This past January, I visited my doctor to discuss some disturbing symptoms I was experiencing, namely dizziness, chest pains, and a rapid heart rate at the most unexpected and inexplicable times (such as when I was driving, lying in bed, or sitting in church). I walked into her office terrified that at just 24 years old, I was already exhibiting signs of early-onset cardiovascular disease. I walked out with the knowledge that while my heart and blood vessels were functioning just fine, my brain was another story: I was experiencing Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) along with panic symptoms. (Later on I would learn that I demonstrated many symptoms of clinical depression as well.)
In the months since these discoveries, I have taken a number of steps in hopes of improving my mental (and subsequently physical) health. I still have a long way to go, and GAD may be something that I have to learn to cope with for the rest of my life. Nonetheless, I have found a number of strategies and lifestyle modifications to be helpful thus far, and today I’d like to share some of them with you.
Unfortunately, given the relatively high prevalence of anxiety disorders (including panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, phobias, and separation anxiety disorder), it seems quite likely that either you, dear reader, or someone you know and love suffers from one of these conditions. So while the following strategies may not be groundbreaking, I feel compelled to share, if for no other reason than to offer hope for the many others in similar situations. And although I am not a medical professional and am therefore in no position to diagnose or treat anyone else, I do have six years of public health education under my belt, so I intend to discuss the issues in an informed and responsible manner.
I have a total of 10 tips to share, but since I’m nothing if not verbose, I’ll keep this post at a manageable length by discussing only the first half. So without further ado, here are five strategies that have helped me manage my anxiety over the past seven months. And although I’m not focusing specifically on depression in this post, many of these same tactics have helped me tackle those symptoms as well.
- Embracing the diagnosis and admitting that I need help. Although the diagnostic labeling of mental health issues can be a controversial topic, for me, discovering that my experiences had a name was immensely helpful. It enabled me to research the disorder and better understand what was going on in my body and mind; it gave me an explanation for my irrational thoughts and actions other than “I’m ridiculous” or “I suck.” It provided me with the vocabulary I needed to communicate my situation to others and helped me to understand that I wasn’t alone in my struggles. And most of all, having a diagnosis forced me to finally acknowledge the gravity of my situation and motivated me to take action and reach out for help. I was no longer just “stressed about school”; I was truly miserable and functioning suboptimally in almost every area of my life, and I lacked the knowledge and resources to turn things around all by myself.
Taking medication. I was initially a bit reluctant and ashamed to take the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) that my doctor prescribed. The list of potential side effects made my current symptoms seem like a cakewalk, and since I’ve always been an advocate of making holistic lifestyles changes rather than relying solely on pills, I felt like a hypocrite for taking meds right away without at least attempting therapy first. (Therapy came later; see item #3.) But my desperation drove me to start taking the medication anyway and I’m so glad that I did. My panic symptoms (dizziness, chest pains, and racing heartbeat) have completely disappeared, and I haven’t experienced any noticeable side effects. We eventually upped my daily dose a bit and I’m happy with where we’re at right now. Yay for normal serotonin levels!
Seeing a therapist with whom I really connect. Once I finished the semester and my schedule was more accommodating, I started making the 1-hour commute to visit a therapist who came highly recommended by several people I know. Although I wasn’t expecting to find a perfect fit on the first try, after just one session with Nicole, I completely understood why these individuals had spoken so highly of her. She was warm, funny, and an incredible listener, able to weave the various threads of my experiences together into a coherent picture for me to gaze and reflect upon. I laughed, I cried, and I discussed things I hadn’t even realized were bothering me, and the whole time I felt completely comfortable and respected, even when she pointed out that some of my thoughts or actions might be irrational or counterproductive. I’ve continued seeing her all summer and can’t believe the difference. Whereas my medication has helped alleviate my physical panic symptoms, therapy has helped tackle the thought patterns that send me into a spiral of anxiety in the first place.
Talking and writing openly about my experiences. Initially, I wanted to share what I was going through with as few people as possible–my parents, my boyfriend, and maybe one or two friends. I was still processing it all myself and didn’t know how to go about discussing it with others. So for a while, I waited, avoiding the topic whenever possible and speaking vaguely of “appointments” and “medication” whenever I couldn’t get around it. And that’s totally okay! Eventually, though, I felt that I was ready to share–that in a way, I needed to share. My public health education had taught me many things, one of which was that mental health issues are incredibly common and yet all too often not diagnosed, treated, or even discussed. I had always lamented this reality and wanted to do something about it; here was a glaring opportunity. So I started by writing, and then, with some trepidation, by sharing that writing. Hitting “publish” on my first blog post was both terrifying and thrilling; I was finally being completely open and honest about my mental health, but what would people think? Would friends and family suddenly find me burdensome and unstable? Would colleagues be less likely to trust me with major tasks at work for fear that I might not be able to handle the pressure? Would everyone roll his or her eyes and tell me to get over myself? I was fortunate to receive an overwhelmingly positive response, but I see now that even if I hadn’t had such a warm reception, sharing my experiences was the right move for me. On a personal level, writing and talking about anxiety, depression, fear, perfection, vulnerability, mindfulness, identity, and more have been incredibly therapeutic, and on a professional level, I like knowing that in some small way, I’m helping to fight a stigma that causes so many people to suffer in silence.
Being patient with myself. In some regards, I’m a very patient person; however, when it comes to my own personal development, I often expect myself to have it together at all times, to be good at things on the first try, and to flawlessly and immediately adapt to whatever life throws my way. When I started realizing that I would never expect this level of perfection from a family member or friend, I knew that it was time to start being kinder and more patient with myself. I’m going through a lot of life transitions right now, with graduation, moving, and the search for my first full-time job. It’s okay that it’s taking me more than a day, a week, or even a month to wrap my brain around it all. I also can’t expect managing my anxiety to be a perfectly linear process; there will still be plenty of days when I find myself overthinking the smallest of things, worrying about the unlikeliest of scenarios, or feeling tense and panicked for no discernible reason. I’m aiming for large-scale progress, not day-to-day perfection.
So there you have it! In the next installment, I plan to focus more on health behaviors such as sleep, exercise, and caffeine intake. In the meantime, if you have any advice of your own for managing anxiety (whether or not you have a diagnosed disorder), please feel free to leave a comment and enlighten us!