Can stress or anxiety really cause serious health problems?

I don’t know how many of you have been told, after a battery of tests requested by your doctor and maybe a visit to a particular specialist, that your symptoms are probably stress-related or anxiety-related, but if you have, what did those words mean to you?

Maybe you thought, “No way. I’m not a hypochondriac. Besides, the stress I’m under isn’t any worse than what plenty other people are dealing with. And they don’t have these symptoms. So, it has to be something else. I haven’t talked myself into having a serious health issue, for pity’s sake. Do you think I spend 90% of my time sitting on my ass and doing internet searches on horrific diseases that match my symptoms so I can tell everyone I know that my days are numbered?”

Okay, so, at least that’s what I was thinking.

And, no, I don’t spend 90% of my time researching life-threatening diseases that I might have and that might be detected if only the doctor would run the right tests and take me seriously.

Probably only 20%. Maybe 30% if I count the time spent on forums dedicated to neurological or heart conditions where people discuss their symptoms, and I spend most of that time nodding and muttering things like, “Oh, ain’t that the truth!” or “I need to Google that.”

But probably only 25%. And I don’t think the time is entirely wasted. After all, during my searches today on neurological and cardiac symptoms, I ran across some articles that explored the connection between anxiety and real medical conditions–or, at least, the symptoms associated with them.

And I got to thinking.

And then I hyper-analyzed those thoughts, asking myself, “Can stress really do that to the human body–make it so convinced that it has a real medical condition–neurological, cardiac, gastric, or a combination of those, as well as others–that the symptoms show up, and real medical complications can follow. Can stress even cause heart problems that show up during diagnostic tests? Can it cause real damage to the central nervous system, or maybe only symptoms that one would expect from a particular kind of damage?

I’ve never really had digestive problems. But recent cardiac and neurological symptoms–some of which are scary, at least to me–have once again convinced me to talk to my doctor about what might be going on.

And, now, I’m wearing an event monitor, which has a button I push every time I’m experiencing symptoms which I’ve associated with a possible arrhythmia (flutterings, palpitations, lightheadedness, queasiness, more pronounced nerve issues in my arms, difficulty with balance, etc.). I’ve hit the button several times since I went in to get the monitor last Friday, and the machine dumps the recordings whenever I’m in range of a cell-phone tower (which is, pretty much, always). So, even now, my doctor may be reviewing the results and shaking his head, wondering what on earth he’s gotten himself into accepting me as a patient.

The neurologist appointment I had about a year ago resulted in at least a tentative suggestion that the symptoms may be entirely anxiety-related. The neurologist, having reviewed the questionnaire I’d filled out before my appointment, suggested that there was some trauma I hadn’t fully “dealt with,” and the unresolved issues were causing the symptoms.

Of course, at the time, I was thinking, “Well, thank you for dismissing everything I’ve said and basically telling me it’s all in my head. I’m so glad we undertook the expense of this visit. I think I’ll hit the liquor store on the way home.”

Now, to be clear, I’ve never actually had a doctor say, “it’s all in your head, Sarah. And what I mean by that is that you’re totally fine, nothing’s seriously wrong with you, and you need to get a hobby–other than scouring the internet for the next life-threatening malady du jour. Seriously, just get a life. Get over yourself, take up yoga or something, and stop wasting my time.”

Not even once.

And, to do justice to the neurologist and her (at the time) infuriating assessment, I actually was having problems dealing with my dad’s recent death and the pain of leaving my mom in Oregon to go back “home” to Minnesota–far, far away from her and from my brothers and sister and their families.

I never thought that my grief and anxiety were serious enough to cause symptoms that mimicked MS. The MRI of my brain was clear. No lesions, no tumors, no visible anomalies of any kind. But the neurological symptoms remained, and they became markedly worse every time I had a piddling cold with a low fever. And they’re still here, but some of it I think I can attribute to familial tremor, which I inherited from my mother’s side.

As to the cardiac symptoms, I decided to investigate those symptoms when I learned that my younger sister, who’s in better physical shape than I’m in and seven years my junior, experienced arrhythmias when training for a marathon. Fortunately, she had it looked into, and the doctor confirmed an atrial fibrillation. She has since stopped running.

At this point, the most devastating news I’m likely to hear from my doctor is that I’ll have to cut back on my coffee consumption.

Yeah, I know. Pfft!

UPDATE (4/11/14): After the many times I pushed that event monitor button, the doctor told me that the representative sample of “events” all showed normal or only slightly-above-normal heart rates. Honestly, even when it felt like my heart was going nuts, I’d check my pulse, and my heart rate seemed normal. It just seemed like something weird was going on, but the results from the event monitor suggest that it probably had less to do with my heart than with the familial tremor.

And, yeah, coffee tends to make that worse, too. Now that I know my heart is thumping along just fine, though, I think I can live with that.

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3 thoughts on “Can stress or anxiety really cause serious health problems?

  1. Peets coffee, Major Dickason’s, is my anti-depressent. I am serious.
    There are many that believe that our, and I use that term collectively, and individually, symptoms come from PTSD.
    In 12 step programs there is a paragraph that I believe to be the cause of most alcoholics, if not all peoples problems that manifest themselves in “mental illness.”

    “In many instances we shall find that though the harm done others has not been great, the emotional harm we have done ourselves has. Very deep, sometimes quite forgotten, damaging emotional conflicts persist below the level of consciousness. At the time of these occurrences, they may actually have given our emotions violent twists which have since discolored our personalities and altered our lives for the worse.”

    For me, this is the cause of my depression. It is that simple.

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  2. A final command from doctors I’ve recently seen regarding similar concerns that are now attributed to stress and chronic anxiety: cut back on the coffee. It is truly devastating news.

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    1. It is, indeed! 🙂 I’m dreading it, though I’ve already had to cut way back from the amount I used to drink. Decaf just isn’t the same, though. I’ve tried so many brands. Still looking for one that doesn’t make me think, “Why bother?” after the first sip.

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