What to Do If Your Anxiety Symptoms Make You Feel Sick

     Has this happened to you in the past few months? You’re talking to someone, or reading something, or doing absolutely nothing at all when all of a sudden, you find it difficult to take a normal breath. You think that it’s nothing, but you find yourself going through a mental checklist of your symptoms and running them against the COVID symptom list, which is updated daily. Now, instead of just noticing your shortness of breath, you are struggling. The downward spiral has begun. You begin contemplating calling your doctor or heading to urgent care. You try to rationalize what’s going on, but your head is screaming “THIS IS IT! CORONAVIRUS!”

     You are not alone. We have not been immune to feeling anxious about coronavirus at ARC. In the four months since COVID-19 initially made its existence known, we have each reported episodes of shallow breathing. We also ran through the gauntlet of potential diagnoses before coming to the other side and realizing that it was our anxiety, but these days, it is a process that is fraught with fear. 

     It’s easy to understand why any of us could be experiencing increased episodes of shortness of breath. Your breathing patterns mirror your internal world as they react to your external world (whether past, present, or attempting to foresee the future). Everything you experience throughout the day has its own breathing pattern. When you are angry, your breath is rapid. When you are anxious, it is shallow. Our anxiety is designed to respond to any threats, and lately, the threats seem to come 24/7. Our fight, flight, or freeze impulses are being activated constantly as news and information regarding COVID come at us in a flurry. We see the rising numbers, hear about more people testing positive, and read articles with inflammatory headlines. It’s no wonder why we may battle with shortness of breath. Chest breathing = stress breathing.

     All of this information may seem reassuring as you are reading it, but when you are feeling chest tightness and shortness of breath, all of the science in the world will not make you feel better. Fortunately, you don’t have to remember all of this to get your breathing to return to normal. You just have to ask yourself a few basic questions.

     Are you someone with a history of anxiety symptoms?

     When did you experience the onset of shallow breathing? Had you just read or watched the news? Were you discussing COVID? Were you on social media?

     If you answered yes to these questions, you are likely experiencing an anxiety response. All of the ever-changing news regarding the virus mixed with the hysteria-inducing headlines can lead to even the least anxious of us to start to feel the effects. You may have become hyper-vigilant, which is a state of increased alertness where you are super aware of any hidden dangers, whether from other people or the environment. Often, though, these dangers are not real. Yes, COVID is real, but the threat that your body is responding to at that moment most likely is not.

         You may also start checking for other symptoms of the virus. We are suggestible creatures, so when we are reading about or listening to information about potential symptoms, we may all of a sudden feel as though we are experiencing an onset, and then we’re off to the races. Body scanning is another response that could be causing your anxiety to rise.

     If you feel that your shortness of breath is due to an increase in anxiety, you can do some quick and easy grounding exercises to help get you out of your head and into the present moment. Tapping into your five senses will help. Pick up an object close to you and focus on how it feels, it’s weight, etc., List objects that you see in your immediate line of sight.

    

     Progressive Muscle Relaxation is another excellent way to quell your anxiety symptoms. It’s a technique where you tense and release parts of the body one at a time. You can find instructions for this practice online, or through several free meditation apps.

     If you find that utilizing these techniques helps you, then all signs point to your anxiety as the underlying cause of your breathing difficulties.

     If you get little to no relief after trying in earnest to calm your breathing, a call to your doctor and/or mental health practitioner could be your next step. If you are being treated for anxiety, your doctor may recommend a medication or an adjustment in your current dose. Your general practitioner may suggest a quick visit, which could also help alleviate your anxiety. Sometimes talking through your symptoms and answering basic questions, while understanding that “help is on the way” provides the distraction you need to calm down a bit. 

     Although it is possible to be experiencing anxiety and also having a medical issue, if you find your symptoms persisting or worsening, then you need to seek out immediate medical care. While it may be your first impulse to avoid the Emergency Room or urgent care for fear of the potential exposure to COVID, shortness of breath and/or chest tightness can signify a more serious problem that would require a level of care only found at the hospital.

     We are all living our lives on high alert, we have been for months, and our anxiety is perfectly created to respond to threats. Sometimes though, as with even the most sophisticated alarm system, the wiring gets a little frayed or the keypad needs recalibrating. When you feel your symptoms manifest themselves in physical ways, you need to be able to discern whether it is in fact your anxiety or a medical issue. As with anything involving your wellbeing, you are your own best advocate, and you need to act in the same way that you would when dealing with a loved one in the same situation. Taking care of yourself physically and mentally is the epitome of self-care.

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