Lifestyle

Anxiety Medication Literally Changed My Life

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A conversation with a friend changed everything. She told me she’d decided–after years of battling anxiety–to start taking medication. She was relieved, and blissfully less anxious.

I fully supported her decision, but I was also scared at the mention of the m-word. Like her, I’d dealt with panic attacks, racing thoughts, and physical symptoms for years. In fact, my entire childhood was wrought with anxiety, and it only got worse when I started college and later became a mom.

Sure, I considered her incredibly brave for recognizing that she needed additional help, but her admission of finally agreeing to take anxiety meds worried me. If she couldn’t manage her anxiety naturally, could I?

It turns out, I’m not alone. Many of us who struggle with mental illness are haunted by stigmas, and these stigmas–that we are “crazy,” unstable, and weak–induce shame. The Mayo Clinic shares that there are several issues with mental health stigmas–and the one that resonated with me most is that patients may be reluctant to seek help or treatment. After all, seeking help means we’re admitting there’s a problem.

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I’ve tried absolutely everything to avoid anxiety medication. I exercise most mornings, since it raises serotonin and dopamine levels. I eat healthy—lots of fruits and veggies, lower carb, and plenty of fiber and protein. I prioritize sleep, getting approximately eight hours of shut-eye a night. I say no often, because over-scheduling myself is the last thing I need.

But even on a perfect day, where all the stars seemingly aligned and I did everything on my take-care-of-me list, my anxiety was there. It seemed like an untameable monster—lurking around every corner and waiting for the perfect moment to scare me. Which was basically all day, every day.

Even when I was a young child, I had a sense of looming doom—but this feeling didn’t have a name. I had chronic stomach aches, shortness of breath, and dizzy spells. When I was a teen, my doctor was so frustrated with my list of puzzling symptoms he proclaimed I was stressed and needed a punching bag.

When I was in college, I would drive home from a day of classes and suddenly break out in a sweat and have this overwhelming feeling of danger. Later, I learned that these episodes were panic attacks—a tell-tale symptom of an anxiety disorder–and my fight-or-flight response was in overdrive.

My anxiety came and went in waves throughout my adult life. I didn’t feel anxious for about a four-year span when I was parenting my oldest two kids. But when my son was born and I quit my teaching job to stay home, it came back–full-force. The long days of parenting a preschooler, toddler, and newborn made me feel that the walls were closing in on me.

I stepped up my self-care game and researched supplements. I tried meditation—but I couldn’t ever ease my mind enough to focus. Plus, practicing quiet, centering time is nearly impossible with babies in the house. I researched the benefits of various herbs and tried them, but I saw little to no difference.

I came to the realization that I had an anxiety disorder, and I found out that many other women do, too. In fact, 23% of women will face an anxiety disorder diagnoses in their lifetime. I wasn’t alone.

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I confessed to several friends that I thought I had generalized anxiety disorder, and what happened next surprised me. Most of them—yes, most of them—told me they had an anxiety diagnosis and were on medication. Their admissions gave me the boost I needed to talk to my doctor.

I was beyond nervous to ask my doctor for medication. Would she judge me as harshly as I was judging myself? Why couldn’t I just try harder? Meditate more? Chill out? Why was it so difficult to just stop worrying?

My doctor met me with zero judgement. Instead, she offered support, education, and empathy. She told me she hears stories like mine all the time. And then she asked me an important question. What did I want to do next?

I breathed in, my heart pounding, and then I told her I felt like it was time for medication. I couldn’t conquer the beast on my own. I was always annoyed, tired, and tense. I needed help. We discussed the medication options and chose one together.

I was feeling pretty good—which lasted all of five minutes. As soon as I got into the car to drive to the pharmacy, my thoughts started racing. Would the side effects be terrible? Would the medication make me a different person?

The decision to take anxiety medication was the first hurdle, but then there was the act of taking the meds. I was committed, but there were challenges. We had to find the right med, then the ideal dose, and even the two best times of day to take the med. It was trial-and-error for about six weeks.

But for me, there was no other option. I could barely function without meds, plus the added benefits of cognitive behavioral therapy, exercise, healthy eating, and adequate sleep. It was all-or-nothing, and I was all in.

Eventually, my body and the medication decided to come to terms with each other. My panic attacks ceased and my thoughts were controllable. I was more relaxed, more patient, and more clear-headed. I stopped worrying about everything from freak accidents to upcoming appointments.

When I finally experienced a state of normalcy, I realized how desperately I wished I would have been diagnosed and effectively treated when I was much younger. I could have enjoyed special events like my graduation and wedding so much more. I may have slowed down on multi-tasking, filling every minute with something—even the mundane, like scrolling through my phone—to avoid the feelings I was having. I may have actually had some fun once in awhile.

I made the mistake of stopping my medication when I started to feel great. I naively thought that I had finally kicked anxiety to the curb. Then I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and my anxiety came back in full force. For a solid year, I endured dozens of medical appointments, plus a mastectomy and reconstruction. I went back on my anxiety medication to help me manage the current and overwhelming worries, but also to aide me in confronting the post-traumatic stress of cancer which is ongoing.

Perhaps you are like me, finally coming to terms with the fact that stigmas suck, and we deserve to take care of ourselves. Need further convincing? Some of the most badass, female celebrities–including Lady Gaga, Serena Williams, Taraji P. Henson, and Sophie Turner–are choosing to speak out about the importance of mental health.

Looking back, I realized how harshly I had judged my friends who opted to take meds. They didn’t give up. They decided to move up. And they did this by looking at their anxiety directly and honestly, and then refusing to let it win. And I’m glad I did the same.

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