The Physical Symptoms of Anxiety

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(Small addition: I’m going to start seeing a one-on-one therapist. Prior to this, it was more than a group thing. So, we’ll see if things change for this journal.)

I’ve touched on this in other posts, but I figure I should go into some more details about my experience with the physical side of anxiety.  This is why I thought at the beginning that I was dealing with heart problems.  The tightness in my chest and rapid breathing kept having me think it was a heart attack.  Took a long time to realize that having one every few days didn’t make much sense.  I would have had some long lasting effect or ended up in the hospital if my heart was in that bad a shape.  At the very least, I’d have an attack that would dwarf all the others, but it never happened.  This is one of the thought processes that led me to looking into anxiety.

That isn’t to say I didn’t check out the physical side.  Way back when it started as a mild issue that showed up from time to time, I happened to have some appointments with a cardiologists.  They didn’t find anything wrong aside from a heart flutter that would be the equivalent of drinking two cans of Coca Cola in one sitting.  Apparently, this is something that people did to imitate a heart condition to get out of the draft.  Not sure how the doctors didn’t catch the smell of soda on the person’s breath, but that’s a different story that I have no experience with.  Anyway, nothing out of the ordinary was found and I went about my life.

Things got rough when I started having the following on an almost daily basis:

  1. Light-headed sensations that made me want to lie down.  I always considered this to be exhaustion, which was a factor.
  2. A tightness across my upper torso, which I always call the invisible anaconda.  This was the worst part because it’s what had me think it was a heart attack.
  3. Muscle tension would turn up. Most commonly, I’d feel like I was on the verge of getting lockjaw.  Sometimes I would think my limbs were getting pulled to the edge of their limits too.
  4. I’d develop a cough, which would occasionally come first.  This would give the illusion of it being allergies during the high pollen days.  Weird thing is that this felt like it countered the possibility of rapid breathing.  I couldn’t really breathe quickly when I kept coughing.  The urge was there though.
  5. If I was lying down then I’d be restless.  I refused to be still and searched for a position that would make things go away.  There were nights where I’d turn onto my side at an odd angle and feel like it improved.  This led to me relaxing and believing I found the trick, but it wouldn’t work a second time.
  6. I don’t know if I had a rapid heartbeat.  I don’t want to assume that I did either.  The problem is that I’m really bad at checking my pulse.  So, I would put my fingers to my wrist or neck to see what was going on to find nothing.  This would start a train of thought that had me fearing that I was already dead or about to die.  You’d think this would have been a big clue that anxiety was the cause, but I still fall for this when I’m in the midst of an attack.

One thing I learned is that when people spot the physical symptoms of anxiety in another person, they don’t make the connection.  This isn’t surprising, but it does get weird when you tell them it’s a panic attack and they still suggest a cardiologist.  Sure, let me just get behind the wheel of my car when my head is spinning and take a trip to the nearest doctor for a recommendation.  I find that the physical parts of this are the hardest to explain because of this strange aura of doubt from other people.  It’s easy to believe someone when they speak about the internal issues since those can’t be seen.  You have to take their word on the thoughts of death, the uncontrollable panic, and whatever else rears its head during an attack.  Yet, massaging your chest and taking a few long breaths is too visceral for most people to acknowledge as coming from a mental source.

This reminds me of a belief I picked up in college and have been terrible at following. The mind and body are connected in health.  If you are suffering mentally then your body will be weakened and vice versa.  This is why people who are sick can find extra strength through defiance or exercise can help relieve tension.  Instead of being two parts to a puzzle, they’re closer to intertwined support columns that require both be strong to stay together.  This is a bit more philosophical than I planned for a post on the physical side of anxiety.  Sorry about that, but I guess it does show the connection.

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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27 Responses to The Physical Symptoms of Anxiety

  1. Those kinds of symptoms are why it was an asthma attack being triggered that had my anxiety diagnosed. We’d assumed it was just my asthma and anemia all the time, but when I got so panicked I wasn’t breathing that I triggered an asthma attack… Erm, I mean the first time this happened… They figured it out after I was still complaining of chest pain and insisting I couldn’t breathe while on a nebulizer and hooked up to various machines monitoring my heart. Turns out what I do is either panic so much I trigger an asthma attack if I don’t get my anxiety under control in time, or have an anxiety attack when something else triggers my asthma then struggle to get the anxiety under control even after the asthma attack is actually over. I can have one without the other, but when I do one of those two things is usually when I end up taking a trip to hospital. They always hook me up to machines to check… Just in case… But they’ve never found a problem with my heart, and my lungs are about as good as the lungs of someone who’s had asthma since childhood can be.

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    • That sounds scary. I didn’t have the breathing issues as much as the chest and muscle ones, which is why we looked at those before even thinking of anxiety. I can see how asthma and anxiety can set each other off though. Weird question, but how much of a warning does your body give you before the anxiety or asthma hits? I seem to have 3-4 minutes before I’m stuck for at least an hour.

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      • It varies, and depends which thing you want to know about.

        With the anxiety it depends on the situation. It’s sometimes as much as four or five minutes, other times as little as one minut. Thankfully usually closer to the longer timescale.

        With the asthma it depends not only on the thing that triggered it, but also how I was feeling to start with. Anywhere from 30 seconds to maybe two or three minutes. The latter is thankfully more common… The shorter time is mostly just when I’m not well, when a coughing fit from a chest infection can quickly turn in to an asthma attack, for example.

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      • Figured asthma would give you less time. Personally, I think that would be the easier one to handle since you can use medicine. Unless I’m wrong and there’s a pill or spray one can take to stop an anxiety attack.

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      • Yeah, the asthma’s easier to control for sure.

        As far as I know, the only option available to treat anxiety is to be on “happy pills” – if you know what I mean. But those don’t actually treat the issue. They just mess with your head enough that you’re hopefully mellow enough not to have so many anxiety attacks in the first place. Personally, I don’t take them. My head’s messed up enough, without medication making it more so. Besides, happy pills don’t guarantee no anxiety attacks. They only decrease the chances. Knowing my luck, I’d get all the side effects of having pills messing with my head, and still get the anxiety attacks anyhow.

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      • I’ve been asked many times about being on medication. I assume it will happen again. For now, I’m on the fence and would like to work through it without. Yet, I won’t refuse if things get worse and I can barely function.

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      • That’s fair enough. If you decide it might help, there’s nothing wrong with that. I prefer to manage without it, but that doesn’t mean everyone else has to. Plus, if it gets worse for you, and you can bearly function because of it, then medication might be a good idea in your case.

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  2. Darlene says:

    Been there. Look after yourself, Charles.

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  3. I have my own anxiety problems, which also affect me physically (although in different ways). I’m working on it, and it’s awesome to hear you are too. Stay strong 🙂

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  4. L. Marie says:

    While I’m sorry you’ve had to endure this, I’m glad you’re able to articulate what is going on in such a helpful fashion. This can help someone else who is going through this too.

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  5. Chuck says:

    Hi Charles,
    Another great post and you continue to share on a personal level, that enhances the subject. One point you made I know is true. Mental illness effect physical illness and vice versa. With my history of depressions, I’m convinced that good old physical exercise where you sweat and get your heart beating faster keeps the brain active and minimizes the effects of depression. 😎

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    • I’ve heard about exercise and depression, but I haven’t had any success with that and my anxiety. It’s hard to function due to the physical symptoms. Doesn’t help that I tend to feel a little rushed when I use my stationary bike these days.

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  6. The symptoms would lead anyone to believe the end is near. Good luck on the one on one.

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  7. Thinking of you, Charles.

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  8. C.E.Robinson says:

    Charles, one-on-one therapy helps. You have more privacy and the concentration is on you. Good luck! 📚Christine

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  9. robbiecheadle says:

    I do understand this, Charles. My Mom is eighty this year. A few years ago she started complaining of sever chest pains. She has a bundle in her heart and I though she was going to have a heart attack. When I took her to the cardiologist he said that it was sever indigestion caused by anxiety and stress. They gave her tables for both and the pain has gone. She is still very anxious and high strung though.

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    • I wonder about my digestive system getting messed up even more by my anxiety. I’ve had IBS since high school, but it wasn’t much of a problem until about 3 years ago. So, the stress might have made that worse. I hope your mother can get rid of her anxiety and stress soon.

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