Several years ago 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. Then I started getting what I called 'funny breathing'. It wasn't shortness of breath. It was an inability at certain times of the day to take a deep breath. My breathing was shallow and somewhat constricted.
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.
Anxiety exists in your body not your mind
A few years later, when my circumstances had changed, I realised 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 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.
Our bodies give us signals almost every minute of every day.
We just need to listen.
With the wisdom of age and much greater knowledge of mental health and the body-mind connection, I realise that our bodies are giving us signals almost every minute of every day. The signs can be subtle, like the little twinge of a muscle in your neck or a slightly elevated heart rate, or they can scream at you as anyone who has ever had a panic attack will know.
Being aware of your body and its signs of stress and anxiety is an important skill. It can be achieved through mindfulness - a process of paying attention to what is happening in your body at any given moment - and devices such as The PIP; a nifty little handheld device developed by scientists to measure your electrodermal activity (EDA). This device tells you, in combination with a smart phone app, whether your body is relaxing or stressed.
Managing your stress
Once you train yourself to recognise your body's signs of stress you can monitor them and change things 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 and relax my shoulders and then go outside, go for a walk, do 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 fix things where I can.
I still get stressed but I'm much better at managing it to reduce the risk of that stress overwhelming me. And the next time I find myself with an unexplained symptom? I'll know to check for emotional as well as physical symptoms.