A lot of the questions we receive here on AnxietyConnection have to do with members wondering if their physical symptoms are caused by anxiety or if they have some underlying medical condition. This is a difficult question to answer even for your doctor. One of the confusing aspects of an anxiety disorder is how many of the symptoms can overlap with medical diseases and disorders. The other thing to remember is that it is very possible to have some sort of medical problem which is exacerbated by anxiety. So it may be very difficult to sort out which symptoms are signs of an untreated illness or disease and which symptoms are primarily caused by an anxiety disorder. I think it is important to figure out what is causing your symptoms so that you can get the appropriate treatment you need.
Anxiety is associated with numerous physical symptoms which may include:
- Fatigue and weariness
- Gastrointestinal problems such as stomach aches and diarrhea
- Gagging or vomiting
- Eating too little or too much
- Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
- Muscle aches and tension
- Problems sleeping
- Chest pains or rapid heartbeat
- Hyperventilating or feeling like you can’t catch your breath
- Shaking, trembling, or feeling weak.
This list is long but by no means does it include every possible physical symptom associated with anxiety disorders. So it does get confusing to know what may be causing any particular symptom or constellation of symptoms. I would like to share a personal story about my experience with learning to differentiate between my symptoms of anxiety and those which may indicate an underlying medical problem.
I do suffer from anxiety and I could probably check off most of items on the list above as far as symptoms I have experienced as a result of having an anxiety disorder. In early 2007 I began to have some mysterious symptoms which seemed unexplainable. I was feeling great fatigue, numbness and tingling in my fingers and toes, and a feeling of always being off balance. I did write these off immediately as due to stress and anxiety. The thing was, the more stressed and anxious I felt about these symptoms, the more they persisted. I didn’t want to talk about it with anyone because I worried that they would think I was crazy or making it up. It took me six months to talk about my symptoms with my general practitioner during a routine physical check up. It was then that he ordered medical tests including an MRI. By the fall I was officially diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.
I look back on this and it could have easily been the case where I could have waited even longer to get things checked out. I realize now that my anxiety makes me reluctant to discuss medical symptoms because I am afraid that I won’t be taken seriously. Don’t make the mistake I did and wait needlessly. If you are experiencing physical symptoms you can’t explain do see your doctor. I don’t think it is necessary to get an appointment for every little ache and pain but if you have been worried about any particular symptoms for over two weeks, it is time to get things checked out.
Here are some suggestions of what you can do if you are worried about the physical symptoms you are experiencing:
- Keep a log of your symptoms.
Write down the day and time they occur, how long they last, and the severity on a scale of 1-10. Make a special note of any symptoms you have never experienced previously. If there are any identifiable triggers write those down as well. Did you feel anxious before your symptoms manifested?
In my case, I found my symptoms persisted whether I was feeling calm or stressed. This was an indication to me that there was more than anxiety at play here. My written list of symptoms also helped tremendously in getting me a definitive diagnosis of MS. If your symptoms are solely anxiety related, your log can be beneficial to figure out which anxiety triggers are contributing to your physical symptoms.
- See your doctor to get a physical.
If you haven’t had a physical exam in awhile it is time to schedule one. During your examination you can discuss any unusual symptoms you may be having. Blood work can reveal a ton of information including vitamin deficiencies, thyroid problems, or even diabetes, all of which can cause neurological or mental symptoms. If the medical tests rule out a medical cause for your symptoms, your doctor may be able to refer you to a therapist to discuss treatment for an anxiety or mood disorder.
- Share this information about your symptoms with your therapist or psychiatrist.
If you are seeing a therapist or psychiatrist for a mood or anxiety disorder it is imperative that you do share any physical symptoms you may be experiencing. If you take any medications for your mental disorder, it is possible that your symptoms are actually side effects from the medication. Your therapist will want to know this information so that your medication can be adjusted as necessary. Your doctor may also be able to give you advice on how to handle medication side effects.If your symptoms are deemed as anxiety related then your therapist can guide you as to how to decrease your anxiety and stress.
The bottom line is that you don’t need to suffer. Whether or not your physical symptoms are caused by a medical condition or anxiety doesn’t mean you don’t speak up about them. If they are worrisome to you then you deserve some peace of mind to know what is causing your symptoms and also how to treat them. People suffering from anxiety get sick too. We are definitely not immune to illness because we have an anxiety disorder. In fact, the opposite might be true.
My motto has always been, "When in doubt, get it checked out."
Now it is your turn. How have you learned to differentiate between anxiety- induced symptoms and those originating from a medical condition? What has your experience been like to talk to your doctor about your worries? Were you taken seriously or has your anxiety disorder gotten in the way of getting good medical treatment? Tell us your story. We are eager to hear from you.
I am a mother, a writer, and now an MS patient