What It’s Like to Have an Anxiety Disorder and How to Handle It

It’s more prevalent than you think.
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It’s more prevalent than you think.
anxiety, mental health

Photo Credit: Rachel Haslam Photography

“Something serious is happening to my body,” my friend Becky confided one rainy afternoon. Lately, several of her extremities had been feeling numb, she said. Her hands would shake when working with patients she nursed. She would sometimes start to feel dizzy for no apparent reason. Compounding her stress was the fact that none of the doctors she worked with were able to pinpoint the cause. “It must be something incredibly rare. The tests aren’t showing anything,” she added, tense and nervous.

Weeks later, we talked again. It turned out that she had general anxiety disorder. “Can you believe that?” she asked. “My body was making up those symptoms!”

Just anxiety? I remember thinking, Wow, she must have been pushing herself too far. While I know that stress is a huge trigger for illnesses, I always thought that I had a solid understanding of my limits. I prided myself on my sleep routine. I felt like I had some pretty healthy coping mechanisms for stress. Plus, all things considered, I lived a pretty good life. I never thought this could happen to me.

“Test after test after test—everything came back normal . . .”

The symptoms manifested in me in different ways than they did with Becky. The heart palpitations came first. Then my 20/20 vision started to blur. The blurring was so inconsistent that I considered consulting an ophthalmologist. Maybe I’m just crazy, I thought.

Then I felt a subtle, growing inability to focus on routine activities. Going to the grocery store now felt like walking into a maze out of Alice in Wonderland—vertigo and all. I chalked this up to general restlessness. After all, it was winter. I had a new job, and I was recently married. Maybe I was just feeling cabin fever? Maybe I was thinking too hard about this?

So I ignored the symptoms and continued living my life. But after months of intermittent symptoms, what pushed me over the edge surprised me. One night, after binge watching some particularly dark episodes of House of Cards, I could not go to bed. As I tossed and turned, I felt a tingling sensation in my legs. I felt pins and needles up and down my body. And, no matter what I did, the numbness remained.

The next morning, it went away. I felt baffled. “I think you’re just getting too emotionally invested in TV shows,” a friend told me. Maybe she was right. But then it came back the next night, and the next, and the next.

After checking out some Internet research and texting all my friends in the medical industry, I decided that I should see my doctor.

Test after test after test—everything came back normal, leaving only one obvious option. “We think you have an anxiety disorder.” I gaped at my doctor—What? You’re telling me this is all in my head?!

Now, for those who don’t know me, I’m a pretty chill person. I don’t consider myself a particularly “stressy,” type A individual. So even though I had a taste of anxiety diagnosis through Becky mere months before, I was still completely taken by surprise.

“Twice as likely as men to be diagnosed . . .”

The surprises continued. I sat down and shared my situation with close friends over a boozy brunch. I couldn’t believe how many of them also had the same issue or had friends with the same issue. I was shocked.

Oh yeah, that happened to me my senior year of college—then I started yoga,” shared one.

Yep! Same issue,” another nodded knowingly. I think I started feeling it when paying off our student loans felt useless.”

It’s what caused me to grind my teeth at night,” someone else said.

Wow. Have I been living under a rock? Is anxiety this prevalent among young women? According to Dr. Beverly Schuler, M.D., the answer is a resounding yes. “I see this issue every day,” she shares. “While there are still plenty of men that have anxiety disorders, it’s far, far more predominant in females.”

In fact, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “Women are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with a General Anxiety Disorder (GAD).” And while in my case (and in Becky’s case) there wasn’t any association with depression, “nearly half of those diagnosed with depression are also diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.”

Good news, though. Anxiety disorders are highly treatable. Only a third of the forty million adults diagnosed with anxiety actually pursue medical treatment. The majority, including my friend Becky, conquer it successfully on their own without medication. After months of trying to deal with it without medication, I decided to take a small dose of Prozac—of which I’m now weaning myself off. But there are a lot of other habits that can enhance your medications’ effectiveness or even help deal with issues before you try medication.

Here’s what I’ve learned through medical professionals and my own experience, as well as other sufferers of GAD.

01. Avoid caffeine and other stimulants.

Does caffeine keep you going? Is it your first drink when you wake up? Well, if you’re susceptible to anxiety, your cup of joe could be a source of even more anxiety.

“Caffeine is the most widely used mood-altering drug in the world,” says Roland Griffiths, a professor in the departments of psychiatry and neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “People often see coffee, tea, and soft drinks simply as beverages rather than vehicles for a psychoactive drug. But caffeine can exacerbate anxiety and panic disorders.”

According to Everyday Health, “The problem is that caffeine has been shown to inhibit levels of serotonin in the brain, and when serotonin levels are suppressed, you can . . . feel irritable.”

But caffeine, though a huge culprit, isn’t the only stimulant to watch out for. “Stimulants also include tobacco. I find this interesting because a lot of my patients say nicotine helps calm their nerves. In reality it’s stimulating them more,” Schuler shares. “Another thing I watch out for is other stimulating medications, such as Adderall, as they can also worsen anxiety.”

So if you’re feeling symptoms of anxiety, take a look at the kinds of chemicals you’re putting in your body. Consult with your doctor to see if there are better medications that won’t trigger your anxiety.

02. Watch and listen to things that bring you joy.

Was it a coincidence that I started feeling anxiety while watching the dramatic, unethical actions of Frank and Claire Underwood? I think not. Neither does Schuler: “If something is causing you to have similar emotions to anxiety—say a suspenseful movie or sad songs—it can trigger real anxiety symptoms as well.” While it’s sometimes nice to listen to music or watch shows that emulate how we’re feeling, it could actually make things worse. However, “everyone is triggered by different things, and it really depends on the person,” Schuler says.

Examine your life, and see what brings you stress. For me, my job was partially to blame, as well as all constant changes that had happened in my life. I felt overwhelmed. Watching shows that overwhelmed my already strained emotions actually pushed me over the edge. So until you feel like you have your anxiety problem in check, listen to upbeat music. Resist binge watching intense dramas. Turn to movies and TV shows that make you laugh instead.

03. Embrace herbal tea, and breathe deeply.

Apart from its comforting qualities, non-caffeinated herbal teas are great to add to your daily and nightly routine. Chamomile in particular has a proven soothing effect. Studies have shown it to significantly decrease anxiety symptoms in weeks. Another stress-relieving tea to try is rooibos. Drinking rooibos can lessen the effect of the stress hormone cortisol.

While I was fighting those anxious feelings, tea was my saving grace. Not only did it replace my impulses for coffee, but slowly sipping a hot, aromatic liquid also allowed me to take a moment to pause and breathe.

“Breathing exercises is another thing I recommend,” Schuler shares. “Find time to sit down and breathe.” I found that my best time to just breathe was when I paused to drink tea.

While I loved rooibos tea, pretty much all non-caffeinated herbal teas will have a calming effect on your nerves. Pick the one you actually love drinking, and enjoy its soothing benefits—and remind yourself to slow down and breathe.

04. Exercise.

Ah, exercise. It always seems like we’re telling you to do this, right? Anxiety is one way the body responds to stress. Consider that a common biological response to stress in nature is fight or flight. It would make sense, then, that exercise such as a brisk walk or run is actually the perfect anecdote to anxiety.

“Exercise is critical,” Schuler says. “I always encourage patients with anxiety to exercise. It releases similar neurotransmitters in the brain that some of the anti-anxiety medicine does chemically. It’s a natural way to boost serotonin while also helping deal with stress.”

Again, I don’t think it was a coincidence that my anxiety happened during the winter—the season where I tend to exercise the least. When I decided to move my bones with some in-home kickboxing videos first thing in the morning, I began to notice a world of difference. The longer I included exercise in my daily habits—even just a ten-minute jog—the more I felt in control. And the more the anxiety symptoms seemed a rarity rather than a constant. Most importantly, it helped me sleep better.

According to the Mayo Clinic, “The links between anxiety, depression, and exercise aren’t entirely clear—but working out and other forms of physical activity can definitely ease symptoms of anxiety.”

05. Watch your diet.

You are what you eat always and especially when your body is particularly sensitive to what you’re putting in it. When you’re dealing with stress, make sure that your body is getting the nutrients it needs.

Magnesium-rich leafy greens, fatty meats, turkey, and dark chocolate are all foods with characteristics that seem to alleviate stressors and anxiety.

I’ve been a pretty healthy eater during most of my adult life. But finessing my healthy diet helped me and several of my friends, including Becky. “Watching what I ate made me feel more in control and helped me become more aware of what triggered my anxiety,” she said. “I avoided sugar and processed foods—which were the kinds of foods that I had when I was stressed out anyway.”

Becky also shared that incorporating a glass of wine with a meal had some great benefits to her mental health. “It really helped me slow down and enjoy my meal at a slower pace. Plus, a glass of wine is sometimes all you need.”

When you consider that 30 percent of adults are susceptible to General Anxiety Disorder at some point in their lives, it’s easy to see why taking proactive measures for your mental well-being is crucial. Anxiety is a real issue that can interfere with your day-to-day activities, mood, and relationships. Even if you’re not dealing with anxiety at this moment, try incorporating some of these habits into your routine. Prevention is the best medicine.