Body Over Mind: Anxiety and Physical Symptoms
A couple of years ago I was experiencing a number of problems all at once. I thought that as an experienced and seasoned handler of stress that I was coping it with it super well. I was talking through my feelings with friends (and any poor acquaintance willing to listen), withdrawing and re-adjusting schedules on the occasions when I felt overwhelmed and allowing myself the odd little tear storm. They all offered some release. I was fine. Then I started to find I was frequently finding it difficult to get my breath. I even had to sleep with a fan next to my bed at night. As I practised meditation I was very aware of where I experience stress in my body, and I had never had any shortness of breath before. I felt it must be something physical. I thought it might be hay fever, perhaps asthma. I had an ECG, a lung capacity test, a chest Xray (thank you NHS). All came back relatively normal. My GP suggested it was stress related. I confess to pooh poohing this idea, even when a couple of the problems went away and took the breathlessness with them. The following year the breathing problems returned when the stress levels went up. I still reasoned that it must be hay fever. The pollen count went down, the breathlessness remained. The stress went down the breathlessness went away. The penny finally dropped. I accepted the GP was right. Over the last couple of weeks it has happened to me again, and I have had the added anxiety that this may actually be a symptom of Coronavirus, it then exacerbates the anxiety and makes it worse. A couple of clients have also mentioned that this has happened to them. They have had flurries of extra anxiety around their symptoms of worry and stress being those of Covid 19. I have no other symptoms, nor do my clients. It felt timely and important therefore to write this article. As a counselling psychotherapist I often integrate body work into my sessions, working closely with my clients to increase awareness of where stress, anxiety and trauma are present in their body and how it presents itself. Our bodies often offer up the first clue that something is wrong in our minds and that we are ignoring something or not dealing with it as well as we think we are. I believe what happens in the mind also happens in the body and vice versa. Many of us come to the realisation the hard way with intense physical symptoms such as IBS. Tensions appear in the shoulders and neck, fears may start the heart racing, anticipation may cause a lurching stomach. Limbs may shake and be jelly like. Lightheadedness can occur. Your body has innumerable ways to react to unsettling situations which you may be intensely aware of or not. Below is a list of symptoms associated with stress and anxiety, some you may recognise, some you may not. Palpitations, sweating, trembling or shaking, sensations of shortness of breath or smothering, feeling of choking, chest pain, nausea or abdominal distress, dizziness or faintness, pins and needles, chills or hot flushes, restlessness, fatigue, blank mind, muscle tension and sleep disturbance. It's quite an exhaustive list isn’t it and it shares many common features with symptoms which may indicate more serious physical problems. That is why it can be important if you suffer with anxiety to recognise where you usually feel it in your body, so you do not become anxious about the symptoms themselves. It is also important to understand that any of these symptoms can arise where they have not been before as happened to me with the breathlessness. During these times of challenge and uncertainty many people may be experiencing greater anxiety than usual and may either be experiencing bodily manifestations of stress for the first time, or experiencing new symptoms they are unfamiliar with which is exacerbating their anxiety. Examine your symptoms, if you feel very unwell and start to experience breathlessness in particular with accompanying symptoms, then follow the very clear guidelines given by the NHS. Once you are certain that it is anxiety and nothing more, then what can you do? Firstly breathe, but do so normally. Trying meditation breathing when you are anxious can often make you anxious about the breathing itself. You have been breathing well all by yourself your whole life, you’ve got this. Simply try and make your exhale slightly longer for a few of those breaths. Then begin to acknowledge your emotion. It may be threat, it may be fear. Label it as that. Name it. Accept it. Even be curious about how it feels in your body. Do not however attach thoughts to it. Once you label and accept it, notice how it feels then let it go. Resist “what iffing” and “yes butting”. Do not feed the emotion with thoughts about why you are scared or under threat. Instead distract your mind as you breathe. Think of favourite song lyrics, dog breeds, anything. Your mind will return to the anxiety, you are human. That’s OK. You are human. Just notice again your anxiety, accept it and gently guide your mind back to other thoughts. If your therapist has taught you some physical self-soothing techniques use those too. If you can, watch a film ,do some gardening, whatever helps you to re-direct your mind. Be confident that you can do so and be kind to yourself if it is hard. Please all be aware of the symptoms of Covid 19 as described here and follow NHS guidelines if you are feeling ill but also be comforted and aware that breathlessness is sometimes just anxious breathlessness . Be safe and be gentle with yourself. You are doing your best in a very difficult situation.