For as long as I could remember I was an anxious kid, and then, an anxious teenager, and then, you guessed it, an anxious adult. I finally started looking for help when I was 18. But that was just the beginning of the story. It has taken me nearly 15 years seeing at least a dozen mental health specialists (including psychologists and counselors) for me to finally feel the real me.
I have low levels of serotonin (often called the “happy chemical”) and norepinephrine (part of the “fight or flight” response). Medical News Today reports that serotonin “contributes to wellbeing and happiness, among other things . . . [and] it helps regulate the body's sleep-wake cycles and the internal clock.” Meanwhile, the norepinephrine hormone affects mood control and “has been shown to cause a decrease in drive and motivation and might be linked to depression,” according to Science Direct.
It wasn’t until I received the right treatments—a combination of psychotherapy and medication—that I even knew something was not right in my brain. Now that I have experienced what it’s like to have my anxiety under control, I can’t help but want to share how I got here. What follows are the three major signs of healing I learned in my experience with mental illness (which occurs in 1 out of every 5 adults in the United States).
01. My entire body relaxed.
Anxiety expresses itself physically as much as it does mentally. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) lists the following as common symptoms your body may undergo under the duress of an anxiety disorder:
- Feeling restless, wound-up, or on-edge
- Being easily fatigued
- Having muscle tension
For most of my life, I assumed I was just a perfectionist night owl. I usually couldn’t fall asleep and, even after a full night’s rest, I would still feel extremely tired during the day to the point where I couldn’t function without taking a nap. My restlessness resulted in shaking my leg whenever I felt anxious. My neck and shoulder muscles felt “like a bag of cement,” as one of my massage therapists described it. Sometimes the tension in my body was so bad, even my face hurt from inadvertently clenching my jaw while I was awake and asleep.
With treatment, my heart rate slowed down, my muscles relaxed, and sweating palms from stress happened less and less. Feeling agitated, exhausted, or stiff are no longer my normal state. When something happens now that would have made my body respond anxiously in the past, I can address it with calm and collection. Living with my anxiety disorder under control has been like living in a totally knew and improved body.
02. I could finally function like a normal human being.
The NIMH notes that “having sleep problems, such as difficulty falling or staying asleep, restlessness, or unsatisfying sleep,” are all symptoms of anxiety disorder. I have had issues with insomnia since I was in middle school. There have even been nights when I lay down in my bed at night with my eyes closed but I was actually awake the entire time. I easily lost my appetite, had difficulty getting up in the morning, and kept to myself often because it took far less energy than socializing with other people. I needed to reserve any energy I had left for getting through my studies and extracurricular activities. I was always surviving, never thriving.
Today, I get tired and fall asleep at a reasonable hour (usually around 11 p.m.), which means I have more energy during the day. I no longer feel heavy afternoon fatigue, and I have totally given up naps (something I never imagined I could do before)! I I’ve told my husband, “So this is what it feels like to be a normal person.” I have accomplished so much more in the past year now that I’m free from the constant tyranny of anxiety. Looking back, I wonder how on earth I survived for so long.
03. I could separate hyperbole from reality.
The thing I hated most was how anxiety made me worry about problems that didn’t even really exist in my life. If a big exam was coming up, I worried that I hadn’t studied enough and would fail it. If I was going to meet new people, my palms would sweat from feeling nervous that I wouldn’t know how to interact with them properly and wouldn’t measure up to their expectations. I even dwelled on mistakes I made when I was much younger.
Once my body stopped uncontrollably resorting to fear or panic, I could think calmly and clearly about whether or not my concerns were real or imagined. It became easier to tell myself, “This really has nothing to do with you. You’re overthinking things.” Or, “Really, what is the worst that could happen?”
To be both mentally and physically rational has become my reality. The past no longer haunts me. I had fewer nightmares about being late to my final exams or missing out on trips with my friends because I forgot to put it on my calendar. In short, I could live my life authentically with only true concerns and valid fears.
A fresh start
This year, 2019, has been the best year of my life so far. But experience tells me it will probably get even better from here. I’m grateful I’ve been working with a brilliant and empathetic psychiatrist and therapist for the past three years, and I’m blessed to have support from most of my friends and family.
My anxiety disorder almost took over my life. If you struggle with anxiety, depression, or other mental illness, I hope you know that it doesn’t have to take over yours.