Life With An Anxiety Disorder
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders affect 18% of the population of the United States, or about 40 million people. In June of 2009, I became one of those 40 million after I miscarried my first child.
What's Wrong With Me?
In April of 2009, I lost the first pregnancy I ever had. I was devastated, but after a few weeks, I thought my life had gotten back to normal, aside from some lingering grief. Little did I know, I was about to experience one of the worst things I have ever gone through: my first panic attack. I had lost my appetite and was having trouble eating. This went on for about a week. Then, my husband and I went to visit my family about 2 hours north of where we lived.
They were in the middle of showing us a slideshow from their vacation out West, when suddenly an awful feeling came over me, like something horrible was about to happen. I wasn't sure what, if I was going to pass out, vomit, have a heart attack, but SOMETHING physically imminent was upon me. My parents helped me to my old bedroom and I lay down absolutely scared to death, unsure of what was happening to my body. My heart was pounding, my throat was tight, I was having convulsions and I was terrified out of my mind.
I could hear my mom and husband talking about whether to take me to the emergency room or not. After several minutes, the feeling seemed to ebb some, but the fear was still very much there. I went to the doctor the next day and she surprised me with the words, "I expected to see you back here."
She went on to explain that frequently after a woman miscarries a child, they develop an anxiety disorder.
"An anxiety disorder?" I thought. "No way. What happened to me was completely out of my control. I must have a brain tumor."
I asked my doctor if she was sure anxiety is what it was, and she said yes. She prescribed me 10 mg of Lexapro and told me it would take some time before the medicine would start to work.
"Whatever," I thought. "It's not going to work because that is not what I have!"
So I went home and spent the next two weeks absolutely miserable, with frequent panic attacks and no appetite. I had to take a break from work and I was practically bed-ridden with fear. I was afraid to eat, afraid to shower, afraid to leave the house, afraid of being afraid, and sure I was going to die of some unknown cause.
And then something really strange happened. The medicine began to work. I woke up one morning after drugging myself to sleep the night before, and I noticed I felt a little better....like maybe I could take a shower that day. And I might be a little hungry. Then a few days later, I thought I might be able to go to work for a couple of hours. Slowly, but surely, I returned to my normal self after about a month of being on Lexapro.
Glad That Was Over With
I was cured! Okay, so I just have to stay on this medicine and that horrible experience will never happen again. Or so I thought. Two years later, with a one year old in my care, a tornado came through our town a block from our house in the middle of the night. We woke up to the sirens going off and the sound of horribly loud wind all around our house. My husband and I immediately jumped out of bed and I ran to the baby's room. My husband yelled at me to take the baby and get in the crawlspace under our house.
Well, the crawlspace opening was in the floor of the baby's closet underneath tubs and tubs of junk. So I frantically set the baby down in his crib and thew the tubs out of the way as fast as I could. I whipped open the cover to the crawlspace and looked in horror at the barely one foot wide dirt opening filled with who knows what kind of bugs. My heart was in my throat and I was about to cry out to my husband when I realized the sirens had stopped. The tornado had passed by that quick and the danger was past.
A few weeks after this incident occurred, I found myself in another panic attack. I began to have panic attacks regularly again and was so tense every time another severe storm was predicted to come through our area.
I remember being so frustrated that I was having this experience again, and also being scared because I had been relying on the medicine to never let this feeling happen again. I went back to the doctor and she increased my Lexapro.
And thus began a long and arduous back and forth journey of being fine for awhile, then having symptoms again and increasing my meds. Then being fine for a while, having symptoms again and adding another medication on top of the Lexapro.
Fast forward to this past spring. After my fifth flare up of anxiety and losing another 20 pounds again, my doctor told me she didn't think the Lexapro was working anymore, and she recommended I switch to Cymbalta. I was absolutely panicked at the thought of switching medicines because I had heard it was a nightmare to do. All of your symptoms returned with a vengeance and you had to wait a whole month for the new medicine to work.
But I knew she was right. The Lexapro was not working like it should. So I tried to be brave, and began the long process of weaning off Lexapro and starting Cymbalta. I would suffer through strange days of hyperactivity and nausea to almost constant panic attacks. My mother had to care for my child during this time since I was completely incapacitated with fear. I just sat in a chair and shook all day. I lost enough weight that the doctor said if I didn't start forcing myself to eat, she was going to hospitalize me. I really, really did not want to go to a psych ward, so I began to force myself to drink ensure. Eventually, the medicine began to work and I slowly got better.
But this time, I was done with just relying on medicine to take care of it.
This past summer marked a period of lengthy research into the science behind anxiety disorders and the ways other people have overcome them, or at least managed them. What really disturbed me the most was that I could not find anyone (that wasn't charging money) who had completely cured their anxiety. It seemed like the best anyone could do was be able to handle the flare ups without taking off work, or stopping their normal activities.
Well, I decided, even that was better than I was doing, so I decided to implement some new habits into my life. What I learned was that when you are feeling extreme anxiety your body has activated it's "fight or flight" system. That means adrenaline has been released into your body giving you nervous energy and a heightened sense of fear. If you can learn to not be afraid of this physical response, you can learn to just ride the wave of adrenaline until it leaves your system, usually in about ten to twenty minutes. And if you can practice ways to relax your body, you can help it resolve even quicker.
The first thing I did was to practice deep breathing. I thought it was kind of ridiculous, until I felt panic coming on, and just deep breathing kept it at bay. "Wow," I thought. "I've never been able to stop it from going crazy before!"
The next thing I did was start learning a little bit of yoga. One doctor's book I read said that if you practiced yoga poses that inverted your body (upside down) you would stimulate the vagus nerve and trigger your body's natural relaxation response. "Yeah right," I thought.
But sure enough, when I felt the slightest bit of anxiety coming on, I would do a shoulder stand up against the wall and my body would relax. "This is totally crazy!" I thought.
One of the most important things I learned in my studies was to pay attention to what you are thinking when you're anxious, and replace those thoughts with positive ones. This was really hard to do at first because I felt like all I was thinking was, "I'm scared!"
But I started to realize there were actually thoughts going through my mind that could be challenged, such as "I'm going to freak out again," and "Why does this happen to me?" and "I'm going insane."
Each of those I began to challenge with thoughts like, "So what if I do freak out, it doesn't hurt anything and it always goes away eventually," and "This is just my body physically reacting to stress," and "No one has ever gone insane from anxiety."
(That last one by the way is true....people who really are insane don't usually know they are.)
These three methods have slowly helped me tame the anxiety whenever I feel it flare up, to the point where if I feel it coming on, I can ward it off with these methods and get on with my life within the hour, feeling normal again. Pretty crazy, huh?
So now I've become one of those people that still gets anxiety, but is able to ward it off before it gets to bad. I am also no longer afraid of the symptoms when they happen, and I know ways to help myself not suffer so much during an attack. The deep breathing, yoga and thought challenging keeps me feeling under control even when my body is freaking out.
This whole experience has been one of the strangest things I have ever had happen to me in my life. Mental illness is an illness unlike any other. But I have to remember, I am not alone, and there are always other people out there who are coming up with better ways to keep their mind and bodies under control.
My Favorite Tools
There are books and websites that I have read, reread and highlighted, that continue to help me each day. For some reason, it is such a comfort to me to read about this illness and hear from others who are having the same struggles.
- "The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Anxiety" by William J. Knaus, EdD. This is probably the number one resource I use in dealing with this illness. It has in depth information and exercises for you to do, but is very simple to read. I reread parts of this book almost every day.
- "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Controlling Anxiety" by Joni E. Johnston, Psy.D. I really like the idiot's guides because they are so "user-friendly." The often use a candid approach even to distressing subjects, like anxiety, which is really refreshing when you are pretty miserable. It gives easy definitions and instructions.
- "The Anxiety Cure: An Eight-Step Program For Getting Well" by Robert DuPont. This book was just an enjoyable read about a family that had some issues with anxiety and how they worked through it. Every once awhile, something that was said in the book or a specific part comes to mind when I'm struggling.
- "A Calm Brain: Unlocking Your Natural Relaxation System" by Gayatri Devi. This is an interesting book that suggests a unique method for counteracting anxiety in your body. I enjoyed reading it and the method it suggests has actually worked for me.
1. The Panic Center at www.paniccenter.net. This is a totally free educational program with practical exercises you sign up for. It has homework for you to do so you learn everything you can about anxiety and how to manage it. So far, I am still in the first few sessions but I really, really like it. It has something called your "toolbox" with very useful worksheets for you to fill out and read whenever you are really having trouble.
2. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America at www.adaa.org. I really like to read the testimonials on this website of people who have struggled and overcome their anxiety. It always gives me hope that I can get better. They also connect you with other resources.
3. At www.anxietyforum.net you can join a large community of anxiety sufferers and not only share your own struggles, but you can read what solutions have worked for other people. With so many people contributing to the website, there is a large amount of helpful information and support available there.
Those are my top resources that I keep going back to whenever I start to get really bad. Hopefully, you can find some relief using these tools as well.
Types Of Anxiety Disorders
Name Of Illness
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Persistent, excessive and unrealistic worry about everyday things
Combination of medication and cognitive behavioral therapy
Feelings of dread accompanied by shortness of breath, heart palpatations, flushing or chills, sweating, nausea
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and medication
Avoidance of any place a panic attack might occur
Fear exposure and psychotherapy
Obsessive and persistent thoughts compelling person to perform repetitive behaviors to ease anxiety
Combination of behavior therapy and medication
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Reliving trauma through flashbacks, nightmares, difficulty sleeping and avoidance of places associated with trauma
Psychotherapy, exposure treatment
Social Anxiety Disorder
Extreme fear of being scrutinized or judged by others in a public setting
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy