Everyone at different times in their life feels anxious. And with good reason: a looming deadline, a big test, a new job. But the occasional season of stress is different from the persistent and at times debilitating fears and worries experienced by people with anxiety disorders. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, almost a third of U.S. adults experience an anxiety disorder at some time in their lives, and women are almost twice as likely as men to be affected. Verily contributor Christina Dehan Jaloway is a writer, wife, and mother. Today, She shares with us her experience living with an anxiety disorder and learning how to manage it. Join us as we take a walk in her shoes.
Name: Christina Dehan Jaloway
Interviewer: Meghan Duke
Verily: Can you tell us what your diagnosis is and when and how you came to receive it?
Christina Dehan Jaloway: I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder as a young child, due to my many debilitating, usually irrational fears—of things like my family’s house being set on fire—and the ways that they impacted my ability to function at school and home.
Verily: How do you think your experience of anxiety differs from the experience many of us may have of periodically feeling anxious about something? What did anxiety look like on a normal day for you, before seeking treatment?
CDJ: Before I got effective treatment for my anxiety disorder, I thought that everyone experienced anxiety the way I did: as an ever-present reality that seems to poison everything. Even on my best days, I would experience occasional chest pains, difficulty breathing, and difficulty falling asleep—and while I would often try to pinpoint a reason for the feelings of anxiety, it didn’t matter if I moved, changed jobs, ended an unhealthy relationship, tried a new diet, exercised more, or prayed more. The anxiety persisted, and I could not escape it.
Verily: What ultimately led you to seek treatment for anxiety? What has that treatment looked like?
CDJ: As a child, my parents sent me to several different therapists, which helped me to a degree but not to the extent that I needed. As a teenager and young adult, I continued to go to therapy off and on, which gave me some tools to manage my anxiety but did not address the root causes of it (trauma that I had not yet processed), and I balked at the suggestion that I might benefit from medication. In my mid-twenties, I started taking a more holistic approach to my health and radically changed my diet, supplement regimen, and exercise routine. Those things helped, but not enough.
Finally, I had a “rock bottom” moment when I was 31: I had recently moved, was working in an incredibly stressful environment, had just ended an unhealthy relationship, and was prompted by my mom to go back to therapy and get on medication. I was so desperate at that point (I was having regular panic attacks) that I made an appointment with my doctor, got on a low dose SSRI, and immediately noticed a positive difference. It took awhile to get the dosage right, and now I am taking half the dosage I originally was on.
After the medication took the edge off of my chronic anxiety, I was able to really get serious about therapy. I didn’t realize how much my anxiety had actually impeded me from being able to be honest with myself and my therapists. I found a therapist who specialized in EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing), which is proven to help those who have unresolved trauma in their lives. Thanks to my many years of talk therapy, I was prepared to dive right in to my EMDR experience and it was life-changing. My physical symptoms of anxiety started to dissipate, and I learned how to manage them when they occasionally cropped up again.
I was also able to consistently pray and go to church without anxiety for the first time in my life. This was a huge factor in my overall healing and has continued to be the greatest blessing that my treatment has afforded me.
Verily: Is anxiety for you an acute or chronic condition? For example, is it something that you think you could ever say, “Well, glad that’s taken care of!” Or is it something you expect to deal with for the rest of your life? Either every day or in periodic flare ups? How do you prepare for/handle flare ups?
CDJ: It’s something I think I’ll struggle with, to a degree, for my whole life, but only as an occasional issue. I’m still on medication, and while I would love to not have to take any prescription drugs, I’m incredibly thankful for the freedom my SSRI has given me to live a healthier, happier life. If I know that there is a potentially anxiety-inducing situation on the horizon (for example: being newly postpartum or having a difficult conversation with a friend or family member), I do a lot of journaling, praying, and checking in with myself. I make sure that I’m enlisting help when I need it, including occasional therapy sessions and conversations with trusted friends and my husband. I avoid sugar, caffeine, and other things I know only exacerbate my anxiety. I do the best I can to get regular exercise and enough sleep.
Verily: Has becoming a mom impacted your experience with anxiety? Or has anxiety impacted you as a mom? Did you have concerns or fears before becoming a mom about how anxiety might play out in motherhood?
CDJ: Yes, yes, and yes. I was worried about how pregnancy and postpartum hormones would impact my anxiety, but thankfully I stayed on my medication (which is considered safe for pregnancy and breastfeeding) and did not experience any unusual anxiety or depression during pregnancy or postpartum. While I occasionally struggle with anxiety related to being a mom, raising my son well, etc, it’s nothing like what I experienced before 2015, when I finally got the treatment I needed.
Verily: What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions about therapy and mental health care in general? Either that you had before seeking treatment or that you’ve heard from other people?
CDJ: The first one that comes to mind is that mental illness is something that only affects people with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Anxiety and depression ARE mental illnesses and they need to be taken as seriously as other mental illnesses do. The other is that only “crazy” people or those with diagnosable illnesses need or would benefit from therapy. I have yet to meet anyone who would not benefit in some way from at least a few sessions with a qualified therapist.
Verily: We all have questions we would like others to ask us but that are left unsaid. What question do you wish friends would ask you and how would you answer?
CDJ: Back when I was in the midst of my anxiety, I wish that friends and family would have asked me how I felt physically. Unfortunately, the stereotype is that mental illness is “all in your head,” when the reality is that it manifests itself in the body before you consciously recognize that you are experiencing anxiety.
Verily: What is not helpful for you to hear from friends or family?
CDJ: “Shouldn’t you be over [X issue or wound or traumatic event] by now?”
“Just let it go/relax/stop thinking about it.”
“I thought you were on medication—why do you still need therapy?”
Verily: What have been some of the most helpful ways people have supported you? How would you like people to support you?
CDJ: The friends and family who have supported me the most have been the ones who have listened to me, even when I was just sobbing and couldn’t speak coherently, and who have prayed for and with me, who have asked me how I’m feeling or dealing with a current life event. I also have to give a shout-out it to my parents for providing therapy for me when I wasn’t able to afford it myself.
Verily: Is there anything you would say to someone struggling with anxiety?
CDJ: As cliché as it sounds: you are NOT alone. It is your anxiety and/or depression that makes you think you are. That is not reality, and when you get the treatment you need and the therapy that “clicks,” I hope and pray that you will experience the freedom and joy I have experienced—despite the usual ups and downs of life—since 2015.
Verily: Here at Verily, we love our Daily Doses—quotes or phrases that remind us that the world needs more of who we are. Do you have a mantra or phrase that helps you to have hope in the hard days?
CDJ: As a person of faith, it’s prayer that sustains me most on hard days (or any day, for that matter). As a mom of young children, it’s short prayers that are most helpful. My current go-to is “God, come to my assistance. Lord, make haste to help me.”