World Mental Health Day: My anxiety was mistaken for irritable bowel syndrome

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By Erin Davidson

 

Erin Davidson smiles in her pink jacket while standing next to a brown creek in front of a waterfall.

Erin Davidson smiles in her pink jacket while standing next to a brown creek in front of a waterfall.
PHOTO: Erin Davidson suffered from stomach problems and a strange phobia for years. (Supplied: Erin Davidson)

It took me years to figure it out. All my life I thought I had some kind of mystery stomach problem.

For as long as I can remember, I would find myself having to dash off to the loo in a state of panic.

I can remember seeing the family GP several times, even as far back as primary school. He thought fibre supplements would do the trick. They didn’t.
I’ve since learned my tummy troubles were not about my stomach at all. They stemmed from anxiety.

I’ve always been a worrier. I tend to overthink things. I now know this is not just a personality trait, it can be a symptom of anxiety.

When you have anxiety an endless stream of imagined worst-case scenarios and “what if” questions flood your mind.

“What if I fail?”, “What if they don’t like me?”, “What if I’m embarrassed?”, “What if I get hurt?”, “What if I hurt someone else?” … you get the drift.

My anxiety manifested itself in a fear of silence — meeting rooms, movie theatres and classrooms were prisons that I would do all I could to avoid.

Erin Davidson looks at the camera and smiles.

Erin Davidson looks at the camera and smiles.
PHOTO: Erin Davidson visited the beyondblue website and made a doctor’s appointment. (Supplied: Erin Davidson)
Anxiety has this knack of creating a diversion from the real underlying issues by sinking its claws into something seemingly unrelated, and doesn’t let go.

At the time I thought I was the only person in the world with this strange affliction, but apparently it’s so common that there is a name for it — sedatephobia.

I thought I was so unique that I never even thought to Google it until writing this story.

On the outside I appeared to be a happy, healthy, functioning person.

Inside however, I had a constant swarm of butterflies in my belly influencing my every move.

Throughout my late teens and early 20s, my social plans revolved around being able to control when and what I ate, knowing the location of toilets at the destination and anticipating the likelihood of sufficient background noise.

It often felt safer just to stay at home if there were too many unknowns.

I thought I had it all under control. This was just how I was, I thought. I found ways to work around it and hide it.

Eventually I got a blood tests for coeliac disease and was oddly disappointed when the results were negative.

I was left with the rather unsatisfying diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome.

‘I thought I could force myself to snap out of it’

As things got progressively worse I made the bold move of enrolling in a full-time Auslan (Australian sign language) course, where talking during class was forbidden.

I thought that if I immersed myself in silence I could force myself to snap out of it. I was wrong. It was like volunteering for a torture chamber.

I ended each day with a throbbing headache from tensing my entire body for six hours. My leg shook under the table incessantly.

I always rushed to claim the seat next to the door because I felt closer to escape. I had two years of this ahead of me.

I got tested for anaemia to try to explain the fatigue and headaches, but again, that wasn’t the answer.

Erin Davidson wears a white shirt while standing and smiling in front of a white wall.

Erin Davidson wears a white shirt while standing and smiling in front of a white wall.

PHOTO: Erin Davidson thought she had a phobia when really she was suffering from anxiety. (Supplied: Erin Davidson)
A close friend that I confided in said she thought it might be an anxiety disorder. I did not want to accept that and was even mildly offended. Stupid stigma.

One day, early on in the course after the lunch break, I just couldn’t face going back into class so I went home “sick”.

Feeling completely defeated and exhausted, I visited the beyondblue website looking for some kind of hope.

I completed the anxiety checklist and my score was high enough to convince me to seek help. I called my GP and booked an appointment that day.

I felt like a complete fraud seeking mental health support. I had a supportive family, no history of abuse, a close circle of friends, I was financially stable and somehow managing to perform well at school and work.

The thing is, anxiety isn’t logical. It doesn’t discriminate.

‘I learnt how to change my thoughts’

I vividly remember at age 22, the moment the GP diagnosed me as having a generalised anxiety disorder and recommended a mild antidepressant medication and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) with a psychologist.

It was validation. It was an answer. It had a name. I remember feeling the tension in every muscle in my body release like a deflating balloon, in the most blissfully relieving way.

Everybody’s anxiety experience is different and there is more than one set path to recovery or symptom relief.

For me, CBT finally helped make my anxiety logical. I started to join the dots between different experiences in my life to understand where my fear stemmed from.

I learnt how to change my thoughts in situations that would normally send me fleeing.

My psychologist also taught me methods I could use to be my own therapist whenever I need it.

Taking medication was like hitting the brakes on the racing thoughts in my brain.

Erin Davidson is mid-air with her arms spread out after jumping off the ground while in the midst of the mountains in Peru.

Erin Davidson is mid-air with her arms spread out after jumping off the ground while in the midst of the mountains in Peru.
PHOTO: Erin Davidson has learnt how to deal with her anxiety. (Supplied: Erin Davidson)
I developed a new base level of calm to recognise triggers when they occurred, rather than being on high alert 24/7.

It gave me a glimpse into what a life not driven by anxiety felt like.

My gut settled around the same time as starting these treatments, which was no coincidence.

There’s a known link between anxiety and digestive problems and lots of new research is exploring exactly how the gut-brain connection works to influence our mood.

Seeking help is not a sign of weakness. I now see it as the bravest step I took because deep down I had the fear of, “What if this doesn’t work?”.

Also, when anxiety has been such a big part of your life and has guided most of your decisions, there is fear of the unknown.

That can also be read as worrying about not worrying.

If you relate to any part of my experience, I encourage you to ask yourself, “What if it can get better?”.

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