Hello again. I suspect this will be a lengthy article!
After posting the link to the list of the symptoms in my previous post, I thought I’d let you know a little more about my own experience, with a view to giving a message of hope to those of you walking with anxiety: that is, I believe that it is completely beatable, not merely manageable. The two principle ways of beating it are (a) allowing the symptoms to wash over you; experience them for what they are: uncomfortable sensations that cannot kill you (in fact, the body’s process (fight or flight) is the diametric opposite – it’s designed to keep you alive), and (b) to carry on with your life as normally as possible, going towards and experiencing people, places and events which currently cause you fear; get exercise in too. The chief reason for these is that you are trying to convince your limbic system that there is no real danger here. This takes training, which takes time – so it will not be an overnight success – you must be brave and persist.
Note that it is not easy to be positively minded when you’re flooded with cortisol, so although I talk a good game in this article, I sometimes am unable to apply what I preach, and subsequently die on my arse. This is ok. If it happens to you (and it will), be kind to yourself, and just try again next time.
Before I rattle on with the list, I have a couple of important disclaimers:
- It is extremely advisable that you get your diagnosis of an anxiety condition from a professional. If you think you may have something physiologically seriously wrong with you, get it checked out. However, once you get your diagnosis of anxiety/panic trust it. Do not second-guess it, and immediately give up Googling your symptoms.
- I am not a medical or psychological professional. I am purely speaking about my own experience. Get an opinion from a professional. Everyone’s journey is different. My own is chiefly health anxiety, thanks to the current pandemic, so during the past 9 months or so every new weird sensation could potentially add to my anxiety. You may see below stuff like “No, Eoin, you’re not…” – this is me letting you know what you might think it is, but trust that it is, in fact, just anxiety.
The List – Working down from Head to Toes
- Stress-band headache. Pressure going from temple to temple across the forehead. A feeling of pressure. Lower your stress levels – take a break from what you’re doing, perhaps do a breathing exercise (e.g. box breathing). Once you learn to manage your anxiety, this symptom will tend to crop up as often. No, Eoin, you’re not about to have a stroke.
- ‘Hot’ sensations in the left and/or right hand corners of your forehead. Will go away when your general anxiety lessens. No, Eoin, you’re *still* not about to have a stroke!
- Work-related stress. Ok, this is a sub-symptom, but as an anxious person, you’re more sensitive to stress generally. For me, it got to the stage when every interaction in work was causing me to stress out – up to recently. About a month ago, I decided to maintain a ‘Positivity Journal’ in a spreadsheet. Just 3 columns: what the interaction was, the date, and the list of positive impacts it has for me. A month later, I have almost 600 rows in the sheet, and my stress has dipped significantly. Yes, it does add a couple of minutes to your work-related tasks, but for me it has been very much worth it.
- Dizziness. I only had this early on when I was at my worst. It’s a sign that you’re hyperventilating. You’re breathing too fast and shallow; too high up in your chest, rather from your belly/diaphragm. No, Eoin, you don’t have a brain tumour. I’ve read that it’s incredibly rare to actually faint due to anxiety. If it wasn’t rare, then the fight/flight response would be a complete evolutionary failure! Try slowing down, do a little box-breathing, then continue on with what you were doing originally. Don’t take to your bed, or otherwise hide away!
- Facial stress. Watch out for jaw-clenching, teeth-grinding and firmly pressing the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth. If you catch yourself doing these, relax your face muscles, reposition your tongue away from the roof of your mouth. Chances are you will find that you’re also carrying tension in your shoulders and stomach muscles. Relax those too!
- Inability to Concentrate/Brain Fuzziness. I am very open about my anxiety, which is good, as anxiety can bring about a great sense of shame. However, this is one of two symptoms I have any sense of shame about. When my general anxiety levels are high, I cannot concentrate, and taking in anything new is difficult for me. I feel rather stupid as a result, and give myself the impression I’m not pulling my weight in work. I am trying to learn to be kinder to myself. Reducing my stress levels in work has helped me a lot with this symptom, and led to me taking more tasks on. Again, learn to be kind to yourself, and, Eoin… this is just anxiety, not early-onset dementia!
- Racing thoughts. I am still dealing with this, as probably my #1 symptom, especially as my issue largely is health anxiety. The trick is to simply not worry. It’s easier said than done, and I’m trying to find a mindful tool that works best for me. One of the best approaches I’ve found so far is to treat your recurring worries like sock-puppets (yes you read that right). You will get to the stage that you can allow the worries to be there, even eventually smiling at them when they arise. Sock puppets are harmless, and so are thoughts (see next in the list).
- Dark thoughts. These can be very troubling, and can cause a deep sense of shame and fear. They could be anything from your amygdala flashing you a thought of your impending death/collapse, to bonkers stuff altogether (visions of you committing acts of violence, extreme sexual perversion, self-mutilation, blasphemic thoughts etc.). This symptom dissipates as your general anxiety lessens. The most important thing to remember, though, is this: these are just thoughts and nothing more – expressions of nothing but excess energy, THEY ARE NOT WHO YOU ARE. You are not going to act out on these thoughts. And rationally, you know this, because you are upset by them. Acknowledge them, and allow them. Then let them pass. They will pass by when you give them no more conscious attention. Humans have tens of thousands of thoughts each day, and some of them may include the type I’ve mentioned above. As people with an anxiety condition, we latch onto them because are have turned inwards from the outside world, and are actively looking for stuff wrong with us. Pay these thoughts no attention, and try not to get upset by them. And no, Eoin, you are not going insane. I do get impending doom flashes, but the more extreme dark thoughts have more or less gone away, as my general anxiety has reduced.
- Insomnia. Tricky one, this, as it’s a sub-symptom of both mental and physical anxiety symptoms. For me, though, it’s mostly been about racing thoughts. Early on in my anxious life, I had chronic insomnia, often getting just 1-2 hours (if any) sleep in 5 out of 7 nights. The two main things are to stay away from stimulants, and try to go to bed only when you’re feeling tired. Months ago, I had to use bluetooth headband headphones, and try to listen to sleep stories in Calm or sleepcasts in Headspace… finally graduating to gentle audiobooks from Audible. These worked, to a limited extent, but I eventually stopped using the headband. Two other pieces of advise: don’t get upset if you can’t sleep – it will happen, remain calm and you may eventually succumb to Morpheus! Secondly, hide your clock – I found this helped me a lot – do not look at the time if at all possible when you wake up. For me, insomnia lessened when my general anxiety symptoms lessened. I still use the Kindle App on my phone on the night-styling setting to read gentle fiction. Everyone still has sleepless nights, so insomnia is never guaranteed to go away, especially during a pandemic. Another trick which might work, is to try counting backwards slowly from 1000, to counteract racing thoughts, while being in a restful state. I have reduced my general anxiety by allowing and accepting my symptoms, and engaging with life, rather than hiding away. By way of illustration, here is a graph. As part of my daily journal (which I may soon end), I scored myself on several aspects, one of which was my sleep quality. I scored myself a 1 for a good night’s rest, 0.5 for getting at least a little sleep, or 0 for feeling like I got nothing at all. Here is how I’ve scored myself from late August to now. The trend line is very obviously increasing, and I feel now like I’ve almost normalised my sleep.
- Night Terrors. Thankfully, I’ve only experienced this twice – both months ago, early in my onset. The first time I couldn’t breathe for several seconds, and I had lost sense of self-identity for about 30 seconds. Afterwards I was fine, but obviously felt very unsettled afterwards. The second time, I remembered who I was, but for a couple of minutes I fixated on the fact that I was supposed to carry out a task for someone, but couldn’t remember what it was, or who it was for. I haven’t had anything like this happen to me in months… and if I recall correctly, not at all while I was given my correct diagnosis of having an anxiety condition. So don’t worry… you’re not going mad! It’s just anxiety.
- Nightmares. This have reduced, and become less severe as my general anxiety lessened. You’ll still have them from time to time, because you’re human!
- Tinnitus. For me, I have 3 tones: (1) low rumbling, which becomes louder roaring during periods of high anxiety, (2) extremely high-pitched tone in my left ear – quite persistent, but rarely troubling, and (3) occasional very faint sounds of birdsong (which might actually be sounds of birdsong!). This is annoying, and has impacted on my sleep 1 or 2 nights, but the symptom will lessen as general anxiety dips. So no, Eoin, you won’t have a stroke, or you don’t have a brain tumour!
- Earworms. I’ve read that these are a symptom of depression. I wouldn’t say I had depression, but merely only sadness (see entry below). Anyway, these are not your typical earworms, as they are snatches of song/music lasting 3-5 seconds that repeat over and over and over. They can be frustrating, as they often added to my sadness during my mid-onset. A benefit to them is that they seem to block out the tinnitus! I have found that while I still succumb to them, they are lessening as I am healing.
- Sadness. Mild depression by another name I suppose. I have shed many a tear over the last 9 or so months. All I can say is that these symptoms have reduced by (a) reducing general anxiety (thereby also reducing stress), (b) practicing gratitude (gratitude journal, meditations etc. – this subject warrants its own blog, so I’m evaluating it right now), (c) mindfully allowing worries and dark thoughts, and letting them pass me by, (d) being non-reactive to things that might make me angry, and (e) remembering this is just the way I am right now – do not compare yourself to how happy others are, nor to how you used to be before you fell ill – this just leads to a Vale of Tears – stay in the here and now, and remember this is something you yourself can change – don’t wait for external circumstances to alter. If you feel there are underlying reasons for sadness/depression, then please contact a mental health professional. Right now, I feel I am over the worst of this, but I still occasionally have days of low mood.
- Heightened Emotion. I don’t experience this as much as I used to, but it came on me during mid-onset and through to now – albeit not as bad for me in the last few weeks. Basically, you can be moved to tears or fears far more often than normal. Expose yourself to life more often to reduce this symptom. I still have to monitor what I can watch in fear of it potentially making me emotional or fearful, but I’m slowly getting better.
- Hopelessness. This is mostly experienced during setbacks, which I discussed in my previous blog. Remember that setbacks are signs that you are healing. You will not be the way you are forever. These feelings come and go.
- Irritability. Sometimes, albeit rarely, I can find myself being narky. It happens a little more often when you’re anxious. Try to remember it’s anxiety, which is distorting reality for you somewhat.
- Depersonalisation/Derealisation. Speaking of reality… these are two of the most troubling and least understood of symptoms. I didn’t really suffer from depersonalisation, except for that one night terror (see above). Derealisation, though, I had bouts with on and off for a few months – and a few more of it in its mild form. It’s hard to explain… the definition of it is that you feel that the outside world feels unreal to you. I remember taking walks and feeling that people were like paper dolls. I would look at Niamh (my wife), remember who she was and that I loved her, but none of the proper chemicals were firing, and she might as well have been a wax doll. It was a terrible sensation. A theory is that the brain is prepping you for death – you don’t care about leaving the world as much. Note, that it in and of itself does not make you feel suicidal, nor will it actually harm you. It is just a feeling you have been exposed to after a lengthy spell of very high and persistent anxiety. Therefore, I only experienced this symptom at its worst before I got my actual anxiety diagnosis. The worst of it went away soon after I read up a little on anxiety (Barry McDonagh’s DARE, chiefly). However, it still cropped up when feeling very anxious – chiefly when I was looking at TV, and felt as though I was looking at it through someone else’s eyes. Disturbing, but not a sign of brain-cancer or madness. It still happens to me occasionally, but it will definitely dissipate when you get your general anxiety symptoms under control.
- Pressurised sinuses. I think this is like the stress-band style headache above. I’ve only had this crop up once in the last month – before it was on and off for a couple of months. Not brain cancer, Eoin.
- Red rashes around the mouth. This is either a stress symptom, or from the fact that I drooled a little bit more than usual while I slept. Either way, I’ve not had these rashes in a while. Not a vitamin C deficiency, Eoin!
- Lump in the throat/oesophagus. I found that this goes away by reducing general anxiety, and by ensuring you’re not breathing too shallowly. Try to breathe from your belly/diaphragm, but don’t get caught up in controlling your own breathing! Either way, it’s not throat or oesophagal cancer, Eoin.
- Shoulder/shoulder-blade pain. I am currently experiencing this. I am not sure if this is actual rotator cuff damage or anxiety, or a combination of both. I have an appointment with a physio in the next week or so to help me assess this. It took me several goes of convincing myself that it wasn’t bone cancer, though – this is due to a misdiagnosis my mam had before she passed away.
- Breathing issues. Oh boy, where to start! This is one of the chief reasons people suffer from anxiety in my opinion. Hyperventilation (probably brought about by stress and worry) eventually alerts the limbic system that something might be wrong, and requests the adrenal glands to begin firing the body with adrenaline and cortisol. There are a few pieces of advice I can give, based purely on my own experience (and I still suffer from feeling like I’m short of breath, by the way). Firstly, trust that your lungs are alright. Stress/worry is causing the muscles in your torso to sieze-up, thereby causing you to breathe too high up in your chest. Relax your shoulder and stomach muscles, try to breathe from your belly. Secondly, I often try to feel my breath mostly coming in through my nostrils, in an effort to get the body to breathe from the correct place itself, rather than consciously trying to direct my breathing – because consciously controlling your breathing is not possible in practical terms. Lastly, if you feel like you have to take a deep breath, please avoid doing this – it could lead to hyperventilation and kick off heightened anxiety. I have (or had – the Jury’s still out), accompanying gastritis, which can also make you feel like you’re breathless. Again… just trust that your lungs are working fine! Eoin, you do not have Covid-19, lung cancer, pneumonia etc.
- Chest heat. A heating from the stomach to to the pectoral muscles. Again, I think this is coming from shallow breathing/hyperventilation and the impact the resulting anxiety can also have on your stomach and digestion (see further below). The intercostal muscles between your ribs are being over-worked and leading to this feeling of heat. It is not a heart-attack!
- Racing heart/Palpitations/skipped beats. Probably the main reason why anxious people end up in A&E, as they create more anxiety to the point of pushing people into having a panic attack. I have had my heart checked our 3 times in the last 18 months, and can now finally say that I don’t let these symptoms bother me nearly as much as I used to. All of these symptoms will reduce with a lessening of general anxiety, and moving through your panic attack. You are not having a heart-attack! Again, if you’re unsure, always get the advice of a medical professional, but then trust their diagnosis!
- Paresthesis (pins and needles in the forearms/hands). These can also occur in the legs and (I’ve read) in the face. I’ve mostly just had them in the arms/hands, and never in the face. They are a sign of highish anxiety and will dissipate when the anxiety level goes down. They are related to hyperventilation (so I’ve read).
- Clumsiness. When anxiety is at least moderate, I can knock things over or drop things more frequently than I normally would when my cortisol levels are low. This will pass. No, Eoin, it’s not Parkinson’s!
- Stomach/Digestion issues. I was also diagnosed with mild chronic gastritis. However, I now notice that the symptoms of this generally only manifest when I am anxious. Some people can also develop IBS with anxiety. I haven’t. I get occasional acidity, but the main symptom is a feeling that my stomach is knotting. Not pleasant, but will come and go with anxiety. It is one of my chief symptoms, however. Fortunately, (and without going into too much detail!), the rest of my digestion seems to be good. However, note that my diet has been better than it’s ever been (I’ve lost over 50lbs in the last 9-10 months – no, Eoin, that weight loss is not down to cancer!). I’ve cut down on sugar, processed foods, crisps, booze… I never drank caffeine, so that’s good… I also drink Kefir milk daily, and ensure I’m getting enough vitamin D and B12 (both of which are supposed to be good for maintaining good mood). Eoin, you don’t have stomach, pancreatic or bowel cancer.
- Feeling like you need the toilet (1s or 2s!). I’ve only had this during times of highish anxiety. It passes (pun not intended).
- Jelly legs. Again, just had this during moderate-to-high anxiety. Nothing to worry about. It will pass as levels drop.
- Cold legs. Anxiety can cause your blood to flow to more important organs, making other parts of the body feel weak or cold. This will pass as your anxiety level goes back down. No, Eoin, you don’t have Covid.
- Pulsing in my feet. A newish sensation for me… it comes and goes. I’ve just noted it and let it pass.
- Shaking. This is often experienced at the end of a bad panic attack, or prolonged bout of anxiety. It’s the body’s way of removing the excess chemical soup from your system. You see it on wildlife programmes, where a lion’s prey avoids being caught, and they seem to shake helplessly for a few minutes, before getting on with life again. Help it along by shaking it out yourself, or jumping up and down, shadow-boxing etc. No, Eoin, it’s not Covid!
To summarise: if you have your diagnosis, trust it. Then trust that your symptoms are only anxiety, a feeling which, although very unpleasant, cannot kill you. Experience it, then let it pass… and go out and live your life, even if you feel frightened by what you’re about to do.
I thought I’d finish off this blog with some snapshots I had of a walk in The Curragh!