The Weight of Anxiety

TW: sexual coercion; weight loss; eating issues

Toast. An apple. Peanut butter and jelly. Veggie chips. Spaghetti with tomato sauce and broccoli. 

At the end of the day, this runs down into my stomach, where it is stored until I use it all up for energy and I need more again. 

I don’t know for sure if that’s exactly how digestion works (I haven’t taken a science class in four years) but the sentiment works for me. 

I store everything in my stomach. My energy. My stress. Even some of my memories. I know the feeling of butterflies well. Usually, at the end of the day, when my stomach is so full it keeps me awake, I can let go of that stress and worry, and wake up fresh in the morning, just in time for breakfast. 

This past summer, I suddenly began to have trouble eating. Sometimes I could tell when I was hungry, but couldn’t find a food that didn’t make me feel sick. Sometimes I would realize at 5pm that I hadn’t eaten and grew frustrated because I couldn’t tell if the whirls and twirls in my stomach were hunger pains or nerves. 

I tried going through a list in my head of what could be wrong with me. I was never one to skip meals. In fact, I was infamous for getting “hangry” if I didn’t have time for lunch, or if dinner came late. Parasite? No. New allergies? Possibly. It was all too inconsistent and invisible to feel like a real, diagnosable thing. 

My mental health was poor, and I noticed that my stomach worsened during particularly anxious periods. So, instead of seeking a diagnosis, I began to think of my stomach as too full for food. Too full of stress about my future, feelings of displacement in a new environment, general anxiety, and trauma I was in the middle of processing. 

I still feel weird calling it trauma. For me, sexual coercion didn’t feel like trauma, at least not in my head. The abdominal pains whenever I was reminded of it or felt vulnerable started years before my mind caught up to what happened. But my stomach knew. It always knows how I’m feeling before I do. 

I was noticeably losing weight. I guess anxiety weighs less than fat or muscle. And the kind of energy you get out of it is less and shorter-lasting than food. 

I took the initiative to take better care of my mental health and seek out resources, but my parents eventually convinced me to go to our family physician. I resented them for it. I was convinced that the relationship between my stomach and I was personal, a spat I needed to work out on my own.. My doctor didn’t understand this relationship. He asked if I was on my period or if I could possibly be pregnant. 

I grew angrier as more tests showed up negative. I believed I was a waste of medical equipment. Each doctor’s office I entered in this pandemic was a risk to my family, another anxiety-producing task for my to-do list, and more invasions into my “relationship.” My stomach and I had gotten this far on our own. 

My mental health improved towards the end of the summer. I had a few Zoom appointments with my therapist, and even disclosed to her my experience with sexual coercion for the first time. I was so nervous when I told her that my voice was shaking, but it became even again as I received her gentle yet immediate acknowledgment of an experience that took me years to acknowledge myself. This lifted some of that anxiety weight off my bones and replaced it with a new kind of weight: the warm fullness that comes with being properly cared for, a grounding weight.  

This new, grounding weight allowed me to seek out a better living arrangement and be more honest about my anxiety with my personal support system. My stomach was actually beginning to feel better, and I was eating more regularly. 

However, the issue wasn’t gone and I ended up getting an endoscopy. Finally, in late August, after four months of symptoms and having lost almost ten pounds, I was diagnosed with acid reflux. This seemed like a fairly mundane diagnosis considering how long it took to get it, but it suddenly brought everything together. My gastroenterologist explained that acid reflux can be exacerbated by stress, and was thus linked to both my physical and mental health. 

A few months have passed: taking medication for the acid reflux, working on my mental health, and actively processing my sexual trauma. I am happy to say that I am able to eat three meals every day again, and have gained back some healthy weight. 

My stomach and I are always going to have a complex relationship. It knows me too well. It knows when I am stressed over finals or nervous for a date. And it lets me know. But it isn’t my enemy; it is an unrelenting reminder that my body and mind are forever linked, and that both deserve my love and attention.

Story by Phoebe Fisher, New York USA

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