Living With Anxiety: What it’s Like & 15 Life-Changing Tips
To be sure we’re all on the same page getting started, I’m not a medical professional. This is just one mom’s experience living with anxiety, insomnia, and compulsive behavior.
How widespread are mental health conditions?
According to the CDC, “In 2019, 19.2% of adults had received any mental health treatment in the past 12 months, including 15.8% who had taken prescription medication for their mental health and 9.5% who received counseling or therapy from a mental health professional.”
To me, that number seems low, actually. Truthfully, I can tell there’s still somewhat of a stigma surrounding mental health for all the reactions I’ve gotten from people over the years who I’ve told that I take medication for my Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
I’ve heard it all, but the most common barrier people find is usually people admitting they aren’t happy with their mental health. Then saying, “I don’t want to take medication because then I won’t/don’t feel like myself.” Au contraire, my friend. I take medication to feel more like myself.
That being said, I totally understand the dilemma. And this isn’t an article gunning to get you medicated. Far from it. It’s to encourage anyone struggling to get the personalized help they need, whatever that looks like.
First, let’s back up to where this all began for me.
My mental health conditions are the result of a chemical imbalance in my brain. One that’s passed down through my family tree, as often is the case. I had a great childhood, I haven’t experienced any extreme trauma in my life. But reasons people might seek out mental health support include all those reasons and more.
It all started with a misdiagnosis in high school. (More on that later). I was a mostly straight A student who suddenly started feeling overwhelmed a lot in school and had trouble focusing in math, a topic I still struggle with to this day.
I thought I might have ADD. A psychiatrist decided it was depression–even though I wasn’t feeling down anymore than your average teenager–and put me on antidepressants. I also tried talk therapy for a short time.
So it took a few months of trying a few different medications and doses, under the close supervision of my psychiatrist, until we found the one that was best for me.
The first medication I tried made my hands shake.
The second medication made me nauseous.
Finally, we decided to try the second medicine at bedtime instead of in the morning, and that finally worked.
Yes, there can absolutely be negative effects from medication. But if you experience any, the answer isn’t quitting your medicine. The answer is calling your doctor to work through what’s going down so they can find the right solution for you.
You have to trust the process.
When you begin taking medication, things don’t change overnight. You have to take your correct dose consistently, every single day to get the full effect. It helps a lot to anchor the action to a certain time in the day. Bedtime or after breakfast seem to be the two most common recommendations.
This leads me to my next piece of advice for anyone seeking help for their mental wellness: listen to your doctor. That goes for anyone whether they are getting medication from a psychiatrist, or doing talk therapy, or other treatments.
My sister is a psychologist, (who consulted on this piece), so I can tell you secondhand how long the process to become a doctor takes and the incredible amount of expertise you have to have on your topic of choice before you can begin practicing. The point being, they know what they are doing and they have your best interest in mind. So follow what they say exactly.
If you realllllly don’t like your doctor, you can look for another. But if you start hopping from doctor to doctor, it’s time to look inward at what is really going on. Are you being told things you don’t want to confront? That’s the work that only you can commit to do to start feeling better. And it won’t happen until you get to that place.
In terms of treatment, I have found that a combination of approaches works the best for me. Medication is an ongoing staple in my life. And talk therapy has helped with specific issues here and there, including cognitive behavioral therapy which worked wonders for my postpartum insomnia. Although many people see a benefit from ongoing talk therapy as well.
As I mentioned before, I believe I was misdiagnosed as having depression in high school. But regardless, the medication I was taking did help me focus in school and feel less overwhelmed. Probably because anxiety, depression, and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) can overlap and a medication or combination of medications can help with multiple conditions.
Again, not an expert. Merely sharing what I’ve learned over the years.
Here are some common mistakes I see people living with anxiety or other mental health conditions make, including some I’ve made myself.
Not taking your medication every day. Not taking the correct dose. Using prescription medications recreationally. Bouncing from doctor to doctor. And abusing other substances that mess with your mental stability–whether that be drugs or alcohol.
Trust me, I’m not perfect. I’ve had plenty of missteps along the way, too. The biggest one being the classic, “I’m feeling so much better now that I’m taking medications, I must BE better now.” Yes, I pulled a rookie move and told my doctor I wanted to quit taking my medication. With her help, I carefully tapered off until I was totally medication free for a few years.
That’s not to say treatment plans can’t change with time. Mine has changed many times. What I’m talking about is seeing positive results from your medication and falsely thinking you are “cured.” Instead of realizing that’s the medicine working. That being said, cognitive behavioral therapy can be an extremely helpful way to minimize the effects of your disorder.
The error of my ways came crashing down on me.
It happened slowly at first, but new and old symptoms began to present themselves. The first I noticed was extreme, debilitating insomnia. Then, my most common symptom: overwhelm. Things finally got to the point where it was having a negative effect on my life, my work, and my relationships.
That’s when I decided to get back on medication, to improve the quality of my life. But first, I made my second mistake, which was going to a family doctor instead of mental health specialist about my insomnia.
That’s how I ended dependent on Ambien every night to fall asleep, which I personally feel is a bandaid to temporarily cover up a greater problem–which for me, is anxiety.
If you don’t know much about Ambien, long story short, it’s a sedative. So you basically feel like you’re tripping until you completely black out. Yes, you sleep but your quality of sleep is not great. Plus, it can be extremely dangerous and have a lot of scary side effects.
Which leads me to my third big mistake.
I realized I didn’t like the feeling of being “drugged up” before bed. I mean I literally was nearly hallucinating every night. One time, my husband’s face looked like a painting with brush strokes and all.
So i quit Ambien cold turkey. My doctor–remember he was a family practitioner, not a mental health specialist–even encouraged me to do so. This essentially led me to have an extreme emotional imbalance for weeks, including crying for no reason.
FYI, that’s yet another thing you never want to do with any prescription medication. Always consult with a mental health professional before stopping taking a mental health drug. Seems simple enough, right?
This leads me to today.
Now, I check in with a psychiatrist to help me regulate my anxiety medication and talk about my progress. And now, I know myself well enough to be able to identify when I’m experiencing anxiety and what the symptoms are for me.
It manifests as:
- Feeling overwhelmed
- A knot in the pit of my stomach
- Compulsive behaviors including having to check certain things over and over. For example: Instagram, the scale, a bank statement, or my retirement plan
- The feeling that I have to get something done immediately the second it comes to mind (My boss would tell you that this makes me a great employee though, if you’re looking for a silver lining)
- Trying to control every situation more than usual
- Extreme irritability with others
- Being flaky about making or keeping plans
- A racing heart
- A sense of dread
- Intrusive thoughts
- Being a bad listener, because I’m too worried about what I’m going to say next
- Being forgetful
- Ignoring text chains or other messages that get overwhelming
- Extreme social anxiety
Those are all things I’ve noticed throughout my life. But the list of symptoms others may experience goes on.
It’s also hard to say where my personality ends and my mental conditions begin.
Am I just an extremely Type A person with a dash of compulsion? Am I a control freak who simply gets way too wound up? I’m not sure. And I don’t really care, to be honest. What I do know is I’m much happier now than I’ve ever been. And I like myself a whole lot more now that I’m on the right dose of the right medication.
If you believe you’re also living with anxiety or another mental health condition and want to get serious about prioritizing your wellness, the first step is seeking out the services of a mental health professional. The second step is holding yourself accountable and following through with the steps they ask you to take.
If you find the process to be overwhelming, try asking a trusted loved one for help looking for resources.
Here are a few suggestions:
- Call the appointment line for your current health provider (Allina, Fairview, Health Partners, etc.) and ask for a recommendation.
- Many people find therapy to be a more approachable first step than working with a psychiatrist and starting medication right away.
- However, be open to the idea that medication can help you balance your mood–even if only for the short term.
A note: It’s especially important to have a conversation about your medications if you’re planning to become or do become pregnant. I ended up taking one out of two of my anxiety medications throughout my pregnancy. And then stopped all for the short period of time I ended up breastfeeding.
The best recommendation I have for anyone who is planning a family is: don’t stop asking questions. Always ask for second or even a third opinion if you are uncertain about something.
I probably consulted with about 5 different specialists– from my psychiatrist, to a pharmacist, to my OBGYN, a lactation consultant and more–just to be sure, before making the decision that was right for me to support both my mental health and my baby’s health.
Here are 15 tips I use that can help anyone living or parenting with anxiety or other mood disorders:
1. Be kind to yourself and give yourself grace.
2. If you are a first-time mother, the postpartum period might wreak additional havoc on you mentally. So please remember that it is all temporary. Your hormones will take time to rebalance. And it’s ok to cry, mama.
3. To that point, not to let my control freak out or anything, but prepare ahead of time for the postpartum period. Accept that it’s going to be a huge challenge for you. Know that you are strong enough to overcome it.
4. Be diligent about making time for yourself and practicing self-care.
5. Team up with your significant other if you have one, to be partners in parenting and take the pressure off yourself.
6. Make a list of things you’d like to accomplish throughout the week, then prioritize 1-2 things to tackle a day. Keep it manageable so things don’t get overwhelming and you don’t have a reason to be too hard on yourself when life inevitably pops up.
7. Check in frequently with mental health providers. Especially in the calendar year you have a baby because you will likely meet your out of pocket maximum from the birth, meaning your visits will be free for the rest of the year.
8. Lean heavily on your support network of family and friends. And I do mean heavily.
9. Practice this square breathing technique I learned in therapy when your anxiety or stress levels spike.
10. If you are also a compulsive “checker,” my psychiatrist taught me how to break the negative loop. It goes like this: when you get the compulsion to check something, your anxiety raises higher. So you must resist the urge to do the checking.
Eventually, your anxiety will dissipate and your urges will come less and less frequently. If you check when your anxiety is high, it will reinforce the loop because you’ll be training your brain that to feel that sense of relief, you have to check.
11. Be aware of burnout. Sense when it is coming on, and step in as soon as you can.
12. Get enough sleep. Unfortunately, anxiety and insomnia are often linked. But like I said, CBT treatment has finally helped me sleep through the night again.
13. Unclench your jaw and relax your shoulders whenever sitting for a long period of time.
14. Unplug from technology for a while every day.
15. Get out in nature or go for a walk at least a few times a week, if not every day.
Remember, there is no shame in getting the help you need and deserve. Your life is valuable. You are important. And you are loved.
Check out these free mental health resources to get you started:
- Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- Substance Abuse And Mental Health Services Administration
- Postpartum Support International
- National Institute of Mental Health
- Planning a Pregnancy With a Mental Health Condition
Living with anxiety or another mental health condition? What additional tips do you have to share? Let me know in the comments.
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