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My Anxiety Cough: Or, How It’s Not Just “In My Head”

I’ve suffered from anxiety for a very long time—longer than I’m consciously aware of. I remember my mother turning to some aunts and cousins during a family visit and saying, in a quiet voice, “She’s just a worrier. It’s who she is.” And she’s not wrong. I’ve worried about things, both general and social, for too long. And as a result, I’ve developed physical symptoms that I don’t think I’ll ever fully let go of. In their awful little ways, they’ve helped me cope with everyday life.

The inspiration for this article came when a few weeks ago, my roommate said, “You know, you’ve had a cough for a really long time. I think you should have it checked out.” She was referring to a cough that I’ve had for about six to eight months (it’s hard to remember when it began). And she was totally right. It was becoming worrisome. So, I went to the Health Center on campus and a nurse practitioner told me, very kindly, that she’d like me to get an X-ray in Mount Vernon to be sure, but that as far as she could tell, the cough didn’t have anything to do with my physical health. “It might be reflexive,” I remember her saying. “It’s possible,” her voice lowered, “that you’re simply coughing when you get particularly anxious.”

I’m a bit ashamed to admit it, but I never got that X-ray. I didn’t need to. I knew as soon as she mentioned anxiety that it was the reason I had been coughing so often. Knowing, however, didn’t stop me from freaking out a bit. I hadn’t even realized I was doing this until she mentioned it, but I had been coughing just before I had to speak in class or in moments wherein people turned to look at me or at someone sitting near me.

It got me thinking about what other things I do reflexively, and I realized that there were quite a few. The most obvious one is from another mental illness I have, skin-picking disorder. From a really young age, I’ve picked at the skin on my fingers and palms, to the point of permanent skin damage. I’ve picked at other areas, like my feet and arms and face, but my hands are where it prevails. I have lost dozens of hours of my life to dissociation and skin-picking. Even in the shower, on days when I am particularly anxious, my instinct is to scratch my skin raw. I tried talking to a counselor here once, and she gave a one-page information sheet on it and said, “This is all we really know. Birds also do it. We don’t really know why. Try not to think about it, okay? And if you notice yourself doing it, try modifying that behavior.” I didn’t do it then, but the conversation made me so frustrated that I picked for hours that day, to the point of bleeding.

Then, I started thinking of the ways in which my anxiety might have modified my behavior in ways that weren’t immediately obvious. I realized that every time I speak in class (read: the few times that I do), I always take a drink from my water bottle after I speak. It affords me time to think if someone asks a follow-up question, it signals that I am done, and it subtly gets people to look away from me.

I also get really frequent headaches and stomach aches. During some bad months, I’ll have headaches and migraines at least 5 or 6 times a week. During some good months, that number lessens to 2 or 3. My stomach aches are as frequent as they are awful. I get cold sweats so unbelievably frequently.

And then, I realized that this is just the stuff that I do. There are things that I don’t do, that I actively avoid, as well. I rarely make eye contact with people in public. I avoid the KAC. Hell, I don’t breathe sometimes—literally, with panic attacks, but also as I pass through Gund Commons. I can’t let people know that I’m a bit out of breath from the stairs, see, so it’s best if I just don’t breathe and zoom through. God forbid people know I partake in basic human functions like breathing.​And, I know I’m not the only one. I know that other people have their little mechanisms for getting through the day when everything has the capacity to make you tense your shoulders. I know that there are a lot of people on this campus who are just looking for some comfort and safety. So I’ve aired out all of these “dirty” secrets about my behavior because I’ve seen firsthand the way anxiety is dismissed as something that is only occurring inside your head. Things can change, people always seem to be saying, if you just change your attitude. This thing isn’t actually that scary—you know that!

I’d like to shoot my most polite screw you to the boy I worked with last year who lectured me for a half hour about how I should just talk myself out of my anxiety because it was all in my head.

My anxiety changed my behavior in ways that I couldn’t even consciously recognize. The list of things it affects in my life probably extends for miles. Let us please stop pretending that people are at fault for the way their mental illnesses make them feel. Because it’s really not just in their heads.​

Image Credit: Feature, 1,2,3

Paola is a writer and Co-Campus Correspondent of Her Campus Kenyon. She is an English major at Kenyon College with a minor in anthropology. In 2018, she won the Propper Prize for Poetry, and her poems were published in Laurel Moon Literary Magazine. She loves her friends and superheroes and the power language can hold. Mostly, though, she is a small girl from Texas who is trying her best.
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