The journey to diagnosing a chronic illness often starts off on the wrong foot right from the beginning. Many are told that their symptoms are due to anxiety, when in reality, there is another underlying medical issue.
Of course, some people have anxiety as well as a separate medical condition, or have anxiety due to the trauma of living with health challenges and their anxiety may make their other symptoms worse. In these cases, it’s extremely important for you and your doctors to take an anxiety diagnosis seriously and find treatments and coping strategies that work.
However, doctors may think you have anxiety, even though you don’t, for a couple reasons. Your symptoms might mimic the physical symptoms of anxiety, like rapid heart rate, sweating, difficulty sleeping, nausea, and difficulty breathing — or, you might literally have anxiety, but the anxiety is actually caused by hormones, not your mental health. Or, doctors might tell you “it’s just anxiety” because they can’t find another cause for your symptoms (this is especially common for women with invisible or difficult to diagnose illnesses), even if you’re not struggling with your mental health and your gut says your symptoms aren’t related to any anxiety you are already having.
Believing or being told that you have anxiety when you actually don’t can keep you from getting the correct diagnosis and treatment, sometimes for years. We asked our Mighty community to help us create a list of medical conditions that are often misdiagnosed as anxiety. Whether you have anxiety, one of the conditions below, or both, always trust that you know your body best, and keep fighting if you believe you may have gotten the wrong diagnosis.
POTS is a form of dysautonomia, an autonomic nervous system disorder. POTS is characterized by an increased heart rate (tachycardia) upon standing, and often a drop in blood pressure upon standing as well. This rapid heart rate, along with other common dysautonomia symptoms like lightheadedness, heart palpitations, chest pain, shortness of breath, difficulty regulating temperature (causing increased sweating or shivering), can lead some doctors to mistake the condition for anxiety.
“I was perfectly calm when taken to the ER for suspected heart attack, I knew it wasn’t that. They said that because I was having tachycardia, I had anxiety and they asked what I was worried about. I said, ‘Nothing, really nothing. It must be a physical issue,'” Sheila Wall said. “I had to research for a couple of years before I found POTS and presented that as an option to my doctor. She read my literature, tested me for it, and yes, that’s what I’ve got.”
“I was diagnosed with anxiety due to chest pain plus discomfort when public speaking and talking with people. Many years later I was diagnosed with POTS. Turns out that if I’m sitting, it’s much easier to talk to people!” Alia Gerard said. “I don’t know if I do have or did have anxiety, but the meds they gave me for anxiety made what turned out to be my POTS symptoms so much worse. And the anxiety diagnosis made it so much easier to dismiss other symptoms I was having.”
When women’s pain cannot be explained or easily “seen,” it is, unfortunately, common for doctors to assume their pain is caused by anxiety. Endometriosis, in which tissue similar to the uterine lining is found elsewhere in the body, is still not widely known among doctors so when a woman says she has pelvic pain and the doctor cannot diagnose it, she may be told she has anxiety.
“I have anxiety, so that wasn’t a misdiagnosis, however, my old doctor always told me that whatever pain I had was mental/due to anxiety,” Anna Katharina S. Haaland said. “Recently found out I have endometriosis.”
“Prior to being diagnosed with endometriosis and adenomyosis, I was told it was my anxiety and that it was all in my head. It took eight years and miscarrying for them to finally diagnose me,” Lauren Jessica Duggan said.
3. Inappropriate Sinus Tachycardia (IST)
IST is an abnormally rapid resting heart rate. In addition to being mistaken for anxiety, it may also be mistaken for POTS, though the two conditions are distinct.
“I was diagnosed with anxiety and panic disorder for years, but I always felt like my heart started racing before I was even anxious. After I passed out twice at work I was sent to a cardiologist — I have inappropriate sinus tachycardia. It causes my heart rate to be high, and to go up quickly with very little exertion. I still have anxiety, but being on medication to control my heart rate dramatically reduced the physical symptoms and virtually eliminated any panic attacks,” Jill Alexandra said.
4. Lyme Disease
Similar to endometriosis, people with Lyme disease may be told they have anxiety because doctors may not be able to easily diagnose the condition. There is still doubt among many in the medical community that chronic Lyme disease exists and tests are not always accurate, so patients are often told their symptoms are “in your head” if doctors can’t find another explanation.
“I was diagnosed with anxiety and maybe depression when I found out later I had Lyme disease,” Kelsey Williams said.
The hormone cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands, so adrenal insufficiency (also called Addison’s disease) is caused when the adrenal glands do not produce cortisol normally. Low cortisol can actually cause anxiety and depression, so some patients may really have anxiety — though doctors need to do further testing and/or evaluation to see that it is caused by their hormone levels, not a mental illness.
“I have adrenal insufficiency, which can cause depression and anxiety as a sign and symptom of low cortisol. After attempting hospitalization for depression, we found that I’d been living on almost undetectable cortisol for at least a year,” Sarah Reilley said. “Now that I’m on hydrocortisone replacement, my depression and anxiety are nearly gone and serve to warn me when my cortisol is dangerously low! I’m really lucky to be alive.”
Because anxiety can cause gastrointestinal symptoms like stomach pain and changes in habits, people presenting with the pain, constipation, diarrhea and nausea related to Crohn’s disease may be mistaken for having anxiety or irritable bowel syndrome — which can flare due to stress and anxiety. However, Crohn’s disease is an inflammatory bowel disease caused by genes, your immune system and/or a bacteria or virus that triggers an autoimmune response. It is not caused by anxiety and is different than IBS.
“I do have anxiety, but I also have also been recently diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. Before my diagnosis, I thought a lot of my Crohn’s symptoms were because of my anxiety, so I waited a lot longer to seek help than I should have,” Caitlyn McAfee Hieatt said.
As an “invisible illness” that causes widespread pain and fatigue and does not have a definitive diagnostic test or cause, fibromyalgia is often assumed to be anxiety when doctors can’t find a cause for the symptoms, particularly because fibromyalgia affects more women than men.
“When I first sought help I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression for my fatigue, cognitive issues and pain. Later, a different doc more correctly diagnosed me with fibromyalgia and mixed connective tissue disease (MCTD),” Debbi Gifford said. “Years later they removed the MCTD diagnosis and are now testing for myasthenia gravis.”
Hyperthyroidism is characterized by an overactive thyroid gland which produces too much of the hormone thyroxine. This accelerates your metabolism, causing nervousness, anxiety, rapid heartbeat, difficulty sleeping and irritability. Blood tests can confirm a hyperthyroid diagnosis by measuring your hormone levels.
“I had been diagnosed with anxiety and depression from a young age and was recently diagnosed and had surgery for hyperparathyroidism. While I still have anxiety and depression, symptoms have greatly improved once my parathyroid hormone was lowered,” Brittany J. Navarre said.
“A doctor at the hospital told me I had anxiety when I had shooting pain in my left ribs that felt like a heart attack. Turns out I actually have ankylosing spondylitis and three slipped discs pinching on nerves that run through my ribs,” Sarah BP said.
PCOS is a hormone condition that leads to symptoms like weight gain, body hair, fatigue, acne, irregular periods and mood changes including anxiety and irritability.
“Sometimes I’m like if I didn’t have PCOS, then maybe I wouldn’t have been so irritable with my children today,” “Teen Mom” star Maci Bookout said in an episode featuring her experience with PCOS.