ten times worse – thrusting me into what I call, the vicious cycle.
THE VICIOUS CYCLE
This was something I learnt during my course of treatment, learning that my symptoms, and my behaviour reacting to them was making things ten times worse.
First it’s about understanding what’s triggering your anxiety. For some, that’s pretty easy. If you suffer with OCD, a specific phobia, or social anxiety, you may be very aware of your triggers. For others, for example someone that may have GAD, it may be a lot more difficult to realise you have an anxiety problem.
I’ll give my real example of a vicious cycle. My thought (or my problem) is that I have an irregular beating heart, which makes me fear that I have something wrong with it. But what triggered that? After all, I’ve always known my heart skips a beat and have been told that’s very normal. Well, recently in the news there has been a lot of talk about heart problems going undiagnosed, Sudden Adult Death Syndrome, and even George Michael’s death. All of these thoughts and triggers stem back to my overarching fear that I’m going to die young from a terrible disease, get it?
So cue the physical and mental symptoms. I start feeling sick, light headed, a fast thumping/irregular heartbeat, I feel tense, I struggle to sleep, I dwell on all my negative thoughts. In fact, if you swap out any worry, or trigger, the physical and psychological sensations remain largely the same.
And all of this is reinforced by what CBT professionals call ‘safety behaviours,’ coping behaviours used to reduce anxiety but don’t really reduce anxiety at all.
For example, Googling symptoms, checking my body, seeking reassurance from family members, visiting my GP. While all of these things offered me short-term relief they didn’t help me overcome the problem. In fact, when it came to researching my symptoms it made in 1000x worse – because every symptom you Google will come up with cancer, cancer, cancer.
If you’re reading this because you too suffer with the physical symptoms of anxiety, I hope my experiences have offered you some comfort in knowing that a.) you’re not mad, b.) you’re not alone and c.) there’s help out there for you.
And I’m quite lucky, because although I’ve experienced all of these things, I’ve never called in sick to work despite how rough I feel, while I know others find their symptoms so debilitating that they can’t even get out of bed.
There’s people on all lengths of the anxiety spectrum, there are some that can cope better than others, some that need medication and some that don’t. Wherever you put yourself, don’t feel ashamed.
Anxiety is a dreadful thing, but there’s plenty of support out there. I recommend visiting your GP and being honest about how you’re feeling. They’ll go through with you a range of options. For me, this resulted in me self-referring myself for CBT – and being added to a long waiting list. Three months later I finally started my treatment and although after four months I’m not near where I want to be, I’m definitely on the right track.
While I do believe self-help such as meditation and mindfulness is great for some people – if you’re really experiencing physical symptoms of anxiety, and you feel as though it’s having an impact on your life, please, please open up to a medical professional. GP’s are now trained to deal with mental health problems and it’s NOTHING to be embarrassed about. Yes, scary at first, but sometimes you need the guidance of people with training, not the latest wellbeing book or meditation app.
Mind have a fantastic guide to help you through seeking help for a mental health problem. And remember, you’re not mad, you’re very, very normal.