The Symptoms are Real but the Thoughts are False.

This week I am definitely going to give you a trigger warning as I am going to describe some of the physical symptoms of health anxiety and how it has affected me personally.

*** So here it is – your Trigger Warning!!!

From the start I have to note that, until I did my research, I had no idea that health anxiety was a ‘thing’, that it was in fact another sub-genre of mental illness.

It got to a point in my life where I would wake up every day and think “What the hell is wrong with me today?!” It first started in the early 2000’s when I was working away from home. I just assumed that it was because I was not eating regular, healthy meals due to the stupid hours that I was working. It usually ended up being a vending machine snack during the day, then the heavy, rich hotel food in the evening…oh and the odd pint of Guinness!

It started with intense nausea that would work its way up my body and into the throat. The sensation was like a fire burning in the centre of my chest and the feeling that I had swallowed barbed wire…..both sensations at the same time! I have to say that of all the physical symptoms, this was the worst. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy! I couldn’t sleep because when I lay flat it was worse. It got so I was scared to eat, scared to swallow because it was so damn painful.

After several visits to the Doctor I was finally sent for a chest x-ray where I had to swallow a barium compound prior to the procedure. The outcome was that I had GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease. I was put on a treatment of acid reduction tablets for several months. I genuinely believe that there is a connection between GERD and anxiety, although recent studies show that the jury is still out on that one.

The thing was, I hadn’t being paying attention to my body….I mean, why would I? But from the point of being diagnosed I did become more aware, I was looking for the smallest of sensations, sensations that I would never have entertained before! I became preoccupied with every new symptom, wondering what on earth could be wrong. And this only served to amplify the anxiety more and to further increase the fear and the worry.

Over the years health anxiety has sent me to both A&E as well as to my GP. After several hours of waiting and multiple tests later, I would eventually be reassured by the Doctor that the ECG results showed that my heart was fine, even though I could feel and see the palpitation ‘blips’ on the print out. That my bloods were fine and my kidney and liver function were fine also. But this reassurance was only temporary as the cycle of new negative thoughts and physical sensations would start all over again.

In a previous post I described the ‘noise’ in my head, but this was also true of my body, it was very noisy! Noisy with uncomfortable physical symptoms which were both unexpected and unwanted.

There is a difference between anxiety attacks and panic attacks, and it’s all about the length of time. Some of the symptoms might be similar across both, but during a panic attack the symptoms were far more intense and would spring out of nowhere and would last, at their peak, for about 10 to 15 minutes. Then within an hour or so, both my mind and body would be back to something resembling normal activity. However, with generalised anxiety, the symptoms would be there for far longer.


Okay, for this next part I hope that you are sitting comfortably and still awake because here we go…..oh and also, tick off all of the following that have ever applied to you – as these are the other physical symptoms that I have experienced over the years:

Muscle tension – up and down both arms, across the chest, upper and lower back, neck, scalp and shoulders. In fact, the tops of the shoulders have always been an early trigger warning for me that an anxiety episode was approaching in that once I started to feel the intense ‘burning’ sensation then I knew it was time to take action…even if it just meant walking away from the current anxiety inducing situation in order to breathe and re-focus.

The tension in the arms was an interesting one. After a couple of GP visits I was told that it could be carpal tunnel syndrome as I was presenting with the same symptoms, i.e. wrist pain, numbness and tingling in the fingers, forearm pain when clenching fists. I went for 6 weeks of physio on 2 separate occasions but after a subsequent GP visit I was told that it was all related to the muscle tension brought on by the anxiety.

Always, and I mean always, the chest pains were the most scary because your brain would immediately go to the worst case scenario and I would end up with another visit to A&E, only to have the same tests carried out again and to be given the same reassurances that everything was okay.

So, on a visit to the GP a couple of years back I took the opportunity to reel off every symptom that I had been experiencing up to that point, from crawling sensations in my calf muscles to a popping sensation in my sternum, along with all of those already listed above, to be told that is was anxiety; it was all related to the generalised anxiety!

My GP would go on to tell me that these were all normal and harmless bodily sensations, but because I had worked myself up into all of these doom and gloom scenarios then I would believe that they were are all symptoms of something much more terrible which, in turn, only sought to worsen my already heightened anxiety. I was giving my imagination all the room it needed to create these tall stories and as I began to imagine the worst, then my body’s alarm bell would be set off producing all of the anxiety symptoms it could muster.

And once again this is where the subtle art of distraction would come into play, to distract me away from all of the negative thoughts.

Because, at the end of the day…..the sensations and the symptoms were real, but all of the thoughts were false!

Until next time, take care! 😉

I’m a big Ludovico Einaudi fan, his music is just incredible…so I’ll leave you this week with my favourite track ‘Four Dimensions’ from his 2015 album ‘Elements’.


The Subtle Art of Distraction.

In my last post I wrote about the ‘fight or flight’ response and how I needed to break the cycle of thinking that there was something wrong; feeling anxious and then experiencing the symptoms of anxiety. How I needed to recognise the trigger events that would kick off the anxiety and to reassure myself that there was, in fact, no danger at all. And finally, how once I could do all of that then I could start to deal with the symptoms to counteract the fight or flight response and being able to cope with the anxiety.

I was asked a question early on which has always stayed with me…I was asked to describe the moment immediately prior to having a panic attack, not the actual ‘event’ itself or the physical symptoms, but what was I feeling right before it happened?

It was an odd question to ask? Why? Because panic attacks can and do happen suddenly and seemingly for no apparent reason. You don’t have time to assess the situation to be able to recall every detail, but hindsight is a wonderful thing once you can train your mind to take you to that place.

bucketholes.pngThe feeling that came to mind was being so thoroughly overwhelmed. The only way I could analogise it was a bucket filling with water. At a certain point the water reaches the top of the bucket and spills out over the edge. That was the feeling, the feeling where everything emotionally and physically had built up to a point, a tipping point if you will, where it just became too much and something had to give!

“Use your senses fully. Be where you are. Look around. Just look, don’t interpret.

Be aware of the silent presence of each thing.
Be aware of the space that allows everything to be.
Listen to the sounds; don’t judge them.
Listen to the silence beneath the sounds.
Touch something – anything – and feel and acknowledge its being.
Allow the “isness” of all things. Move deeply into the Now.”
– Eckhart Tolle

So the next question was asked…what does the bucket represent? Damn these questions were good! It meant I had to think and think really hard. The bucket and the flowing water represent me, my life. It’s filling up with everything that’s going on in every moment of every day. Okay, then how do you stop the bucket from filling up and overflowing? Easy, just turn off the tap! No, you can’t do that, you just said that the flowing water represents your life. Well…the next logical step would be to put holes in the bucket, but not too many holes or else the bucket will never have water in it!

Then the next question came, which was pretty obvious when you think about it, but one that I just could not answer in that moment…what do the holes in the bucket represent?

I came away not having given an answer, but I was asked to go off and think about it. It was a couple of days later and I’d woken up around 3am, not that I’d been asleep for long anyway…but that’s a topic for another occasion. I recall picking up my phone and opening the notes app and after typing in a single word I went back to sleep. I awoke a few hours later and I did that ‘muscle memory’ thing that we all probably do now in this digital age, and I reached for my phone to check emails and social media accounts for the latest news, posts and comments. But when I opened my phone the notes app was still open with one word on screen: Distraction.

Distraction? Why I had written that? Then I remembered the bucket…the holes in the bucket represented distraction. The thing is, I already had the answers, in fact I was already doing these ‘distractions’…I just needed to be asked the questions in such a way in order for me to realise and to make the connection to these ‘healthy’ distractions that I’d been doing for so long.

So what were these distractions? Well…I like to read, watch a film, a television show or a sports event. I love listening to music, going for a walk at lunchtime, taking the dog for a walk…these were all relaxation techniques that I was already doing but now I needed to make a new association, in other words not just doing them, but to use them as tools to help me reduce the stress and anxiety. Eventually I would come to learn that these relaxation techniques would not only lower my heart rate and reduce the physical tension in my body, but would also decrease the negative thoughts and the worry. I just needed to add a few more relaxation tools to my regime.

Deep breathing is a favourite of mine, once I got the hang of it and stopped getting dizzy…being able to focus my attention solely to the breathing process in order to clear my mind.

Visualisation is another great technique in helping me to let go of the stress and anxiety. I use my imagination to take myself away to a calm and happy place. It also relaxes my body and allows my mind to feel as though I am actually there. And the beauty of these relaxation techniques is that they can be done at the start of the day, the end of the day or at any point in between to relieve anxiety and to let go of the built up tension and stress experienced during the day.

I have read though, that ‘distraction’ techniques can be more about avoiding your anxiety symptoms, that you are misleading yourself if you think that by not noticing the symptoms then they won’t bother you…and that by avoiding them this will only lead to more, not less, mental health issues.

I make no apologies, but that is just not true. For me personally, the distraction techniques work and work really well! And that is the nature of mental illness; it is very personal, it is going to be different for everyone! Okay, my anxiety still gets the best of me and some days it can be a struggle, but once I accepted it and learned to work with it instead of against it, then my life improved greatly.

I’ll sign off this week by leaving you with one of my ‘distractions’, and that is music. I’ve just finished watching Ricky Gervais’s new Netflix show After Life. It’s six episodes of sad and funny, but it’s the music that really got me. I’ve found a new band called Hammock, a two member American duo that create atmospheric music by combining orchestral arrangements with electronic beats, piano and droning guitar.

There are several of their beautiful ambient tracks in the show, namely ‘The Silence’ from their 2005 album ‘Kenotic’, or ‘Together Alone’ from the 2012 album ‘Departure Songs’…but my favourite track is not from the show and is called ‘Tremendum’ from their most recent 2018 album ‘Universalis’.

I’ve included it here for you to listen to…..just put your headphones on, kick back, relax and make the ‘Now’ the primary focus of your life.


The 3 F’s – Freeze, Fight or Flight!

Ha! Okay, okay, maybe the above title is a tiny bit misleading….it is of course ‘Fight or Flight’ with some ‘Freezing’ thrown in for good measure, but I got your attention. Don’t get me wrong, I am in no way making light of my mental health or anyone else’s for that matter, after all it affects a great many people and should be taken seriously, but at the same time I don’t want this to be all doom and gloom. If we can have a smile and a laugh along the way whilst dealing with our own issues and overcoming the stigma, then I’m up for that if you are?

So…for blog post number three; in fact for the next few blog posts, I feel that it’s now time to get down to the nitty gritty of what mental health, and more specifically anxiety, means to me.

***NOTE – I’m not sure if I should write this comment or not, but I’ll do it anyway and add a possible trigger warning for you the reader… know, just in case?

Just from looking at me, you would say that there was nothing at all wrong with me. But that is the thing with any mental health issue; it’s unseen, it’s hidden from everyone. When I think about it and if I’m being truly honest with myself, I have battled with anxiety and panic attacks for a good 20 years or more, but no one knew or suspected anything. I kept it to myself. I fought hard to always look normal. I never let on that anything was ever wrong, a skill I’d acquired over a very long time! (No ‘Taken’ movie quotes here!)

Back then even I didn’t think that there was anything wrong with me. I thought that it was just normal to be this way, dealing with everyday life and all the curve balls that would be thrown my way. I didn’t know any different.

With anxiety my mind had gotten into the habit of holding on to fear, letting the emotion roam freely and allowing it to control me, instead of letting my body deal with it in its own natural, evolutionary way. How was I ever going to get my fear response under control? It had become so I was afraid of being afraid and it felt like I had absolutely no power over it!

I now understand why these emotional responses like fear and anger exist. Ten thousand years ago, if I was walking through a forest hunting for my next meal and I’m suddenly confronted by a ten foot hairy arsed grizzly bear then I’m going to react to the danger accordingly and do one of three things; freeze on the spot, turn and run like hell or stand and fight. This is the good ol’ fashioned fight or flight response.

We have this million year old device of ours, the brain and it is designed to keep us alive. However, in today’s modern society, there really isn’t a requirement for the fight or flight response. It shouldn’t suddenly overwhelm me whilst I’m sat at my desk at work. It shouldn’t stop me from leaving the house. It shouldn’t stop me from cancelling plans right at the last minute to go out socially or feel the sudden urge to move quickly away from a particular situation. There certainly isn’t the need for the physical symptoms associated with the fight or flight response when I’m about to give a presentation, attend a job interview or take an exam; the increased alertness, the faster heartbeat, the sweating, the shallow breathing, the tense muscles, the dry mouth, the butterflies in my stomach…all preparing me for a threat that just isn’t there!

So why I was not allowing my body to get out of the fear and return to a normal state? I would get trapped in my own panicky thoughts and create all kinds of worrisome scenarios, panicky thoughts that would become repetitive, obsessive, over analysing one outcome after another. All these symptoms of anxiety were and are very uncomfortable and I just ended up believing that something was really wrong….thoughts which only further increased my anxiety.

I would get anxious about getting anxious, overthinking everything like it was some end of the World scenario and then experiencing fear of fear…and so it would go around and around in this vicious circle of thinking there was something wrong, feeling anxious then suffering the symptoms of anxiety. This was occurring even though there was no obvious source of threat or danger, so I would use my imagination to find one…”What do people think of me?”, “What if I make a fool of myself in the meeting?”, “What if I give the wrong answers in the interview?” and so on. I was creating reasons to be anxious and coupled with the physical symptoms only somehow proved to me that I should therefore be anxious…and around it would go again!

Somehow I needed to break the vicious cycle. I needed to recognise the symptoms of anxiety and to reassure myself that these symptoms were not evidence of something being really wrong. Once I could do that then I could start to deal with the symptoms to counteract the fight or flight response and then tackle the anxiety head on.

Next time on “Mental Health Musings – A Brummies Perspective”…..well I won’t give it away, so just a clue for now. It involves putting holes in a bucket!

Thanks for stopping by and stay tuned for more…

Above Picture: Glendalough, Upper Lake, County Wicklow, Ireland 🇮🇪

Random Musings #1.

So my first blog post is up. I did it! I’ll admit here and now that I’m no wordsmith and grammatically my writing is probably all over the place but I’m genuinely excited about sharing my Mental Health journey with you guys. And to all you wonderful people out there reading this right now – well for a start a massive thank you…but please do feel free to get in touch with your hints, tips and advice on writing styles, structure and content.

I’m very much new to all of this. I have so many things that I want to write about that I can’t get all of the thoughts out of my head and written down on paper quick enough. This in itself can cause me anxiety as I get overwhelmed at the sheer amount of ‘stuff’ in my head that I want to share with you all.

Okay, so this week there is no specific subject that I want to write about. In fact, I may even pen more of these ‘random musings’ posts where I just ramble on for a bit and see where my brain takes me? I know that I want to write about something, in fact I want to write about a great many things, but I know that there will be times where I’ll struggle to know what that something will be.

Will I have to delve into the deepest, darkest recess of my brain for the perfect topics to hold your attention? How about my hobbies? Nah, you don’t want to read about my vinyl collection or the habit forming art I have acquired of tsundoku where I’m buying more books than I can read! So, how about I just write about my feelings, my actual feelings about my general anxiety? Would that be so wrong? Would that be so absurd? No…I don’t think that it would be.

I’m hoping that by writing about my anxiety it will help me to make sense of it, even to give me new ways to think about it and hopefully that can help others in the process. Anxiety, in fact any Mental Health illness, by its very nature, is immensely personal. Anyone can write a blog post full of generalisations and hope that it will apply to everyone that reads it.

I don’t want to write for everyone. I want to write about what makes me unique, otherwise it will feel like I’m just getting lost in the noise of it all. But, at the same time, I don’t want people to think that I am lecturing to them when I write about my anxiety. I want people to be able to let their guard down because I truly believe that when this happens, you the reader will be more open, more vulnerable enough to see yourselves in what I write? Oh man, I really do hope that this is all making sense? Well I did warn you all….I did say that I would ramble on a bit didn’t I? Ha!

At the end of the day I don’t want my anxiety to rule me.

Because, do you know why? Life is just too damn short.

I’ll sign off for now as I want to have a think about my next topic? And besides, it’s Saturday afternoon…so time for a few Guinness and to catch up on a movie or two.

Look after yourselves and have a great weekend everyone!