“Only a third of the forty million adults diagnosed with anxiety actually pursue medical treatment,” Maria Walley shared in her recent piece for Verily. Walley, who has been diagnosed with General Anxiety Disorder, talked about her own struggles and the lifestyle habits that help many people cope with GAD. As Walley explains, many victims of anxiety are able to find relief by using methods such as exercise, diet, and breathing techniques.
But sometimes these approaches are not enough. For years, I tried to write off my anxiety as a weakness, assuming that I just needed to get better at dealing with stress. But I kept finding that my anxiety magnified any stressor in my life: crazy amounts of schoolwork, problems at work, or family difficulties. During an anxiety attack, I would isolate myself and cry uncontrollably for anywhere from ten minutes to three hours. Driving home after work, I would pull over to the side of the road to calm down before entering my house. At home, I would lie on my bedroom floor and rock back and forth, feeling hopeless and confused.
I know I’m not alone in my experience with anxiety disorder, but I felt alone.
Most of my moments of anxiety happened at night. I would cry myself to sleep four or five times a week. But when I woke up the next morning, I would wonder why I got so upset about such a minor issue. I shrugged off the attacks as mere occasions of oversensitivity and stress.
I tried to combat my worries with regular stress relievers such as exercise, prayer, and spending time with others. I thought my anxiety was “all in my head” and that the attacks were simply a sign of weakness. I felt trapped in my own mind.
After a rough evening at work, I came home and wept for hours, thinking, “Please, God. There has to be something wrong with me. These feelings just cannot be normal.” Although I woke up the next morning feeling as if the whole anxiety attack was completely ridiculous, that was a turning point for me. I knew I had to do something.
When I went to see my therapist (I had been seeing her for about six months at this point), I told her I could no longer live like this. Saying my anxiety attacks felt like the end of the world was no exaggeration. She looked at me and asked, “Have you ever considered going on medication?”
At the time, I was opposed to being medicated; I thought that medication for depression and anxiety was a Band-Aid for people who did not put forth enough effort. I thought people on medication probably just needed to “deal with their issues” some other way—for example, through prayer and therapy the way I had tried.
I was also opposed to medication because my anxiety attacks lacked any physical symptoms. Besides some shaking, I did not have other common symptoms such as dizziness, heart palpitations, or blurry vision. “If I’m not showing physical symptoms,” I thought, “then why do I need to go on medication?” But I also knew I could not continue to live this way and decided to look into it.
I later sat down with a doctor who specialized in medication management for mental illness. She told me that my therapist, who had referred me to this doctor, rarely recommends patients to take medications. Knowing my therapist also saw that I had exhausted all other coping methods helped me realize that this issue was not just in my head. It was a huge relief when others acknowledged that my anxiety wasn’t laziness or stress but rather a sickness that I do not have to live with forever.
The National Institute of Mental Health explains that mental illnesses can range in severity of impairment from mild to disabling; mental illness is not a black-and-white issue. Yet, mental illness still carries a stigma, as Julia Hogan, LPC, explained here at Verily:
“Any sort of mental imbalance in a person is usually met with fear or shame. Popular media illustrates those suffering from mental illness as eccentric or extreme. But while this may be true for some, a majority of people living with a diagnosis are stereotyped based on widespread misunderstanding.
“As a therapist, I often spend time addressing my clients’ concerns about seeking treatment. They fear others labeling them as crazy, weak, or incompetent. They often tell me that they feel pressure from themselves and others to ‘just get over it.’”
My doctor explained that physical symptoms are not always necessary to diagnose GAD or depression. (Although my mental illness does involve “attacks,” the lack of physical symptoms distinguishes it from a panic disorder.) She helped me connect past experiences to my current fears and anxiety, explaining that mental illness is caused by genetics as well as environmental factors. We agreed that I would try a small amount of medication and see how my body would react.
After the medication kicked in, my emotions stabilized a great deal. For the first time since I could remember, I was able to handle difficult situations with a clear thought process. It sounds cliché, but life honestly became more beautiful than I had ever known. I was happier than I had been in years, and I would actually think to myself, “Is it really possible to be this happy right now?”
Having relied on crying as an outlet for most of my problems, even post-medication I still had the urge to cry just to clear my thoughts and relax. Realizing that I didn’t need to cry about every setback or worry took time. Coupled with my medication, I realized that the more traditional remedies of exercise, rest, and communication with family and friends helped even more.
I have now been on medication for more than three years. While my anxiety will never be completely gone, prescribed medications have stabilized my mental state. I still have anxiety attacks, but I also have great peace in knowing that the confusion and end-of-the-world feeling will not last forever. Medication diminished my anxiety attacks and enabled me to examine the causes and signs of my mental illness.
Although I fear what could happen if I were to stop taking the medications, I remind myself that my anxiety is a sickness caused by a physical imbalance of bodily chemicals. My body cannot produce enough serotonin, just as a person with diabetes is unable to produce enough insulin. We both must take a supplement to regulate our body’s normal and healthy functions.
Personally, I’m glad that I exhausted all other remedies and coping methods for my anxiety before turning to medication. I believe that non-pharmacological means should be the frontline treatment of anxiety symptoms. That said, I know from personal experience now how effective medication for mental illness is. And it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
While I was embarrassed to admit that I had a mental illness, I struggled even more to admit that I needed medication as treatment. But just as mental illness isn’t a black-and-white issue, neither is turning to prescription medication to help ease the symptoms. As we try to combat the stigma toward mental illness, we also need to fight the stigma toward turning to medication as a sound treatment option. I hope my story is one small step toward that.
Photo Credit: Manchik Photography