Stress Symptoms – Illness or Anxiety?

by stresswinner on December 23, 2009

Stress  and  anxiety  often cause  real and  very  unpleasant  symptoms.   A 29 year old man is rushed to hospital gasping for breath, feeling weak and faint and tingling all over.  Is  he having a heart attack?  A stroke?   No, his distress turns out  to be  caused  by an anxiety attack, or ‘hyperventilation’.
When  something  triggered his stress response,   he  automatically  began  breathing more deeply to get extra oxygen to his muscles but he couldn’t  take  a  deep breath because his  chest muscles were  really tight.  He automatically  thought “there’s   something wrong with  my  heart” or ”  I’m having a stroke!”.     The  tightness and choking feeling increased  his  anxiety. Unable to   breathe deeply,   he began breathing  more  quickly instead.  Rapid  breathing   made his blood less acid,  his  hands and fingers tingled and he felt  light-headed and woozy-  as if  he was going to die!
Sometimes the cause of symptoms  is  quite  clear. ‘ Physical’  illnesses  usually show a  typical combination of symptoms and signs , and  stress  is an obvious cause if  symptoms  only occur when we’re under pressure – perhaps  at work or from difficult people.  But diagnosis is more difficult when  unpleasant  symptoms  don’t match those of  a  specific  disease and there’s no obvious source of stress.
Here are some tips:  Ask your doctor for enough time for you to  describe  your symptoms in detail,  and to have  a thorough examination.   If you’re concerned about serious illness, say so, and perhaps write down  your questions.
When  the cause of  symptoms is not clear we must always consider both serious physical illness  and stress, and the best  diagnostic tool is an accurate and complete history .   List all  symptoms, noting the time and the order in which they appeared and  what brings them  on   or makes them worse.   Generally, a ‘physical’ disease will  give us  symptoms mainly in one area while stress often  causes  symptoms in many systems at once  –  such as heart  palpitations, tight breathing, plus  disturbed digestion   and sleep, reduced energy and  upset moods.  Think about possible sources of stress,  because today  many people are  under  more pressure than  they realize.  Remember,  the body may react to serious issues before we recognize them  consciously.
If  you can’t believe your  discomfort is caused by stress,  you  may  think  you need  tests or X-rays  to ‘rule out’   serious illness.   But  when  symptoms  are typical  of   anxiety,    and the physical examination is normal, tests  rarely  reveal unsuspected  diseases –  and  research  shows they may  actually increase  our  anxiety level.
If   stress is the problem, what’s the next step?   Our   patient is  reassured and shown how to  relax by breathing   slowly  and smoothly – in and out  of a paper bag.  Re-breathing acidic carbon dioxide normalizes the acidity of the blood and the tingling and wooziness disappear.
In the long term, we need  to understand symptoms of stress and anxiety. Instead of  dwelling  on them , we can use them as a source of energy to help us make positive changes.  We can choose to  reduce  commitments,  learn relaxation,   exercise vigorously,   adjust our attitudes,  learn new skills  or   seek counselling. Severe anxiety disorders  may require medication. Although  anxiety symptoms can be very unpleasant,  they can also  guide us  to  take  more control over  our responses to stress,  and  so to greater   contentment and happiness.

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