When Your Anxiety Turns Out to Be Dysautonomia
After being told for years that my ailments were anxiety, I became a disbeliever in my own body. I stopped believing in my ability to decipher if I was physically ill or not. I spent the past two decades convincing myself that anxiety was the cause of my dizziness, weakness, heart palpitations, tightness of chest…
And like so many people with anxiety, I believed that it was my fault. I believed that I had these physical feelings because I wasn’t mentally and emotionally strong enough. My confidence was replaced with a chaotic dialogue. “You’re dizzy because you need to calm down… You’ve never passed out in the grocery store before so stop being ridiculous. You’re not going to pass out today…”
I fought anxiety. I fought so hard! I took medications. I worked out. I meditated. I changed my diet. I read self-help books. I listened to podcasts. Yet, I was still sick and I was still scared.
Learning I had dysautonomia was the first step to regaining the belief that I was interpreting my body correctly. It freed this resounding roar of, “I knew it! I knew there was something else that wasn’t right.” So many of my symptoms from dysautonomia were attributed to anxiety. All too often, anxiety has become a crutch diagnosis. It is the label many are left with when tests don’t find answers. It puts a halt to people’s journeys to find answers and it even belittles those who are struggling with anxiety by being a catch all.
Year after year, day after day—I thought I wasn’t smart enough, determined enough, strong enough… and maybe even that I wasn’t deserving enough.
Thinking I was too sensitive to be in the heat, then discovering, “Hey, I actually don’t sweat anymore.”
Believing I wasn’t strong enough to be in leadership roles. My heart would beat uncontrollably in meetings with an aggressive supervisor. Not mild palpitations, I’m talking pass-out-quality pounding. I found myself looking for every opportunity to get out just to calm my heart. I know now that the type of dysautonomia I have, hyperadrenergic postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (hyper-POTS) causes massive adrenaline dumps during times of stress.
Feeling ashamed because I was too scared to drive long distances, I often felt like I couldn’t breathe when I was driving. I’ve since been able to track that my heart rate often increases over 40 bpm in this position. It goes up because my blood is not circulating properly and my heart is trying to compensate by working harder.
Thinking I was ridiculous for being scared to go into grocery stores. The combination of standing, reaching for items and fluorescent lights was dizzying. I remember mustering up all of my energy to push through when all I wanted to do was leave. I would look around at people who were 40 years older than me and believed that they looked so much healthier than I felt.
Did I ever share I felt this way with anyone? Never! It was “crazy” talk.
So, it turns out I haven’t been as anxious as I thought. I’ve been sick! I’ve had these obstacles and I kept going. I’m not weak, I’m strong.
Now, I absolutely know that I also have anxiety. I think it would be hard to live through this and not. All of these ailments inspire anxiety; they draw it out of me and then that anxiety exacerbates everything. It’s still hard to know where the line between dysautonomia and anxiety lies. Maybe that’s because that line doesn’t end, it blurs.
Even if I had been fighting anxiety without dysautonomia, I wish I could have seen the bravery in that. I wish my internal dialogue had been loving instead of self-deprecating. No one with anxiety chooses it. I never chose it! It’s like living in a prison of fear—the least we can do for ourselves is have self-compassion as a cell mate.
So here’s to self-compassion!
I have anxiety. I have dysautonomia. I am stronger than I thought. I am braver than I knew.
Follow this journey on the Blessings of Chronic Illness
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