Thursday, June 26, 2014


About five years ago, I started getting lightheaded once every few days. It felt like my brain would lose altitude for one or two seconds at a time. The lightheadedness paired with a fluttering heartbeat concerned me enough that I visited my doctor. He sent me to the hospital for a series of tests, and everything came back negative. Things were fine for a couple of years after that.

In the Fall of 2011, the lightheadedness came back with a vengeance. I also began to feel a tingling sensation in my hands. On one occasion, after walking to campus, I felt so dizzy that I had to sit for fifteen minutes before I could teach. A month later, a friend suggested hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) could be the culprit. All the symptoms fit. My diet was the poster child for blood sugar problems. My dad has type two diabetes. It felt like a perfect match.

So, I changed my diet according to the recommendations of blood sugar experts. And, for a few months, I felt great.

In the Spring of 2012, while in Hawaii, my body went haywire. Halfway through our trip, I woke up feeling very weak and lightheaded. I thought I had a urinary tract infection (which looking back now, I realize I didn't). The travel days were awful. I visited my doctor when we got back to Cincinnati, and after doing thorough blood testing, he ruled out any blood sugar problems. All of my tests came back negative again.

About a week later I experienced a very unnerving moment of lightheadedness in my office. That was the beginning of two hellish weeks. Almost every moment of every day, my head was in a fog. Some moments were better than others, but I was a mess. I almost had to cancel class because I thought I would pass out in front of my students. My head began aching. I woke up with an awful stiff neck, so I visited Urgent Care so they could rule out meningitis. I visited an Ear, Nose, and Throat specialist to rule out sinus problems. I had constant chest pains. My hands tingled. I woke up one night in an all out panic attack. While trying to fall asleep, I would jerk awake a dozen times. I woke up throughout the night. I couldn't sleep in.

And to top it off, I've been obsessive-compulsive my whole life. When I get a thought in my head, I obsess over it. When it's time to redecorate a room, I will literally think about that room every minute I'm awake. Literally. So, feeling sick is a nightmare. I feel bad, so I obsess over the sickness, which causes anxiety, which makes the symptoms worse, which makes me think I'm sicker than I really am, which makes the anxiety explode into, "I'm going to die," which is not a fun place to be.

But I'm not sure I truly understood the power of anxiety until two years ago. While trying to fall asleep, I jerked awake five or six times, feeling like my brain was shutting down. Freaked out, I Googled my symptom. And there it was in black and white. Jerking awake is part of an anxiety disorder. Once I knew I wasn't dying, I slept like a baby. The next night, I fell asleep within five minutes of my head hitting the pillow.

Lightheadedness, headaches, stiff necks, chest pains, trouble falling asleep, trouble sleeping, and feeling an overwhelming sense of doom (I'm dying!) are all symptoms of an anxiety disorder. Throw in my obsessiveness, and it was pretty clear what was happening to me.

Also, ironically enough, the same dietary plan that helps hypoglycemics—which helped me in 2011, but I stopped after being told my blood sugar is fine—is also recommended for people with anxiety issues.

The more I read about anxiety disorders, the more my mind relaxed. For one, it doesn't mean I'm crazy. Diet, exercise, spiritual health, interpersonal relationships, and relaxation techniques all affect anxiety. (For the record, many doctors also identify chemical imbalances within the brain as affecting anxiety and depression, but I've never struggled with depression. My issue seems to be anxiety exacerbated by obsessive thoughts. If I'm able to control the thoughts, the anxiety essentially goes away.)

If I'm honest, my problems resurface when my life gets out of whack. Instead of taking care of my physical, mental, and spiritual health, I become complacent. Instead of trying to become a more loving, kind, compassionate person, I give in to anger and bitterness, which produces a toxicity that hurts others, but also eats away at my own core. I poison myself with negativity, jealously, rage, and self-pity. Winning a few battles along the way, but badly losing the war.

Thankfully, I've been feeling much better since confronting these issues two years ago. Not that you're ever "cured." At least, it doesn't feel like I am. When we moved downtown in May, I felt lightheaded for a week. I blamed it on the elevators at first (motion sickness), but I knew it was anxiety over such a big change. I was able to control my nerves (mostly through music and relaxation techniques), and my head has felt fine ever since. I still get anxious when I feel an abnormal ache or pain, but I am training myself to stay calm and overcome the fear.

If any of you have ever experienced the same symptoms, but no doctor can find anything physically wrong with you, perhaps it's anxiety. But don't lose hope. You're not crazy. You're not dying. Name what's happening to you. Slap a label on it. Because when you shine a light on the monsters under your bed, sometimes they retreat back into the shadows.


Emily said...

I can totally relate. Over the past 18 months I have had various unexplained symptoms that would come and go in spurts - irregular heart beat, chest pain and tightness, strong neck and back pain, and then finally...hand tremors and arm weakness. I was convinced that I had a cardiac problem, and then the hand tremors caused me to think I was developing MS. Which made it worse, thinking I had a debilitating illness. My doctor said the cardiac stuff was all anxiety, and around Christmas I discovered that hand tremors and weakness can also be anxiety. I started to pursue spiritual and emotional health, and I haven't had any symptoms for about 3 months. And I feel so much better. So I'm focusing on keeping on that track - because thinking you're going to die? Is no fun at all.

jt said...

Anxiety presents itself in so many strange ways. I have experienced many of the symptoms you mentioned, along with grinding my teeth and a weird sensation that cold water was dripping on my head. After various tests, including an MRI, my therapist diagnosed me with anxiety. Thanks for shedding a little light on this often overlooked disorder.

Anonymous said...

Whenever I need to relax, I watch the Alcoa eagle cam, where a pair of bald eagles in Iowa are raising three chicks in a nest near the Mississippi River. Something Zen about it all and it mellows me right out and makes me feel happy. Good luck to you!

The link:

Domina said...

My doctor said the cardiac stuff was all anxiety, and around Christmas I discovered that hand tremors and weakness can also be anxiety

annieb said...

Hi Steve. I stumbled to your blog (looking for another Steve Fuller) and saw this post and wanted to respond. I went through exactly what you went through about 20 years ago and have to say I'm a much better person having gone through it. I had lots of the same symptoms and missed diagnosis until on one of my visits to the emergency room thinking I was dying, one of the doctors told me he thought it was anxiety. I ended up taking prozac for a short time but weened myself off of it (they say it's usually not easy to do that.) My mom was concerned I was going through t his and sent me a book "Care of the Soul" by Scott Peck that I think really helped.

It's hard to know where all this stuff stems from but it's amazing that the mind has so much control over the body. Meditation & yoga will help.

Also, the tingling in my limbs persisted for many years until I started taking Vitamin D and Glucosamine pills which eliminated it all together. Apparently I was very very low on Vitamin D. Can't hurt to give that a try on top of your new diet plan as well.

Best of luck to you. Better days are ahead!

annieb said...

I think I gave the wrong author for the book. It was Thomas Moore.

Anonymous said...

Thank you.