Updated: May 5, 2019
When I first started suffering from panic attacks, I was in so much physical pain and discomfort that I didn’t even believe I had anxiety. I was certain there was "no way" it could affect me so much physically. If so, why was anxiety a mental illness? Yeah, this was in my head… but only because it was first in my chest, heart, liver, lungs, throat, limbs and testicles…
In my experience, I endured many more physical symptoms than cognitive or mental ones.
To stress the point, here is a list of all the physiological symptoms I experienced as a result of panic attacks:
1. Migraine (every day for around 2 years)
2. Difficulty swallowing
3. Shooting pains down my arms
4. Heart palpitations
5. Dizziness & light-headedness
6. Blurred vision
7. Stabbing chest pains
8. Shortness of breath
10. Tongue felt too big for my mouth and I'll choke on it.
11. Eye twitches
12. General muscle twitches and spasms
13. Bodily aches and pains everywhere
14. Jelly legs (like I've been in a car crash or witnessed a murder)
15. Indigestion (bloating, acid re-flux etc.)
16. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS, colitis)
17. Tenesmus (google it)
18. Peeing all the time (long journeys are a disaster)
19. Spots and bad skin, rashes and stinging.
20. Body odour (the cumulative smell of football changing rooms, after a game)
21. Sweating (profusely, all the time.)
22. Proneness to other illnesses (infections, cold, flu)
23. Difficulty focusing (Can't read or watch TV, can't take anything in)
24. Feeling of floating (like I´m not real and I can't touch the floor)
25. Head feels heavy (like if I leant to one side, it would snap off my neck)
26. High blood pressure
27. Low blood pressure
28. Cramping (fingers, toes, everywhere)
29. Testicle pain (But I thought it was cancer)
30. Struggle to eat/drink anything and breathe at the same time.
31. Can't let go of my breathing (have to voluntary control it all day-exhausting. Possibly the worst of all the symptoms. Almost impossible to get to sleep)
32. Fatigue (knackered and yawning all day, every day, no matter what)
33. Feeling overstimulated. (feeling wired-like I’ve had 8 coffees but I’ve had none)
34. Physical reactions to Caffeine (feel manic)
35. Physical reactions to Alcohol
36. Constant nausea
37. Loss of vision
39. Blocked nasal airways so can't breathe properly
40. Jaw pain
41. Very low libido
42. Bladder problems
43. Feeling physically lethargic 24/7. (like a big lump is best way to describe it. Dragging my feet.)
44. Mouth tingles and swelling/ ulcers.
45. Feels like I'm swallowing my own tongue
46. Chronic back pain
47. Neck often feels like it's swelling/ I’m choking or have a noose tied around it.
48. Feeling too hot, all the time
49. Poor balance (sometimes fall over getting out of bed or putting shoes on)
50. Poor hand-eye coordination
51. Clumsiness (bumping into stuff, dropping things all the time)
52. Slurred speech (like a drunk person)
53. Rapid speech
54. Tension in temples
55. Tight chest.
55 physical symptoms. 55. And they are only the ones I remember. Many people have told me lots of other wide-ranging physical symptoms they suffer with which seem so far-removed from a negative thought, that I would understand if you were skeptical about whether anxiety was to blame, or if you thought they were simply making it up.
All the underlined symptoms in the list are those I have experienced during a panic attack, that I can remember. The rest are all generally milder but chronic, occurring over longer periods of time between panic attacks, but, very debilitating nonetheless.
Okay, you might be thinking, “yeah you suffer a lot of physical pain in other parts of your body, but it all stems from your head.” My answer, “Maybe”. I have had many times when I have imagined a pain, and then it has manifested itself. E.g. If I think about not being able to breathe properly, what do you know, all of a sudden, I can't breathe properly. The power of our brain is unbelievable and our thoughts and physical symptoms are so closely connected. But, could it be possible that often the pain actually comes first, before the worry?
What comes first, the chicken or the pain?
I have always ruminated over what happens first, the physical pain or the intrusive thoughts. I originally assumed that the negative thoughts caused my body to panic, which then caused a physical stress response, which resulted in sweating, palpitations etc. That sounds legitimate and makes logical sense. But why do I get a severe stabbing pain in my chest when I’m completely calm? And how do I explain struggling to breath when I lie down to watch TV? I believe it's completely reasonable if I'm out walking the dog and then all of a sudden, I get severe stabbing pains in my chest, to panic. My mind wasn’t panicking before, but it is now. Hello panic attack.
The only racing thought I have ever really had is I'm dying or I'm losing my mind because of the physiological symptoms I have suffered from. I have never worried about money, or what I look like or what I'm going to do with my life to the point of ending up in a physical frenzy, that's an anxiety attack. For me, it’s often a constant cycle of physical pain, panic, repeat. But how can that be possible? How can my body hurt if it’s not real and there's nothing wrong? My brain isn’t panicking so why is my body tricking me? Why would my body want to make me think I’m dying, for no reason whatsoever? Maybe neither comes first, maybe we can't separate physical and emotional pain as they are perhaps much of the same thing.
Do I have anxiety hangovers?
Not that anxious guilty feeling you get after a heavy night out (although it probably works in much the same way!). I'm referring to the time after a really anxious day or a really severe anxiety attack when my body remembered. My body would be tense and still suffering from the stress, despite having felt completely calm in my mind. This was the most incongruent feeling you could possibly imagine. I was completely relaxed, but I had severe stabbing pains in my chest or I couldn't breathe and I was hyperventilating, and I had no idea why. This was absolutely terrifying and in turn, caused me to panic about why it was happening; I thought to myself “If I’m not feeling anxious but I’m having this pain, it must be real, I must be seriously ill.”, this is completely logical reasoning by the way, not overreacting nor irrational.
(CBT is short for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy- basically the gym for your mind!)
However, everything changed. As I treated my physical symptoms as a hangover from a previous stressful episode, I then knew there was nothing seriously wrong with me, and as a result, the symptoms no longer scared me to the same extent as they had prior. On top of that, I have taught myself to remain calm when I feel a physical symptom like a chest pain or shortness of breath. Every time I felt a scary physical symptom, I told myself, sometimes out-loud, "this is just anxiety, its nothing to worry about." or I would distract my anxious mind by focusing on something else, a view (if outside) or make a list in my head e.g. what to make for tea as well as what ingredients I´d need, or how to improve my football coaching sessions--- whatever works for you.
I believe attacking the physical symptoms, rather than the worrying thoughts, is the key to overcoming panic attacks.
I now had the ability to stop a panic attack before it began. Even more amazingly, as I begun to get better at preventing the panic attack from happening, the scary physical symptoms stopped coming to me altogether. The stress had gone, and so had the fear of the symptoms. After a few months of working 1v1 against each scary physical symptom, I soon had none left, and all those other indirect symptoms also disappeared after 6 months or so.
This wasn't something I read in a book or learnt from my counsellor, I found out by myself after years of misunderstanding anxiety and taking 1 step forward and 2 steps back. Now, I am panic disorder free, and it has never threatened to return. This is not a recommended therapy, but It has worked for me, maybe it can for you or someone you know.
NOTE: In my next post, PART 2, I will go into more detail about how I overcame my panic attacks and how I battled through many set-backs. This does take time, patience and a lot of self-awareness, but it´s definitely achievable to overcome a panic disorder/panic attacks. P.S I had a severe panic disorder where I thought I was dying all day every day, for almost 2 years, so if it can work for me, hopefully it can work for you!