Anyone with an autoimmune disease or mental illness has probably heard a doctor tell them “you’re just imagining symptoms––there’s really nothing wrong with you.” I was one of those people.
I had at least five different blood tests done, which tested for over 20 different conditions. I tested negative for ulcers, pancreatitis, gall bladder problems, kidney problems, liver problems, potassium deficiency, thyroid conditions, and more. Yet there was clearly something wrong with me––I was 94 pounds in April and could hardly eat anything because I’d double over in pain. I went to the emergency room twice and left with a completely clean bill of health (I’d later learn they can’t test anything in the upper stomach region, which was where my pain came from, so that wasn’t completely true). Even after I had an endoscopy that showed erosions on my stomach and evidence of erosive esophagitis, the gastroenterologist I saw couldn’t explain how those erosions occurred.
An NPR article describes psychosomatic disorders, true conditions where people bear physical symptoms but don’t have a clear illness. So, are these people crazy? Is it possible you’re just imagining things? It’s possible, but I’d say the answer is both yes and no for anyone with an autoimmune condition.
In my case, I clearly had physical symptoms that prevented me from eating and resulted in fatigue, extreme weight loss, osteoporosis, and more. However, I later learned that I also suffer from an anxiety disorder called panic disorder, which causes panic attacks in certain situations. For example, my panic attacks usually come from financial, performance, and academic situations. Otherwise, I navigate through life normally.
I also learned that I’m an empath, which means I’m very sensitive to emotions and can literally feel them, even if I haven’t experienced them––I once could feel the sadness of a breakup my friend went through, even though I haven’t dated anyone. Because I’m an introvert and an empath, I often internalize emotions. As a result, I assembled the puzzle pieces and realized my gastritis was a direct result of stress. There wasn’t really any other explanation since I didn’t have an ulcer.
After this realization, I charted my stomach flare-ups with my stomach symptoms. And I was correct. My stomach turned sour whenever I became anxious or stressed about something. Although research on this specific condition isn’t conclusive, I believe I developed stress-induced gastritis (also known as nervous stomach), which causes severe stomach pain and possibly stomach erosions in people under severe psychological stress.
I hadn’t faced the death of a loved one, but I went through other stresses. During the semester my gastritis first developed, I started my first job, left my position as a staff writer for the college newspaper in search of better opportunities, and didn’t return to the summer camp I worked at before because my application was lost. All in all, I had a lot of stressors, which makes a perfectionist like me crazy. Getting little sleep and dealing with the camp counselor life over the summer didn’t help things. The icing on the cake was when I dropped an oven tile on my foot during work at the beginning of November, had to hobble around on crutches for two weeks, dealt with my stomach pain on top of that, and was also working on a stressful class project. Other than February and March this year, November was the time when I had both the most panic attacks and highest amount of gastric pain.
So, in a sense, it is in my mind. My physical symptoms came directly from my anxiety. But, in another way, it’s not all in my mind––I do suffer from physical symptoms as a result of my mental illness. There is some truth to the cliche statement, after all. If you think you suffer from an autoimmune illness, try and identify if you struggle from a mental illness like depression or anxiety––your condition may intertwine with one––and fight with your doctor to keep pressing on for a conclusive diagnosis if they tell you that there’s nothing wrong with you.