I once had a bad bout of bronchitis, sinusitis, and double ear infection. I was in bed for a week, and this was the first and the (so far) last time this has happened to me. Aside from being achy and exhausted, I didn’t feel that bad. I mean, I had all the symptoms, including a 102+ fever for days, and just walking to the bathroom caused me to wheeze. But I slept a lot and I wasn’t anxious about anything.
My first outing was to Mass. It was full of people. I started to think about all the things I had gotten behind in, things the fever had conveniently caused me to forget until then. My chest got tighter and tighter until I realized that it hurt. It hurt more than the bronchitis. Anxiety physically hurts.
Mental and Physical
Having a panic or anxiety attack physically feels astoundingly familiar to an asthma attack (I have far more panic attacks than asthma attacks, so maybe it is the other way around). When I finally made this connection, I was surprised. I guess that my instinct was to assume that since depression and anxiety (and panic) are psychological they shouldn’t resemble physical ailments. As a result, I felt guilty or dramatic for experiencing physical symptoms. I thought I was imagining them, that they weren’t grounded in reality.
I’ve since learned that our mental state definitely affects our physical state. There is no reason to beat myself up or be ashamed for feeling physically ill when I’m going through episodes of anxiety and/or depression. They actually cause physical changes in our bodies that result in discomfort and even pain. The science behind it is beyond my intellectual forte, but I know that my lived experiences are real.
Mind and Body
Because of my experiences, I’ve started to check my physical symptoms more frequently. I have a habit of taking my temperature when my body aches and feels heavy and I’m tired. I take it praying that I have a fever so that I can have a proper excuse to go to bed and not come out for days. My hopes are really high when I’m experiencing some chills too. But, I never have a temp. I’ve taken my temperature probably 100 times. I have the most consistent and perfect 98.4 temperature. The depression still feels lousy, and not only is it ok, it is good to acknowledge it.
My Fitbit isn’t a scientifically accurate heart rate monitor, but it does give me a general idea of my relative heart rate. It will tell me when it spikes and when it is more restful. I’ve discovered that when I’m anxious my heart rate gets consistently high enough to register as aerobic exercise. Yep! Who knew? I don’t just feel like my heart is beating fast, it actually is beating fast, and I’m getting a higher Fitbit score because of it. So there you have it, induce anxiety and burn calories! Not nearly as fun as exercise.
One last example is a strange type of headache I still can’t explain. It doesn’t really fall under tension, migraine, cluster, etc., but it hurts. Just the other day I was experiencing one and I had to keep telling myself, “What you are feeling is real. You are not being dramatic. It’s ok.” And that is my message to you. It’s ok.
Physical Symptoms are Real
I’m still learning to decipher between physical ailments and psychological ones. This is important because, for instance, if I’m depressed and achy and tired a short nap might be due, but I shouldn’t spend the day in bed. If, however, I have the flu I most certainly can (and should) stay in bed. I have learned and try to remember that it is alright to feel physically ill, whatever the cause. The physical symptoms of depression and anxiety are as real and valid as the emotional/mental ones. Finding healthy ways to cope with them can take some trial and error, but only by acknowledging the physical consequences of psychological issues can I hope to deal with them.