This is part one of my upcoming three-part series on psychogenic health – physical illnesses and symptoms with a psychological origin, and how to tackle them. Part two is coming soon.
It was early 2014 and I resided in the corner of a living room in Sydney. Me and four Thai university students called that room home, lines of fabric partitions providing our privacy. My bed touched the wall near the patio doors, so on a couple of Summer nights I was awoken by a large cockroach crawling along my back.
I’d landed alone with a few hundred dollars to my name, but after a difficult start, I found a good job and a stable place to stay. A challenge had been overcome, and I had reason to feel proud – even if I needed to save up a while longer before I could afford a proper room.
I was trying to keep my mind off the bouts of dizziness that struck me at random; the heart palpitations that kept me awake at night; and the insidious pains in my hands that were starting to threaten my computer-based work.
Six months earlier, me and two close friends had completed the indescribably beautiful Annapurna Circuit trek in the Himalayas, crossing the world’s highest mountain pass (Thorong La, 5416m) – but only with their help and patience, as I was suffering from an acute case of altitude sickness. It struck almost immediately after passing 4000m, not long after the Himalayan Rescue Association’s presentation on altitude sickness in Manang.
Even before the altitude sickness I was the slowest member of the group. My most recent physical activity was, well, not recent at all; and almost the complete antithesis of trekking (lifting weights, then eating and drinking as much as I could). I felt exhausted unless I consumed excessive amounts of food and water, but in the mountains that adds stops and increases the weight of your pack. Ultimately, I had failed to respect and prepare for the challenge.
But despite those issues, the trek was an incredible experience. So there I was in Sydney, saving up for another adventure.
There was a problem, however – since the trek I was becoming light-headed and dizzy, several time per day. It felt exactly like my altitude sickness back in the Himalayas, except it could literally occur while sitting on Bondi Beach, zero metres above sea level. It didn’t make any sense.
Had my altitude sickness caused some kind of permanent damage? Had I caught an exotic parasite? Did I have a nasty heart disorder? Perhaps I shouldn’t have taken those bargain-bucket vaccinations in Kathmandu…
Actually, it wasn’t just dizziness anymore. I was getting heart palpitations (more and more frequently), and hand pains, and symptoms of prostatitis, and more. Seemingly unrelated symptoms, but all developing in tandem.
I did the right thing, and saw a doctor – multiple doctors, in fact, and a cardiologist. They did their jobs well: Assessing my physical condition and prescribing various ways to improve it. One gave me pills he said would help with carpal tunnel syndrome; another prescribed hand exercises for repetitive strain injury (RSI). One suggested improved hydration for my dizziness.
My cardiologist gave me a heart sensor to wear over a few days, but I had few palpitations during that timeframe (Sod’s/Murphy’s law). They gave me an ultrasound, and ruled out heart conditions.
After countless doctor’s appointments, none of them had managed to reduce my symptoms – not even provide a satisfactory explanation for them. I explained the close resemblance to my altitude sickness, but none of them seemed to pay that much attention.
After another week waiting for some test results, losing sleep as I watched my health deteriorate without explanation, I once again sat at my cardiologist’s desk as she looked purposefully through her papers. She’s an accomplished physician – she, or one of her colleagues, must have the requisite understanding of high-altitude medicine, or maybe the latest screening technology, or….
“I think it’s stress.”
Part 2 coming soon: When ‘stress’ doesn’t feel stressful
Check out my free download Overcome anxiety & stress by changing how your mind works to learn more about psychogenic symptoms and other stress and anxiety related symptoms now.