This post is a collaboration with The PIP, a handheld stress management device.
A few years ago (quite a few years ago; I was in my 20s) I went to the GP as I was having trouble swallowing. It felt like there was a lump in my throat and it was there all the time. My throat didn't seem obstructed. I could still eat and breathe but the lump was always there.
My GP ordered blood tests and eventually, unable to explain what was going on, sent me off to hospital for an endoscopy - one of those delightful procedures when they put you under general anaesthetic and stick a little camera down your throat to take a look around.
They found nothing.
Eventually the lump went away but then I started getting what I called my 'funny breathing'. It wasn't shortness of breath in an 'I've just run too far too fast' way. It was an inability at certain times of the day to take a deep breath. My breathing was shallow and somewhat constricted. This was at its worst when I was a passenger in a car.
Turns out my sister had experienced 'funny breathing' too. She said it happened to her when she was really busy.
I didn't know what was going on but the doctors had found nothing and my instinct said that it wasn't life threatening so I just put up with it.
Eventually it went away.
It was a few years later, when my circumstances had changed, that I came to realise that the lump in my throat and my laboured breathing were symptoms of stress and anxiety. If you'd asked me at the time if I was anxious - and maybe my GP did ask - I would have said no. I come from a long line of copers. We don't get emotional (even when we probably should) we just get on with it and cope with whatever situation we're facing.
At the time of my symptoms my partner was highly stressed about work and other issues. I was extremely busy with a full time corporate job, part-time postgraduate Uni study and we were undertaking a massive, three year long house renovation. Did I feel stressed? I didn't think so.
But my body was telling me otherwise. I just didn't recognise the symptoms.
Since then, and with the wisdom of age and much greater knowledge of mental health issues and the body-mind connection, I've come to realise that our bodies are telling us how we're feeling emotionally almost every minute of every day. The signs can be subtle, like the little twinge of a tense muscle in your neck or a slightly elevated heart rate, or they can be screaming at you as anyone who has ever suffered a panic attack will know.
Being aware of your body and its signs of stress and anxiety is a terribly important skill. It can be achieved through mindfulness - a process of paying attention to what is happening in your body at any given moment (I came to mindfulness through yoga) - and devices such as The PIP; a nifty little handheld doover developed by scientists that measures your electrodermal activity (EDA) through your fingertips and tells you, in combination with smart phone apps, whether your body is relaxing or stressing.
Once you train yourself to recognise your body's signs of stress you can monitor them and change things up when your body says your stress levels are rising. I am now very conscious of a clenched jaw, or tight shoulders and neck - my body's current signals - and I make sure that I unclench my jaw and relax my shoulders and then go outside, go for a walk, get to yoga, call a friend or meditate to help my body and mind relax again. At a deeper level I examine what's going on for me that might be causing my stress and take action to remediate things where I can.
I still get stressed but I'm much better able to manage it and to reduce the risk of that stress overwhelming me, leading as it can, to clinical levels of anxiety and depression. And the next time I find myself with an unexplained symptom I'll know to check for emotional as well as physical symptoms.
Do you know your signs and symptoms of stress? Have you ever had a panic attack?
This is my third and final post for Mental Health Week 2015. You can find the others here.
Have you joined the Potential Psychology community? For regular updates on blog posts, new articles and free resources to help you live, learn and flourish subscribe here.