Strange Symptoms: Can This Really Be Anxiety?
I have gas. Clouds of it. Mostly burping. But occasional flatulence. And I itch. A lot. In places I often cannot reach without the aid of a long, sharp object. I know what you’re thinking: her husband is a lucky guy!
What did I do to deserve such a pleasant constellation of inconveniences? Turns out (and it took me years to believe this) that good ole Anxiety is the culprit. It doesn’t help that I have IAD (Illness Anxiety Disorder), which makes me hyper-aware of every bodily sensation all day long. But there are real scientific reasons for these (and all) anxiety symptoms.
Let’s start with the gas. The “fight or flight” anxiety response we are always talking about causes your respiration to become shallow—this is what makes some sisters feel like they aren’t getting enough air when they panic. The body’s response to this shortness of breath is, of course, to gulp air or hyperventilate. And, since everything that enters the body must, at some point, exit—well, there you have it. Loud and frequent belching. In my case, imagine a drunk pirate with the hiccups and you have a pretty solid picture of my anxiety-induced burping. The good news is that, once you stop swallowing so much air, there is less of a need to burp it out. So it does go away. I’ve learned to roll with it while apologizing profusely to my unfortunate audience (which once included a room full of mourners—what can I say? Funerals make me anxious).
For those of you who have listened to our podcasts, you may remember our discussion on the connection between the gut and the brain through the vagus nerve. In fact, the stomach is known as the “Second Brain” in the world of neuroscience. When we are anxious, digestion is profoundly affected, which is where the back-door gas comes from (right, Mags?).
One more thing to know about gas and anxiety: they can form their own loop. In other words, you are anxious so you start gulping air and experiencing digestive issues. Your body tries to alleviate the bloating and discomfort caused by the infusion of air by releasing gas, both orally and through the poop chute. But it cannot release it all at once so the trapped air will cause discomfort—not only in the belly. Gas travels throughout the body and gas pains can be felt everywhere. Getting gas pains in your chest cavity is very common. However, people don’t associate chest pains with gas so they get anxious and start gulping more air. You see where this is going.
Let’s move on to itching. I’m not talking about hives or rashes here. I am referring to invisible itching like I am being ravaged by imaginary fleas. What I’m really being ravaged by, however, are stress hormones (which, in my mind, look just like fleas). These stress fleas course through your body “waking up” your circulatory system in preparation for a rapid exit (fight or flight). And that’s where the itching or tingling comes from. For some reason no doctor or astrologist has been able to identify, my itching always happens just under my left shoulder blade. Which causes me to rub against whatever I can find to scratch it. Again, I spend quite a bit of time apologizing to witnesses (such as a potential employer who totally thought I was a wack-a-doo and did not hire me—what can I say? Interviews make me anxious).
There are, of course, remedies for all of these symptoms. Gas-X, Tums and peppermint tea can be great additions to any spin kit. And I carry one of those massage claws so I can scratch less conspicuously. None of these particular symptoms are disruptive in my life—they are more of a nuisance than anything else. And my ability to burp the theme to Star Wars is a big hit with my nephews.
What these weird symptoms do, however, is illuminate how comprehensive the experience of anxiety is. When our fight or flight response is aroused, the reaction is systemic. The whole body is involved. And this is extremely important for both Anxiety Sisters and those who treat them to understand. Anxiety is experienced holistically, which is why it is so hard to pinpoint and why so much has to be ruled out before it is diagnosed. And this is also why anything that can occur in the body can be a symptom of anxiety. Even yawning!
Did I mention my cold feet?
I’m collecting strange symptoms for my research…anybody willing to share?