How My Mental Health Contributes to My Fibromyalgia
I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder nearly ten years ago. I was only diagnosed with fibromyalgia three years ago. At first, I was ecstatic. After years of experiencing debilitating pain and cognitive issues, I finally had an answer. Having an answer, it turned out, only led to more questions. I would have an anxiety attack, experiencing a flare shortly thereafter. That begged the question. Were my anxiety and fibromyalgia connected?
My anxiety causes me to feel terror at things other people have no issues with. For instance, I have severe panic attacks if I’m alone with a male I don’t know or trust. I worry incessantly. I overthink, so I’m ready for every contingency. Other times, I can’t concentrate for fear of making the wrong decision. When I’m in the middle of a panic attack, my body is in it’s version of fight, flight or freeze. Turns out I freeze. And when I freeze, my entire body tenses up. My body is in a nearly constant state of tension. It leaves my muscles in pain, I sweat, I have trouble sleeping and I go to the bathroom a lot.
Fibromyalgia is a condition characterized by chronic and widespread pain. Essentially it’s believed that those of us with fibromyalgia have an overactive nervous system, and we are more sensitive to physical stimuli. My pain manifests in my joints, my legs, my back, but most prominently in my skin. A touch meant to calm my anxiety feels like sandpaper on sunburn. It’s easy to see how a condition which leaves my body in a constant state of hyper-awareness could contribute to, or even cause, a fibromyalgia flareup.
If you experience long-term anxiety, your brain can release stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol on a semi-regular basis. These cause an increase in your blood pressure and heart rate. If blood pressure consistently rises due to such stimuli, there can be a heightened sensitivity to pain. Adrenaline can also be released into your system. With anxiety, our bodily stressors last a long time, so our body never quite relaxes. This can even weaken the immune system, increasing our risk of becoming ill.
Essentially, there’s circumstantial evidence to suggest that anxiety contributes to inflammation in the body and agitates the nervous system. And since fibromyalgia pain is thought to come from how our nervous system processes pain signals, there could be an overlap. There are several symptoms shared between the illnesses, such as: fatigue, muscle tension, trouble concentrating (called “fibro fog”) and digestive issues.
My body is constantly reacting to a non-existent threat and my fibromyalgia is constantly reacting in a heightened manner to everything. Each fuels the fires of the other.
Like many spoonies with an invisible illness, it’s difficult to understand what’s happening with our bodies when our doctors might not even be able to give us an answer. Much like a house guest that won’t leave, I can’t get rid of my anxiety or fibromyalgia, but I can try to live as harmoniously as they’ll let me.
Photo by Timothy Paul Smith on Unsplash