The Story of Stigma Fighters

– Sarah Fader

If you’ve never had a panic attack, you don’t know what they feel like emotionally or physically. I have had several panic attacks in my life, due to living with panic disorder. My first panic attack was at 15, though I can remember experiencing symptoms of anxiety as early as eight. I have some prevalent memories of panic from Junior High School when I was bullied as well.


When you think of panic, you might think of a racing heart, a fast pulse, nervousness or shaking. These are all symptoms of panic disorder, but there are other lesser known or talked about symptoms that people experience that can be terrifying. As a teenager, I experienced the traditional feelings associated with anxiety that I just referenced – rapid beating heart, sweating, shaking and feelings of dread.


When I entered my 30s, I began experiencing somatic symptoms associated with anxiety. It was so disarming that I thought that I had a terminal disease. I was convinced that I was dying and no medical professional could convince me otherwise. Here’s what was happening to my body: numbness and tingling in my neck, back, and one hand, tingling throughout my entire body, sometimes in the genitals even, shortness of breath and the sensation of bugs crawling on my head. It was so terrifying that I thought my demise was imminent. I went to see a neurologist. A team of doctors did a number of tests on me including a brain MRI, cervical spine MRI as well as tests to rule out autoimmune diseases. I passed all the tests with flying colors.


I was left thinking – what was wrong with me? It was concluded (since there was nothing medically wrong with me) that the somatic symptoms that were plaguing me were due to chronic and persistent anxiety. It was difficult for me to believe that anxiety could make me feel like I was dying, but it was clear that this was the case. I had chronic insomnia for two weeks straight because my neck was in so much pain from the radiating neuropathy I experienced. Granted, there were other factors at work as well. I had an allergic reaction to an antibiotic. However, the reality of the situation was that the pervasive demon I was facing was my own brain.


I was angry. I was frustrated. I didn’t believe the doctors when they told me there was nothing wrong with me and it was “just anxiety.” They were mistaken. I just knew it. There was no way that anxiety could cause symptoms this severe. I pleaded them to test me for more diseases and disorders because I couldn’t come to grips with the fact that anxiety was doing this to me. I was my own worst enemy and I couldn’t control what my brain up to. I felt sick, sad, lost and confused.


I remember the this condescending female neurologist speaking to me on the phone during my crisis mode. She said “Sarah, you have got to calm down. This is just anxiety.”  Those words stuck with me – just anxiety. Well, “just anxiety” was making me feel like I was going to die. Her reply was insensitive and made me feel like there was a lack of understanding with regard to my mental illness. This doctor expected me to buckle up, get it together, stop being so anxious. Lady, if that were possible don’t you think I’d have done that already.


It made me think about the other patients out there who are victims of the medical community’s insensitivity with regard to anxiety. Anxious patients are treated like a burden. If we call for support of medical guidance, we’re told to stop being so nervous. Once again, if this were so “easy” we would get right on that. Medical professionals need to recognize that somatic symptoms of anxiety are serious. They make us anxious people feel awful.


There’s a misconception that somatic symptoms of anxiety are not “real.” They are not a symptom of another medical disease (for the most part) however they are quite real.  When I felt the burning in my neck and was unable to speak, I certainly wasn’t imagining it. It’s a profoundly ignorant on behalf of the medical community to discount a patient’s physical symptoms as irrelevant because they have to do with mental illness as opposed to physical illness.


I want people living with anxiety to know that they are not alone. If you are experiencing your anxiety in a physical form, it’s real. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.


Sarah Fader is the CEO and Founder of Stigma Fighters, a non-profit organization that encourages individuals with mental illness to share their personal stories. She is an author and blogger, having been featured on Psychology Today, The Huffington Post, HuffPost Live, and Good day New York.


Sarah is a native New Yorker who enjoys naps, talking to strangers, and caring for her two small humans and two average-sized cats. Like six million other Americans, Sarah lives with panic disorder. Through Stigma Fighters, Sarah hopes to change the world, one mental health stigma at a time.

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