Human bodies are weird. They produce funny (and sometimes unpleasant) smells, odd sounds, and puzzling sensations. Who hasn’t been baffled by a twitching eyelid or a recurring, pounding headache? Often our mental health can be a triggering factor around certain physical symptoms and vice-versa.
I remember as a child going to school with severe stomach aches from my anxiety. I recall the insomnia that depression gave me during my teen years. In university, I began struggling with breathlessness, constantly feeling like I couldn’t get enough air into my body. It was torture and torment, and made my anxiety even worse because I was never sure when those moments of gasping for air would come. If I distracted myself and didn’t think about it, my breathing would return to normal so I figured this was just like the stomach aches and insomnia… it was triggered by my mental health challenges. I thought it would just eventually go away on its own.
One winter I had an awful flu, and although I recovered in fairly short order I suddenly started experiencing the breathlessness even more. It became so severe I would be huffing and puffing from walking across campus. Walking had never been such a struggle for me. At one point, I walked out of a class in the middle of a midterm because I couldn’t draw breath. My natural anxiety around tests would often leave me a bit breathless but this was like nothing I had ever felt before.
I began looking up my symptoms online, which I now know was not the best course of action to take. I convinced myself I had a pneumothorax, then a pulmonary embolism, then lung cancer, then diabetic ketoacidosis (that one was likely the most absurd one as I don’t have diabetes). I was terrified as to what was going on with my body but was too scared to go to the doctor--it was a strange conundrum. I spent hours on the internet self-diagnosing but the thought of having any diagnosis confirmed by a medical professional brought me to the point of a panic attack.
One day at work I was getting increasingly breathless. My lips began to turn blue, and I ran over to my manager in tears. I’m lucky she was so understanding, she quickly told me to call my boyfriend, and had him take me to the ER immediately. While she stood there and watched me call him, I think deep down she knew I was avoiding seeing a doctor.
And you know what the diagnosis was? Atypical or “walking” pneumonia from the flu. The solution was a few antibiotics and within a couple weeks I was feeling right as rain.
Until I wasn’t. I had a bit of a headache so, of course, that was a brain tumor. And then my finger kept twitching so, that was clearly amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The Ice Bucket Challenge that started around that time was to me (and my anxiety) just a way of the universe confirming I had it. I would stay up all night doing finger strength tests to stave off my anxiety, and the mental fog that those sleepless nights caused me was diagnosed, by me and Dr. Google, as early onset dementia.
I was terrified something was wrong and felt like I HAD TO figure out what it was. My anxiety, the liar that lives in my brain, was constantly pointing out “symptoms”, to the point that I began creating them. One night I was sobbing to my boyfriend because he had planned a nice dinner out for us, and I was too preoccupied with the fact that I was probably dying to even leave the house.
At the end of his rope and not knowing how to help me, he encouraged me to call my sister who has always been a huge source of support for me. As I called her, I was acutely aware of all the various parts of my body that were twitching and giving me proof that there was something wrong. When she picked up I got out half a sentence, and then started sobbing. I told her about what I had been experiencing the past few months--all of the thoughts going on inside my head. I told her everything-- even the things I was mortified to admit. And she patiently listened, and asked questions, and helped me figure out what was going on for me.
I wasn’t magically cured of my health anxiety through that one conversation but I did hang up feeling two things-- one, the twitching in my body had stopped, and two, I was hopeful that I could get past this.
And with time, counselling, and learning coping tools, I pulled myself out of the constant obsession and fixation with my health and things that could go wrong. Although to this day I do fixate on moles a bit too much, or stress out about aches and pains occasionally, I’ve gotten to a point where I can worry about it for a bit, and then either see a doctor or decide to wait a bit to see if it sorts itself out.
Having an experience where my health took a sudden nosedive that was out of my control was, I believe, a traumatic event. It awakened in me an awareness that while I could practice healthy habits, such as eating well and exercising regularly and managing my mental health, there was no guarantee that I would be 100% healthy all the time.
And I had to accept that.
I had to see a psychologist who taught me skills such as asking myself helpful questions like “am I confusing a possibility for a probability?”
The problem with anxiety is that it often convinces us something is wrong but also paralyzes us into inaction so that we just keep stressing instead of taking steps to resolve our concerns. I’ve learned to listen to my anxiety’s concerns, address them without judgement, and then drop them. It’s a skill I’ve had to develop, and it was worth every penny and minute spent doing so.
However your anxiety manifests itself, it is important to constantly update your toolbox as needed. As I like to say, it’s not my fault that I have anxiety however, it is my responsibility to learn how to manage it.