When my physical symptoms mimic a panic attack

Foreword: I wrote this post before my recent heart problems, but I now know more than ever that physical symptoms can mimic those of mental health conditions. Atrial Fibrillation (AF) and the palpitations that accompany it, mimic the feeling of impending doom that I get in the pit of my stomach when I’m anxious. AF actually feels like I’m on a roller coaster – you know when you go down a big dip or do a loop, you feel like your stomach drops, your heart goes into your mouth and it takes your breath away – it feels like that all the time. The breathlessness, dizziness and palpitations mimic a panic attack and I have a constant uneasy feeling, like something bad is going to happen. I know it’s caused by my heart problems and not anxiety, so I’m managing to stay calm but it is exhausting and frustrating.

Do you find the physical symptoms of your chronic illness often mimic those of your mental health conditions, like depression and panic attacks? If you do, you are not alone. I often find it hard to differentiate between my physical symptoms and my mental health.

I have known for many years that my anxiety and depression don’t just affect my mental health but also cause physical symptoms like fatigue, pain and palpitations. But it wasn’t until my physical health deteriorated that I realised the opposite was also true.

For most of my life doctors have blamed my physical symptoms on my poor mental health – saying my fatigue is caused by my depression, my headaches are because I’m anxious and tense, my dizziness is just a symptom of my anxiety, and they have even tried to convince me I was exaggerating the severity of my pain due to my mental state. Rather than trying to find the true cause of my ill health they would just prescribe more antidepressants or anti anxiety meds. But I knew this wasn’t the full story. I knew that there were many times that my mental health was stable but these physical symptoms were still present. It’s a situation a lot of us face when trying to get a diagnosis of condition that has no definitive test, like ME/CFS. To be told it’s all in your head, when you clearly know otherwise, is enough to bring on a depressive episode.

It wasn’t until my physical health deteriorated so far that I became virtually bed bound, that I realised the true extent of the detrimental effect my physical health had on my mental wellbeing.

About 4 years ago, after a long day at a hospital appointment, exhaustion hit. I tried to sleep but I couldn’t rest. My exhausted body was mimicking signs of a panic attack – palpitations, sweating, shivering, dizziness, chest pains and difficulty breathing. I was so exhausted that even the slightest movement was sending adrenaline coursing through my body.

My exhausted mind was so confused by what I was experiencing – it couldn’t differentiate between what symptoms were due to my physical exhaustion, and what were caused by anxiety. My mind was racing trying to make sense of what was happening.

I tried to stay calm and convince myself everything would be ok, but the longer the physical symptoms lasted, the more anxious I became. You see, it’s impossible to rest, let alone sleep, when you have adrenaline running through your body. When you are in the ‘fight or flight’ mode your body and mind are designed to be in a heightened state to help you escape from danger. Understandably this triggered a panic attack. I know I wasn’t anxious before the palpitations started, I know my physical symptoms were the cause, but unfortunately that didn’t help.

My panic attack only increased my exhaustion – my heart rate soared, my body began to shake, I was shivering yet burning up, my skin was crawling and nothing could calm me down enough to sleep. Each time I calmed myself down from one panic attack, a physical symptom like dizziness or a succession of rapid thumping heart beats, started the cycle all over again. It was just one panic attack after another, I can’t remember a time when my anxiety levels were this bad. The more my physical health deteriorated, the worse my mental state became, and the less able I was to deal with these symptoms.

This continued for hours and I can safely say it was the longest night of my life. The longer it went on the more severe my symptoms became. It was a never ending cycle that had no possible positive outcome, I was convinced it was never going to end and by 5am suicidal thoughts started to appear. My heart was pumping so hard and so fast, I thought my chest was going to explode, I truly thought I was going to die, in some ways I wanted to die – I was desperate and so scared.

I did eventually manage to calm myself down but sleep was impossible. My body was in such a heightened state that every time I came close to relaxing my whole body went into spasm. It took me weeks to recover, I literally had to stay comatosed and silent because any movement triggered palpitations. This caused a prolonged depressive episode which included many sleepless and suicidal nights. My anxiety remained heightened for a long time following this incident and it made me scared to do anything even remotely physical, in case it set off another crash. I even limited the amount of talking I did which caused me to isolate myself.

I would love to say this was the only time I experienced such a terrifying incident but the truth is something very similar, if not so severe, happens every time I crash. But this harrowing night taught me how to psychologically cope with these physical symptoms. It taught me that these symptoms aren’t all in my head, and that by staying calm I can minimise the detrimental effect on my health.

Although it was a terrifying night it taught me a lot. It taught me that you cannot separate your physical and mental health, the two are intertwined. It showed me that an holistic approach is vital when discussing health. It taught me that Doctors don’t always know best. It taught me to trust my own instincts and listen to the signals my mind and body are sending me. It taught me the importance of pacing. It taught me the need to focus my mind when I’m crashing. It also taught me how strong I am, and that no matter how desperate a situation may seem, it will eventually end, nothing lasts forever. Take care x.

Do you find the symptoms of your ‘physical’ illness often mimic those of anxiety or panic attacks?

Living in Isolation

When you have severe ME/CFS, or any illness that causes you to become housebound, you feel isolated. It’s very easy to feel forgotten. Your life is put on hold but the world goes on outside without you. How can an event that is so catastrophic for you not impact on world around you? How can life for others go on as normal? You are surrounded by a cocoon that protects you from harm but it also excludes you from life.

I have spent the majority of the last 5 years confined to one, darkened room. I also don’t watch TV because it’s so exhausting, so I miss out on a lot of developments in the world. Fashions change; When did Men’s clothing become so tight? The music scene changes; I haven’t got a clue about any current artists. Language adapts; slang words that I haven’t the foggiest what they mean. And what’s with this Monopoly money everyone is using? Trends, fads, media, films, TV programmes, politics, they all evolve.

This alienation also extends to friends and the social life you have relinquished. Your only social interaction is online but social media only shows us the edited highlights of someone’s life. Many friends who were once frequent visitors become like passing acquaintances or at worst, strangers. They continue to have fun and to experience adventures without you, their life continues as normal.

But this cocoon means so much more than isolation from developments in the outside world. The cocoon is also there to protect us from viruses, noise, stress, light, anything that could exhaust us, cause us pain or cause a deterioration in our health. For the sake of our health, we are shut off from the outside world, with only a vague understanding of what’s going on around us. We hear hushed conversations, doctors visit, family and friends make brief appearances, care workers come and go, but you feel detached, like you are observing someone else’s life. Loved ones try their best to help, but the cocoon creates a barrier. We are often too scared to break down the barrier for fear of getting hurt.

And anytime I have to leave my protective cocoon (for hospital appointments) I’m bombarded by a sensory overload. Everything is so loud and colours are so bright. I’m bewildered by how unfamiliar my once familiar neighbourhood is, and it’s actually quite scary.

My biggest fear is that I will never recover enough to leave my protective cocoon and rejoin the real world, but I also now fear that outside world, it’s a scary and unfamiliar place. The longer I spend in isolation, the more alien the outside world seems. How long will my isolation last? Will I ever get the chance to emerge from my cocoon, or will I forever be one of the forgotten ones, hidden away from the world? If I am ever well enough to leave the safety of my cocoon, will I even recognise the world that greets me? How will I adapt?

Does anyone else experience these fears?

MEpedia – Our Future.

What is MEpedia?

MEpedia is a project founded by MEAction, powered by the patient community, and built by volunteers including patients, students, and researchers. The team at MEpedia are crowd-sourcing a knowledge base on the history, science and medicine of ME, CFS, and related diseases. But they need your help. http://me-pedia.org/

Imagine a website where all the information currently available about ME (and related diseases), from all over the world, was in one place. Imagine the possibilities. The newly diagnosed, who are confused and scared, unsure where to turn, can log on and access up-to-date information. If you are having problems finding a sympathetic doctor, you can log on and search for one. The media can use the site to research ME (and related diseases) and access correct information, rather than the bogus quotes often supplied by so called experts.

MEpedia can be used as a platform to educate medical professionals, whether currently training, newly qualified or experienced. It will serve as an invaluable research tool for all everyone. We spend so much of our energy fighting doctors against the tide of misinformation and disbelief, MEpedia would give us a database of knowledge to arm ourselves with. And the more information we can collate on one site, the more likely we are to find common cause or common treatment.

From the success of Millions Missing we already know how strong our voice is when we unite. MEpedia has already gotten over 4 million page views, 90% of it was written by three or four people. Imagine what could be achieved with more help.

Contribute to MEpedia today.
You are probably telling yourself (like I did): “I’m not medically trained or qualified to contribute”, but there are many ways you can help. Anyone can create pages, write content, add links/citations, fact-check, or even just fix typos. Everyone has something to offer, whatever your skills & experience, even if you have never edited a wiki (like Wikipedia) before. Get involved and help the patient community identify all of the best and most important resources for our disease and its research, treatment and history.

There are so many different roles contributors can play, at every level of cognitive ability or technical expertise. Every contributor can play one or more roles. All are important and help MEpedia grow and improve the project. We all have limited energy but even small acts accumulate to create big changes.

For more information about contributor roles please click here: http://me-pedia.org/wiki/How_to_contribute#Roles

So, how do you get involved?

If you are on Facebook please join this group. https://www.facebook.com/groups/218347055598647/

If not, click here to get started: http://me-pedia.org/wiki/How_to_contribute

Familiarise yourself with MEpedia and jump in. If you are unsure where to start, try adding some terms to the Glossary section http://me-pedia.org/wiki/Glossary

Together we can change our future.


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