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How Anxiety Almost Prevented Me from Discovering My Heart Condition

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Even on a good day, anxiety can make you feel like you’re constantly on the verge of having a heart attack.

Every move causes your heart to race out of control, and as soon as you lie down it feels like it’s skipping beats left and right. These are things I accepted as part of my mental illness. However, an unexpected collapse at work was about to change everything.

When I arrived at hospital, I found that the “Consultants in Cardiology” office wasn’t just an “office” — they took up an entire 5th floor of a hospital wing and consisted of at least 10 different cardiologists. My anxiety told me to run as far away as possible because as soon as I checked the box next to “anxiety” on a form in a doctor’s office, I knew that nothing I said after that would be taken seriously. I sat impatiently tapping my feet. I let nurses hooked me up to an EKG. My anxiety was laughing at me, calling me paranoid and pathetic, telling me I was wasting some doctor’s time because it’s all in my head — not my heart.

I sat alone in a room for what seemed like an eternity. When the door finally opened, I only noticed two things about the guy who walked in – he was wearing a white coat, and he was young. My anxiety was screaming at me what a mistake I had made — what a joke he was going to think I was, and how ridiculous I was being. All I could hear was my anxiety screaming that there is nothing wrong with me. All I ever hear is my anxiety screaming at me. But he heard something else — and half an hour later he ordered a series of tests. By the time I got to my car, I was having a panic attack. I couldn’t even remember the doctor’s name I had just spent 30 minutes talking to.

The world was spinning, my heart was racing and I just wanted to go home. The next few weeks were a blur of tests, monitors and fear. Not the fear that something was wrong – but the fear of having to go back to that office and be told it was all in my head. My anxiety had only managed to increase day by day, until I finally returned three weeks later. He pulled up my echocardiogram and gave me a crash course in interventional cardiology. I was fascinated. But when he said, “That racing heart thing, we call it inappropriate sinus tachycardia (IST),” I don’t think I really registered that he was telling me something was wrong.

And then it hit me like a freight train. This is not all in my head after all.

Suddenly my anxiety wasn’t the only thing I could hear. I could hear a very clear, very confident, very smart physician, telling me I had a physical condition, not just a mental one. It wasn’t what I was prepared for — and I tried hard to pretend like I wasn’t crying. Finally, I gave up and apologized profusely for my little breakdown. But he just told me, “It’s OK. It happens to everyone, some people are just better at hiding it.” There was no pity, no frustration, no impatience. Just understanding. It’s not often doctors are faced with someone crying in their office out of relief that they were diagnosed with something.

He put me on medication to control my heart rate, and over the next month, things began to change in a way I never saw coming. The immediate effects were obvious – I no longer felt like I was having a heart attack after walking up one flight of stairs. My heart felt stronger, and so did I. But the more subtle changes took longer. I was a little less afraid of the world. I could drive somewhere without the all-consuming fear of what would happen if I got lost. I could meet someone new without feeling like I might pass out. I could walk through a crowd and not notice the lack of escape routes. I could breathe again. Above all, I could breathe again.

For the first time in over a decade, I have been able to find moments in my day where I am not being suffocated by anxiety. It’s not a cure-all. It’s not really a cure-anything. My anxiety is still very present, but now I understand that sometimes, it’s the rapid increase in heart rate caused by IST that makes me feel anxious, and not my anxiety actually causing my heart to race.

It is easy — too easy — to get caught up in trying to treat one’s mental health and forget to pay attention to one’s physical health, and vice versa. Anxiety can make you afraid to ask for help, afraid to complain, afraid of everything. But there is no rule that says it is an “either/or” situation.

You can have both mental health problems and physical health problems. In fact, it is not at all uncommon for one to exacerbate the other. Physical illness can be difficult to diagnose when it hides behind mental illness. But the hardest part is finding doctors who are willing to believe in both — and more importantly, willing to believe in you.

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Thinkstock photo via fizkes

Originally published: June 15, 2017
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