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’.