Last week, I promised to start a new series of blog posts called “My Diagnoses.” Today is the first article, and I decided to start with my two most severe diagnoses, generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder. Though these are two different disorders, I decided to put them into the same post because they are so closely related. I plan on going through the definitions of these conditions, how they affect me, and what steps I’ve taken to maintain my anxiety. I am not a professional; these are just my experiences and understandings.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is your body’s natural response to danger and stress. Anxiety is a healthy and useful part of everyone’s life; it keeps us safe from threats and risks. The problem arises when feelings of anxiety interfere with your life, activities, and happiness. When this happens, it is considered an anxiety disorder. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “Anxiety disorders are real, serious medical conditions – just as real and serious as physical disorders such as heart disease or diabetes. Anxiety disorders are the most common and pervasive mental disorders in the United States.” Anxiety is real, it’s serious, and people need to be educated on the severity of its effects.
How anxiety affects me
My anxiety disorders affect me in many different ways. I had always been a timid child. I was extremely shy and I never wanted to leave my parents’ sides. I think they first realized I had a problem when I was about 5 years old. Before leaving for kindergarten every day, I would cry and cry because I couldn’t stand the way the seams in my socks felt on my little toes. My blankets had to be completely straight when I slept, I was extremely sensitive, and I had awful separation anxiety. I was diagnosed and put on medication when I was about 8 years old. Now, 11 years since those first signs, my symptoms are completely different. Generalized anxiety basically makes me feel constantly on edge, like there is some sort of danger lurking around every corner. This constant stress on my mind and body causes persistent worry, shaking, headaches, fatigue to the point where I feel like I can barely move, digestive problems, stiff muscles and knots in my shoulders, sweating, heart palpitations, and other issues. In fact, not long ago, I was feeling positively awful. I had chills, fatigue, weakness, dizziness, dark circles, fast heart rate, etc. My doctor ordered blood work to be done to check for anemia, thyroid problems, infections, and other possible causes. The next day, the doctor’s office called to tell me everything looked normal, but I had a slightly heightened white blood cell count. He gave me antibiotics telling me it was probably a sinus infection. About a month later, I went to my first psychiatrist appointment and told her about those symptoms, (which I was still having), and about my high white blood cell count. She just nodded her head and told me all of those symptoms were caused by anxiety’s effects on my body. The high white blood cell count was due to heightened cortisol levels. (Cortisol is the body’s natural stress hormone). She said my brain was signaling to my body that there was a dangerous invader (anxiety) and it needed to attack, thus causing those weird symptoms. I guess what I’m trying to say is anxiety presents itself in so many physical ways, not just as mental symptoms.
What is panic disorder?
Panic disorder is actually a type of anxiety disorder, but they do have some differences. Panic disorder involves sudden, severe panic attacks, which can be caused by anxiety disorders. The main difference is whereas generalized anxiety makes you feel constantly worried for long periods of time, panic attacks are sudden, severe, and crippling bouts of fear that are usually unexpected. They normally last 10-20 minutes, give or take. The causes of anxiety and panic disorders are largely unknown, but scientific evidence has found certain links that I would like to write about in a post on its own.
How panic affects me
To tell you the truth, panic attacks suck. They are really, really scary, and I spend much of my day in fear of getting one. I started getting panic attacks around the time I started medication, so about 8 years old. The way panic attacks feel to me can only be described as the closest feeling I can imagine the sensation of dying would be like. I read that many times, the first time someone has a panic attack, they truly believe they are having a heart attack. I know I’m having a panic attack when my mind starts coming up with scary scenarios, my breathing becomes shallow and I begin hyperventilating, my limbs start to tingle and go numb, I get nauseous, my heart starts racing, I get dizzy, sometimes it feels like someone is choking me or my throat is closing, I start getting hot and sweaty, and I feel like I’m going to pass out. But, despite these awful symptoms, the worst part is the debilitating fear. It feels like the room is closing in on you and you’re never going to be calm again; its the most miserable and frightening experience that I, and many people, have to go through regularly. If you’re fighting this disorder, please keep in mind that there is always light at the end of the tunnel; the panic attack always ends, the anxiety fades, and we are fortunate to live in a decade where treatments are thoroughly researched and usually effective.
Here are my favorite coping skills: https://theanxiousteensofamerica.wordpress.com/2019/11/02/my-favorite-coping-skills-and-self-regulation-techniques/
There are numerous medications and therapies out there, and no one treatment option is the right fit for everyone. The only thing that is for sure is that a treatment consisting of medication and therapy is more effective than medication or therapy on its own. When I was 8, I started 12.5mg of Zoloft, (or sertraline). I steadily had to increase the dosage over the next 7 years, until I was on 150mg. For reference, the highest dose of Zoloft is 200mg. I started a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy called exposure therapy in 2017. I basically had to confront all of my fears in order to convince my brain that the things I was scared of weren’t as serious as I was convinced they were. It helped me a lot. However, my anxiety started getting serious again about a year and a half later. I went to a psychiatrist in August, and last month, because she didn’t want me on 200mg of sertraline, I started getting off of Zoloft and started Lexapro. My body wasn’t too fond of the Lexapro, though. Because of the not-so-pleasant reactions I had to Lexapro, I was instead put on Prozac. Now, after a month of withdrawals and adjustments, I am completely off of Zoloft and on 15mg of Prozac. I also started therapy again, and now I am able to go only every 2-3 weeks! If you are struggling with a mental illness, I strongly suggest seeing a psychiatrist about medication and therapy; it can be a life-changer.
Thanks for reading!
I was a little nervous about sharing such personal information about myself on the internet, but I hope this helps you to understand my struggles and why I started this blog. I also hope that this helps anyone who may be going through the horrors of mental illness to feel more understood and less alone. And always remember, the ultimate display of bravery is to keep going when you are fighting against your own mind every day, and, if no one has told you today, I’m proud of you.