(photography by Will D'Epagnier)
"It starts like this. A strange pain in the gut. An odd sensation in the chest. A fluttering feeling. A lack of feeling altogether."
“What if it’s serious?” “Do I need a doctor?” “I think I should go to the doctor.”
The doctor runs some tests. Says they can’t find anything abnormal. Prescribes some relatively harmless medication. Things go back to normal for a day or two.
Then a tough day at work. A fight with a roommate. A tragedy in the news. And the feeling returns.
“Oh right, it’s anxiety.”
Anxiety causes much more than just panic attacks. Unfortunately, when a new symptom appears, it’s not always clear that anxiety is the cause. For me, it seems like every time I figure out how to manage a symptom, a new one crops up that sends me back to urgent care to repeat the cycle again.
I’m going to share some of those symptoms to hopefully save you a few hours of intense worrying.
Keep in mind, if you’re feeling really bad, you should definitely see a doctor. But if the doctor can’t find anything, they often don’t say those magic words you really need to hear: It’s just your anxiety again.
Humanity has understood the link between nausea and anxiety since at least the fourth century B.C. That’s when Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, wrote this: “Anxiousness —a difficult disease. The patient thinks he has something like a thorn, something pricking him in his viscera, and nausea torments him.”
But if you’re like me and forgot to order your copy of Hippocrates On Diseases, you might not realize that feeling like you’re going to throw up is an anxiety symptom. And because you don’t realize, you might try and treat yourself with pepto-bismol (which won’t help), or peppermint (which helps a little), and you might convince yourself you have food poisoning, or a virus, or a rare parasite. You might even vomit, which can be anxiety-related too. But the truth is, you need to be doing whatever strategies you’ve worked out for staying calm (which is a subject for a different post), not downing another cup of the pink stuff.
Embarassing story alert - at the beginning of my current relationship, I used to get diarrhea before every date. Nothing can make you feel quite so uncomfortable and unattractive as that thunder down under. Did I have some strange bacteria that was dead-set on destroying my love life? No, I was anxious, which was stressing me out, and it’s well understood that stress is a major cause of diarrhea.*
Here are the do’s and don’t of the big D:
Do: drink a lot of water afterward.
3. Chest pain
Chest pain is the most terrifying of all your body’s aches and pains - it has a thousand possible causes, and one of those rhymes with fart-a-crack. However, if you’re an anxious person and your chest hurts, chances are those two things are related. In fact, somewhere between 22% to just over 70% of panic attacks are associated with chest pain.*
And that chest pain doesn’t have to be acute either...it can linger for days at a time. Remember that thorn in the viscera Hippocrates mentioned? Dyspepsia caused by anxiety can have effects beyond the stomach, including heartburn and acid reflux, which both cause pains that can resemble cardiovascular problems.
Everyone’s felt their foot fall asleep. If you’re an anxious person, this probably happens to you all the time, when you’re stuck on the toilet trying to deal with your anxiety-related gastrointestinal issues. But when your foot falls asleep for what seems like no reason...and when it’s not just your foot, but your arm, or your neck, or your face...that can be truly frightening.
Numbness and tingling can be symptomatic of a plethora of terrifying disorders, but they’re also anxiety symptoms. In fact, my hands and feet go numb every time I get ready to go to a party. Stay calm, the feeling will return.
5. Mouth pain and funny tastes
Whenever I get a pain in my mouth, my thought process goes something like:
2. I really hope I don’t have to go to the dentist.
3. Wait, am I dying?
Recently, I’ve been able to add a fourth thought, which is:
4. Nope, just anxiety again.
Anxiety can cause all sorts of dental issues, from grinding your teeth to gum pain, to a metallic taste in the mouth that comes out of nowhere. So if you find yourself having some mysterious pains in the mouth, put it to good use and repeat after me: “It’s just anxiety. I’m going to be okay.”
Stossel, Scott. My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind. New York: Vintage , a Division of Random House LLC, 2013. Print.
Chang, Lin. “The Role of Stress on Physiological Responses and Clinical Symptoms in Irritable Bowel Syndrome.” Gastroenterology 140.3 (2011): 761–765. PMC. Web. 10 July 2017.
Katon W. Panic disorder and somatization: a review of 55 cases. Am J Med. 1984;77:101–106.
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