A Story About Dealing with Health Anxiety
My pulse is about 73. Temperature is 97.6. I wonder if I am hyperventilating. The doctor still hasn’t called with my blood test results. What if something is abnormal? I am only 31 and am not ready to die. God, what if its cancer? Or heart disease, please don’t be heart disease. Imagine having these thoughts on a regular basis. Imagine having them daily, or even hourly! This is being in a state of constant awareness and extreme sensitivity. Is this what Health Anxiety causes or is this what caused the Anxiety? There is this line between sensible caution and hyper vigilance. One day I catapulted over that line and it’s been hell finding my way back to the other side.
Since the age of 23, I have had what was diagnosed as Anxiety and Panic Disorder. I battled through many different medications and several therapists. I would go into year long remissions with no symptoms what so ever. It would strike again for a while, and then leave. A very disruptive yoyo. When I would have these panic attacks, it would always start with a feeling that my heart was racing, though it never occurred to me to take my pulse. I would sweat, my throat would tighten, and I was certain I was dying. I even went to the ER several times only to be given a xanax, patted on the head, and sent out the door. I remember one ER visit quite clearly. I felt as though I was about to pass out. The RN was taking my pulse and she kept re-taking it as though something must have been wrong. She continually asked me if I was on any kind of drugs. I kept telling her no. I had even given up coffee at that point. I never even asked what my heart rate was. Never thought to ask. I just trusted them and waited for the xanax to kick in, as it eventually did.
In Spring of 2003, I was preparing for my wedding when I began feeling these flutters in my chest, like a fish flopping around beneath my ribs. I could actually feel my heart skipping beats. I later found out that these were PVCs (premature ventricular contractions). I had been anxiety symptom free for years and feeling quite “normal” until then. These flutters did make me nervous, but I tried to pass them off as indigestion and just started popping Rolaids. However, it did create some anxiety and I went back into counseling. After about 7 months or so, I was doing so well that the counselor thought I didn’t need her services anymore at that time. I was really making strides dealing with the anxiety and doing so without a daily medication.
It was a Friday in December of 2003, and I was home doing the dishes. I was looking forward to going out to dinner with my husband that night. I bent over to pick something up when it happened. I felt that familiar flutter and then what was about to occur was in no way familiar. My heart began to race. But much faster than anything I had felt before. I broke out into a cold sweat. And I had a feeling of sheer doom. I tried to take my pulse and it was too fast to count. I counted about 120 or so but I couldn’t be sure. Normal resting rate is about 60-90 beats per minute. I tried to calm down, but that was impossible. I decided to drive myself to the ER. I realized later that was a big mistake because I could likely have passed out and not only put my life in danger, but the lives of everyone else on the road. When I arrived my pulse was 155. They immediately hooked me up, gave me tests, and sat with me the full four hours this carried on. Finally I was given a beta blocker medication and my pulse went back to normal. My chest hurt. It felt the same way the muscles feel the day after a hard workout.
The following Monday I visited a cardiologist. She diagnosed me with SVT (supraventricular tachycardia). She said I likely had it for many years and probably never had Anxiety and Panic Disorder. Apparently the symptoms are pretty much identical, and they are very often confused. Great. For the past several years I have been convincing myself my heart was fine. Was all that wasted energy? How could I ever trust anyone again? How could I even trust my own instincts? I spent over 8 years undiagnosed and untreated. In fact, many of the medications I had been prescribed for the anxiety (SSRIs and Tricyclic Antidepressants) were aggravating the heart condition. I was told that this is a benign arrhythmia and would not threaten my life. And I was told to continue taking the beta blocker medication indefinitely. But I couldn’t stop worrying.
Regardless of whether or not I had anxiety disorder for all those prior years, I definitely had it after this episode. I was panic stricken. Throughout the following months I struggled with this experience. I have doubted the words of physicians and their staff. I have made so many phone calls and asked so many questions. It was clear I became an extreme annoyance to everyone in my Cardiologist’s office. I had looked up every possible article on the internet and tried to read everything I could about this condition. What I have learned is that basically, there isn’t much to learn. I have learned that you can flood yourself with enough information to suffocate your mind and give wings to your fears.
I became pregnant shortly after the diagnosis and continued to take the medication. I began feeling great. No anxiety, no panic, no flutters. I felt better than I had in years. After having my beautiful little girl, however, the anxieties returned, but things were different. I began obsessing about my health and mortality. I was so afraid I was somehow going to die suddenly and leave my baby behind. The very thought was so scary and depressing to me and yet I fully realized it was all so irrational. Nonetheless, I couldn’t make those thought, those ‘what ifs,’ disappear.
I began realizing that I was overly sensitive to everything. I could feel my blood pressure drop one point. I could feel the food digesting in my abdomen. I could feel the slightest amount of adrenaline released from my brain and I hated it. With every discomfort, sensation, stimuli came the intense fear. A headache was an aneurysm. Reflux was a heart attack. Simple things that normal people feel everyday somehow became my signs of impending death. I became so vigilant about recognizing symptoms so I could avoid death that I was not living. I was unable to enjoy a wonderful life with my family. I was unable to live fully. As much as I wanted to stay alive, I was living a life that was anything but alive.
I have decided that even if this is my last day on this earth, I needed to enjoy it to the best of my ability. I have realized that not one of us knows how long we have. We all, like it or not, will die. But the only way to fight that fear of dying is to live well. I needed to make some changes. I began therapy. I journal. I even take medication daily. I am definitely on the path to returning to my life. The life I have been so vigilantly fighting for. The life I have always wanted. I refuse to miss out on each day I am given. Some days are harder than others. Some days I need to write a bit more in my journal. Some days I need to make a conscious effort not to give in to the fear. But other days, most days, I can live as though I truly am a normal person. I say that tongue in cheek because, truly, how many of us are really normal.
I know there are many people out there with feelings similar to the ones I have experienced. I want those people to know that there is a way out. Whether it be through therapy, medication, meditation, distraction, journaling…there is a way out for you. It will not be easy. It will not be quick. But it will be. You are not alone. And right now, this very moment, you are alive. So now, start living.