How I Cope With Living With Multiple Anxiety Disorders

No better time to write this post than in the middle of an anxiety attack, am I right? Not a full-blown panic attack, just a mild morning anxiety wave that I get almost daily. It’s just something I’m used to now. There has been a new conversation surrounding mental health on social media lately, which is amazing. People like Jen Gotch have brought a new light and normalcy to the stigma that once clouded mental health. Of course, there are still people who just don’t understand it, and probably never will, but I’m glad we’re talking.

I suffer from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and panic disorder. GAD is chronic anxiety, even when there’s nothing going on to provoke it. Panic disorder is unexpected and repeated intense episodes of intense fear accompanied by physical side effects. In my case, chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, severe brain fog and dizziness. All of this is a chemical imbalance. If there’s one thing you take away from reading this, I hope it’s the difference between actual mental “illness” (even though I hate that it’s called that), and feeling anxious. I can’t tell you how many times people in my life have complained about “being anxious” when really they meant stressed or overwhelmed. To me, anxiety is a physically debilitating disease that I was born with and will never be free from. People with anxiety disorders didn’t do anything wrong, it’s how our neurotransmitters work within our brain. People with anxiety either have too little or too many neurotransmitters (brain chemicals), which causes anxiety and/or depression.

I haven’t always had anxiety. At least, not as severely as I have the past 5 years. Of course, after I was diagnosed, I was able to look back and realize “oh yeah, that was a panic attack.” I finally came to terms with my anxiety in December 2014. Really, not that long ago. I was working as the CFO for a marketing and web development firm in San Diego, on the 28th floor of the tallest building downtown. I was making great money for a young MBA, and thought I was living the life. Of course, that life came with 60-plus hour work weeks and eventually the realization that there were less-than-ethical things going on in the company. I was also in the midst of planning a wedding (in March 2015), and I had my first panic attack the day before my engagement photos. Nothing particular triggered it, but as I was sitting in the stylist’s chair at my hair salon, getting primped for upcoming photos, the room started to spin and I couldn’t get my eyes to focus. My heart was fluttering, then palpitating, then pounding. With wet hair, I said to my stylist, “I’m not feeling good, I need to get out of here.” Luckily, she was done with my haircut, so I hopped in my car and began the 30-minute journey home. I couldn’t see, and I couldn’t breathe. Why I thought it was a good idea to get behind a wheel, I’ll never know. I started searching the side of the road for the “Hospital” signs, just in case I needed to make a hasty exit. Somehow, I made it home, all the while convincing myself it was low blood sugar and all I needed was a protein bar. I could still feel my heart racing so I put on the heart rate monitor I used when I worked out, and I watched as it jumped from 88 to 195 and back down again. Something was wrong, and I didn’t know what it was. I laid down on the floor, convinced I was about to die from a heart attack at the ripe age of 26 years old. My fiancé was at work, so I called 911. “I think I’m having a heart attack,” I told the dispatcher. She asked me a few questions, but I don’t remember much. The firetruck and ambulance arrived within 10 minutes, but it was the longest 10 minutes ever. In the back of the ambulance on the way to the hospital, I was hooked up to all kinds of monitors. I remember the paramedic asking me “Have you ever had an anxiety attack?” and I brushed him off and said “No, I don’t have anything to have an anxiety attack about” and he smiled at me and said “That’s not how it works.”

So, long story short, after 2 months of visits with cardiologists, neurologists, endocrinologists, you name it, I received my two-fold diagnosis. Of course, during those two months, I had at least a dozen more attacks, so I believed them. I was put on medication and the symptoms dulled.

Flash-forward to 2015, I’m pregnant with our first child and it’s recommended I get off of all medications. Of course, I’m hesitant, but I want to do what’s best for my baby. But I knew my surroundings had to change. I couldn’t manage 60-plus hour work weeks in the office, birth a baby and manage my anxiety. Some women absolutely can, and more power to you, but not me. So I did what seemed right and I stepped away from my job. I think the feeling of that failure contributed to my anxiety as well, because it felt like, what the heck did I go to school for and what did I put all those hours in for “just” to become a stay-at-home mom?

But I relished in those first 12 months at home with my baby. We both needed it. And let me tell you, if you’re unaware, but breastfeeding is a hell of a drug. I was convinced becoming a mother had “cured” me of my anxiety. But once we were done breastfeeding at 15 months, the anxiety came back with a vengeance. I was having panic attack after panic attack, often in the middle of the night. I hated going to sleep because I knew I would wake up a few hours later thinking the worst. More than once in the haze of my panic attack, I’d make my husband (who is a night owl and was often still awake) come into the bedroom and hold me as I rattled off a to-do list and a wish list for everything I wanted him to do for our son if I didn’t make it through the night. Because that’s the thing about anxiety and panic disorders. You are 100 percent convinced you’re dying and no one can tell you differently. Each time, after a full-blown panic attack, my body was exhausted. I couldn’t move from the bed to the couch without great effort because the attack had literally waged a war on my nervous system and my body. I spent almost the entire month of December 2017 in bed because I just kept having panic attack after panic attack and my body couldn’t recover.

Finally, in January of this year, I went to my doctor and told her I needed to get back on my medication. I couldn’t function. Now, before you ask, let me answer the FAQs that I’ve already been asked a million times before:

  • Yes, I’ve tried meditation/yoga/Pilates/more exercise
  • Yes, I’ve tried acupuncture
  • Yes, I’m in therapy
  • Yes, I’ve eliminated caffeine/alcohol/dairy/gluten
  • Yes, I’ve done all the relaxation/stress-management techniques

If you don’t have anxiety disorders, or you don’t love someone who does, it’s hard to comprehend.

Yes, all of those techniques are great for reducing stress and even anxiety. But they don’t cure it. I make an effort to keep up with therapy, meditate daily and take a walk every day, and I’ve given up alcohol for the most part. And no, caffeine doesn’t affect my anxiety. In fact, it helps me. Don’t @ me. But I still have anxiety every day, even with these techniques and medication. My case is severe, and it does interrupt my day-to-day. A big help for me has been CBD oil. I take it when I feel the brain fog creeping in or the palpitations starting. I put some drops under my tongue and it helps calm my nervous system. In case you weren’t aware, I’m not actually a doctor, so this isn’t medical advice. I’m just sharing what works for me. I really enjoy this tincture from Equilibria both in the morning and at night. Again, not a doctor. Just a girl sharing her experience.

People discredit you when they find out you have anxiety. Honestly, it makes me not want to tell people. You can tell them all of these impressive accolades and prove how intelligent and valuable you are. But the second you mention anxiety, you look “weak”. You may be smart, but you’ll crack under the pressure. You don’t want to have people put their trust in you and depend on you only to have to let them down when you can’t physically leave the house. You fake “acceptable” stomach flus or food poisoning because that is more understandable than crippling anxiety that is suppressing all your usual functionality. But that shouldn’t be the case. My anxiety disorders don’t define me or diminish my intelligence. But there’s forever that fear of letting all of your achievements be overshadowed by what some view as a “weakness”.

I’m back to working full-time, but now I work from home, which makes managing these disorders 1,000 percent better. Also, having a team that understands and supports you is key. It’s new to me, and I know how lucky I am to have the opportunity. If you’ve made it this far, thanks. I know it’s a lot to read, but I’ve had so many questions from a lot of you on social media that I felt it was important to share my story.

I hope we can continue to remove the stigma around mental health and anxiety disorders. I’m not a failure because I have anxiety. It doesn’t take anything away from how intelligent or capable I am. The worst thing you can do when someone is having an anxiety attack is ask them “Why, what’s wrong?” Because like the paramedic said in the back of that ambulance, that’s not how it works. Anxiety is a lifelong disorder, even though it ebbs and flows. If you also have anxiety, hi, I love you and think you’re doing great. If you don’t, thank you for reading and for taking the time to understand the ones you love who deal with this on a daily basis. I hope my story (the condensed version, believe it or not) will be helpful.

xo,

Sam

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Author: Samantha Welker

Samantha Welker is the business manager at Glitter Guide. She has an Master's in Corporate Finance & Sustainability from Harvard Business School but prefers working in the creative industry. She also hosts a weekly business podcast for creative women called Pretty Okay Podcast. She loves spending time with her husband and her son, Rocky, in sunny San Diego. Follow along on Instagram