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I ignored symptoms of what I thought was a heart condition until I nearly drove off the road. It turned out to be anxiety.

Erica Curran looking at the camera
nullErica Curran
  • For months I experienced heart palpitations, chest pains, and dizziness.

  • But I ignored these symptoms until one day I nearly drove off the road.

  • I found out I had anxiety — not a heart condition — and have learned to manage it.

I was driving my son to his favorite park when I felt it again: a stabbing pain just below my heart, so sharp that I nearly skidded off the road. I applied pressure to my chest with one hand while gripping the steering wheel with the other, determined to make it to the park safely so I could catch my breath.

This had become an all too familiar feeling, and I knew the dizziness and heart palpitations couldn't be too far behind. I managed to let my son out of his car seat to play while I found a quiet spot to sit and wait for the feeling to pass.

These symptoms had been sporadic enough in the previous months that I'd decided to mostly ignore them, but that moment in the car with my son was the final straw. Experiencing this while in the driver's seat was terrifying and pushed me to make an appointment with my primary-care doctor. It also pushed me to ask myself questions I'd been avoiding: Was something wrong with my heart? With my brain? Was I dying?

I was sure I was going to die of a heart attack

I spent the days leading up to my appointment Googling my symptoms: chest pains, achiness in my left arm, an irregular heartbeat, and shortness of breath. Occasionally some of these symptoms would last for hours; other times they came and went quickly.

Before long, with the help of the internet, I'd let myself spiral. I had diagnosed myself with a fatal heart condition and was merely waiting for the doctor to confirm it. The more I Googled, the more my chest ached and the harder it felt to breathe. My appointment couldn't come soon enough; I was certain I needed treatment to prevent me from falling dead from a heart attack at 36.

When my appointment finally arrived, the doctor, too, seemed seriously concerned about my symptoms, so she ran some tests and asked detailed questions. She asked when the symptoms came on (sometimes while driving, but often randomly) and whether they improved or worsened during physical activity (they improved).

Then she started asking about my life. She asked if I was stressed out (yes, I was a working mom going on year two of the pandemic), if any recent life changes had created more stress in my life (in short: yes, many), and if I did anything to manage my stress (nope).

My diagnosis shocked me — I was told it was anxiety

She set down her clipboard, and I braced myself for my long-awaited diagnosis. But what she said shocked me: She told me that my heart seemed just fine, that my body was healthy. "What you're experiencing is probably anxiety," she said, adding that it was a diagnosis she'd been making more and more frequently since the onset of the pandemic.

At first I was surprised. I'd been described as nervous since I was a little girl, shy around strangers and avoidant of situations that made me uncomfortable. In grade school and in college I went to great lengths to get out of speaking in class. Sometimes I'd gotten so nervous that my stomach ached and I felt debilitated by my nerves. Even so, I'd never thought of myself as someone with capital-A Anxiety.

My doctor wrote a prescription for Xanax and instructed me to take half a pill the next time the symptoms came on, then assess how I felt. We scheduled a follow-up visit for a few weeks later, where I was able to confirm that the Xanax worked like a charm. She prescribed a low dose of Zoloft, told me to take the Xanax only as needed, and suggested I start seeing a therapist ASAP.

I've learned how to manage my anxiety — here are a few tips

A few weeks later, my new therapist offered a bit more insight into why I was feeling the way I'd been feeling for months. I was experiencing generalized anxiety peppered with occasional panic attacks — and the first step toward getting better was understanding what I was dealing with.

Educating myself about my anxiety is probably the most important thing I've done to help me manage my symptoms and feel in control of my body. Here are some things I've learned along the way.

Ruling out medical issues is a crucial first step, but avoid Dr. Google

When you're feeling physical symptoms you suspect may be due to anxiety, it's a good idea to make an appointment with your primary-care doctor as soon as possible to rule out other issues.

"Start with the medical side of things," Debra Kissen, the CEO of Light On Anxiety CBT Treatment Centers in Chicago, said. "It's always a good thing to have an annual workup. It's just good preventative care."

If you receive a clean bill of health, your primary-care doctor can help connect you with an appropriate provider to manage your anxiety symptoms through medication, psychotherapy, or both.

If possible, avoid Google at all costs. It can only add to your anxiety and doesn't take into account things like your personal medical history and stressors in your life. "I mean, no matter what you Google, you will end up finding out that you're having a stroke, heart attack, or cancer," Kissen said. "Don't Google your symptoms."

Anxiety commonly manifests in physical ways

Anxiety isn't all in your head — it's common to feel it throughout your body. Marilou G. Tablang-Jimenez, a psychiatrist with MedStar Montgomery Medical Center in Montgomery County, Maryland, said this is because our autonomic nervous system responds to anxiety by triggering the fight-or-flight reflex, which galvanizes our bodies to defend ourselves when we sense danger.

"An example of that will be when someone is threatening to physically assault you," she said. "This sets off the release of stress hormones (cortisol, norepinephrine, and adrenaline) that leads to a cascade of physiological responses such as palpitations, increased respiratory rate, and energy expenditure."

The typical physical symptoms of anxiety, she says, are chest pains, palpitations, shortness of breath, sweating, shakiness, and stomach pain. Other common symptoms are dizziness, nausea, and vomiting.

Create a personal plan for managing your symptoms, but know when to ask for help

Over time, I've learned what triggers my anxiety and what helps relieve the symptoms. I've created a personalized mental-health checklist that includes minimizing screen time, walking outside, reading books, drinking lots of water, and avoiding too much caffeine. When I start to feel those familiar pains in my chest, it's usually because I've been neglecting my checklist.

Tablang-Jimenez offered the following tips to manage anxiety symptoms:

  • Learn meditative techniques and try yoga

  • Eat a healthy, nutrient-dense diet, and stay well hydrated

  • Practice good sleep hygiene

  • Exercise daily, and take part in recreational activities

  • Maintain an active social life

  • Keep alcohol and caffeine consumption to a minimum, and stay away from marijuana and illicit drugs

Kissen said that if you're still feeling distracted by your physical symptoms, you may want to consider talking to someone. "If those scary feelings are so big that they keep taking up more and more of your life, that's when you may need to get some help," Kissen said. "Sometimes it's really hard to get unstuck by yourself."

Read the original article on Insider