The Physical Symptom I Didn't Know Anxiety Could Cause
For many, anxiety is the “acceptable” face of mental health. We can say we have anxiety and others hear us saying we’re stressed. Lots of us assume we know what anxiety looks like; we imagine our own stressful lives and magnify that by the power of x. I always thought about anxiety in terms of panic attacks, uncontrollable emotions and physical signs such as sweating or nail biting. Little did I know, my anxiety would present itself in a totally different way.
The bathroom floor is not my chosen venue for an evening, or an entire night, but when my anxiety struck it’s where I’d find myself by default. During my second year of university I found it impossible to stay away from home, alter my sleeping patterns or cope with any situation where I felt like I wasn’t in control. Despite feeling fine, my body had other ideas. I could live my life during the day, but the moment I tried to sleep I’d find myself plagued with nausea and running for the bathroom. The first time it happened — feeling miserable and alone, in the early hours of the morning and in a bed/bathroom not my own — I assumed I had an upset stomach. What else would bring on persistent vomiting?
After a few months of this I finally sought medical help with a doctor who was confused by my symptoms when blood tests seemed to indicate no stomach problems. It was only during an intermittent appointment with my psychologist when I mentioned how my physical health was getting me down that I got my answer. The feeling of relief to finally understand what was going on in my body was indescribable. I was freed from the fear each night that I would be unable to sleep with only nausea as my companion. Better still, knowing my anxiety was causing the symptoms meant I could be prescribed medication to end the cycle. (While I appreciate medication is not for everyone this felt like the right choice for me.)
Thinking back, hindsight is a great thing, sometimes I can pinpoint what was causing my anxiety to rear its ugly head; other times still remain a mystery. At the end of the day it no longer matters to me. Feeling in control of my body once more is a tremendous gift. Now I can recognize these physical symptoms for what they are, and more importantly I know how to deal with them. I can soothe myself armed with the knowledge that stress has triggered my flight-or-fight response, usually reserved for a confrontation with a grizzly bear rather than a looming deadline, causing me to feel nauseated as my body seeks to empty itself in preparation for “flight.” Having a rational explanation for my symptoms rather than allowing my mind to wander is an immeasurable comfort.
And now? Now I’m taking it one day at a time. I still get stressed, and sometimes my anxiety is worse, but being able to name that feeling has given me back my power. What frustrates me the most is the pain I endured for months with doctors who never considered my past history of anxiety and depression as possibly affecting my physical health. Perhaps that is why I’m writing. I urge you to never dismiss symptoms or accept that a medical professional doesn’t have an answer. If your body is telling you something, we have a duty to ourselves to understand the message. Not all mental health problems exhibit in the same way, all our experiences are unique, and we deserve for our entire health history to be considered, not just the physical.
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Thinkstock photo by Katarzyna Bialasiewicz