My Experience With Anxiety It’s Not All in Your Head…
My thoughts are racing, my mouth is dry and I can feel my heart pounding in my chest. Sometimes these symptoms come with a fleeting feeling of dread, the kind I have experienced when I would lose sight of my little one in a crowd but soon spot them inches away. Or it may be part of a prolonged night of worry as I lie there illogically concerned about a countless number of health issues that could potentially plague my family. Disturbing, negative thoughts that take over my peace of mind, sabotaging my need for an often unattainable night of rest. These episodes are yet part of another unwelcome consequence of this disease that I have been living with for over two decades. Yes, feelings of anxiety are now part of my Parkinson’s experience.
Now granted, I don’t fit the criteria for a diagnosis of clinical anxiety. My episodes are few and far between at this time, and frequency and severity are an important part of the strict criteria that must be met prior to such a diagnosis. Moreover, in my case, my feelings of anxiety have not interfered with my functioning. However, to be honest, when they do occur, they definitely impact my quality of life.
I was never an anxious type of individual. Not that I was immune to stress of course, but my response was not one of anxiety. During my medical career for instance, there were emergencies that would trigger a release of adrenaline, but my approach remained focused and logical. Those episodes were not accompanied by racing thoughts, and a feeling of doom or fear. Instead the adrenaline would carry me through as I tackled whatever issue was at hand.
And that is still my response to most situations. However now, occasionally I will feel an overwhelming sense of anxiety. Often not related to any particular circumstance, these discreet episodes come out of nowhere, insidious and usually only debilitating for a few brief moments. The exception is at night when these episodes tend to last longer as the lack of distraction and hours of darkness ahead of me often prolong the feeling.
Although it is difficult to pinpoint an exact cause, there is definitely some correlation with my disease burden. If I am lacking in sleep or have skipped my exercise routine, a general lapse in self-care, along with all my other motor and non-motor symptoms, my mood also suffers. In most cases I have learned to tackle these feelings. By focusing on my breathing and through an internal dialogue to break the onslaught of frightening, negative thoughts, I am able to pull myself out of that spiral of anxiety. Thankfully.
But others are not so lucky. Many in our community are paralyzed with anxiety and/or depression, isolating themselves and living a severely compromised quality of life. Parkinson’s is insidious and global in its nature, affecting us not only as a motor disorder but other body systems, mentally and emotionally as well. Mood disorders, depression and anxiety are part of the nonmotor complications of this disease and are particularly impactful on quality of life. Approximately 30-50% of people living with Parkinson’s disease will experience anxiety at some point during the course of their disease and approximately the same number will suffer from depression. In many individuals these two will coexist. That is compared to 5–10% in the general population.
We are not talking about difficulty coping with this disease or worrying about what the future will bring when you are facing an incurable, progressive neurodegenerative disease. Those concerns and worries are expected and a natural part of the journey with any chronic illness. But when your feelings of anxiety do not resolve themselves and begin to affect your functioning, restrict your activities and when you have symptoms more often than not, then you must take the next step and seek medical attention. Mood disorders in Parkinson’s disease are treatable, often with good results, thereby changing your life and disease experience.
Why do so many still languish with untreated mood disorders? Part of the reason is the unnecessary stigma associated with mental issues, the fear of being thought of as weak and unable to cope, of being judged as succumbing to the challenges of this diagnosis instead of being able to push forward past the obstacles. Well, let me ask you this question. If you broke your arm, would you not seek treatment? Would you not get the medical attention you needed to heal your bones? Mood disorders are the same thing. They are biologically based and are medical conditions like any other illness or injury. They are not a reflection of weakness or an inability to cope. They are a complication of Parkinson’s that requires your awareness and management by your healthcare team.
That is part of my reason for doing this blog – to get this simple message across.
Anxiety and depression are nothing to be ashamed of. There is a biological and medical reason for you to be feeling the way you feel and there are treatments that can help you feel better. You must be proactive in taking care of both your physical and mental health.
As a community, we need to overcome the stigma, normalize discussion about mental health issues and encourage those who are affected to seek the help that they so greatly need.
As I finish this blog, the sun has come out, reflecting off the new snow that fell during the blustery night. It buoys my optimism and hope for the future. There is no sign of my anxiety at the moment, but I know that if I am no longer able to see the beauty of days like this, if my thoughts are mired in worry and negativity, that I will not hesitate to ask for the help that I know exists. I only have to take that first step and ask.
Dr. Soania Mathur is a family physician who had to resign her practice following a diagnosis of Young Onset Parkinson’s Disease at age 27. Dr. Mathur now dedicates her time to patient education, writing and Parkinson’s advocacy. For further information, go to www.unshakeablemd.com