For most of my life, I didn’t know I had anxiety.
From the outside, I’ve always been a relatively easy-going person — at least not what I'd call a “Nervous Nelly.” I thought that people with anxiety had panic attacks, were afraid of flying, and got nervous at parties — not like me at all. I’m adventurous, spontaneous and social.
But beneath the smooth surface, my mind has always sped ahead at a million miles per hour. I’ve constantly worried about things that might happen — without any evidence they would.
At work, whenever a challenge arose, I would fear the worst possible outcome (which hardly ever came to be).
In relationships, I would constantly think I’d done something wrong, or worse, that my significant other was up to something sketchy. (Spoiler alert: They usually weren’t.)
It didn’t matter that time and time again, reality proved my worries wrong. I remained caught up in the imaginary stories and hypothetical situations in my head.
I thought it was normal to feel this way. I thought everyone’s mind worked like this. I didn’t think anything was wrong with me — let alone that I was dealing with a mental illness.
Plus, I had seen a few therapists over the years during big life transitions. And not one ever explicitly told me that I could be dealing with anxiety disorder. Sure, the term “anxiety” had been thrown around in therapy, but I didn’t think much of it since it’s become so commonplace in everyday conversation.
What’s more: I’m a health and wellness writer, as well as a certified health coach. I’ve worked on stories about mental health for some of the biggest health publications in the world, but I never thought that I was the one needing the advice.
The tipping point
During a particularly rough patch in my life, I started seeing a new therapist. In our sessions, I talked a lot about my feelings — how I always had negative thoughts, how I worried constantly, and how I was starting to feel like I’d never be happy again.
It became clear to her that my symptoms were in fact stemming from an anxiety disorder. As she explained how anxiety works in a very down-to-earth way, I finally realized that my tendency toward worry was not normal, nor was it necessary to go through life like this.
My anxiety wasn’t “just me.” It wasn’t just a case of over-thinking. It was an imbalance of neurotransmitters in my brain. I learned that my anxiety could be attributed to a number of factors — a genetic predisposition, the neurochemistry of my brain, and perhaps some environmental and circumstantial factors.
I also learned that anxiety looks very different in different people. In fact, because there’s such a wide range of signs and symptoms of anxiety, it can be difficult to diagnose, according to Christen Sistrunk, a licensed professional counselor in Texas who specializes in treating anxiety disorders.
There are lots of different types of anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder (which I was dealing with), panic disorder, social anxiety, phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, separation anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The symptoms of anxiety manifest differently as well. Some people experience physical symptoms of anxiety (upset stomach, digestive distress, sweaty palms, bouncing legs). For others (like me), it’s all in their head, with excessive worries that are difficult to control or stop.
A sigh of relief
After 29 years, knowing that I actually “had anxiety” — and that I didn’t always have to feel this way — was greatly reassuring. Through therapy and my own research, I started to learn how to better identify my anxious thoughts and work through them consciously, rather than let them overtake my mind.
I also paid closer attention to my lifestyle and worked to establish healthier habits that could help me manage anxiety too. I try to exercise every day — even if it’s just a 15-minute walk — which is a proven way to reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety. I’ve found slower-paced yet thorough workouts, such as yoga or strength training, to be especially helpful — but a good hard run every once in a while feels great too.
I also make sure I’m getting enough sleep — too little sleep has been shown to directly affect anxious thoughts. Also, I try to stick to a clean diet, focusing on whole grains, lean proteins, fruits, veggies, and healthy fats.
The final piece of the puzzle
For some people with anxiety, going to therapy, making lifestyle changes, and learning how to get a grip on their anxious thoughts can certainly help — but it may not be enough. After a few months of trying to deal with it holistically, I began to suspect that might be the case for me.
Still, when my therapist recommended I see a psychiatrist, I was hesitant. I didn’t want a medication to change who I was fundamentally at my core — I liked myself, anxiety and all! Plus, when I first heard “anti-anxiety medication,” I automatically thought of Xanax, which I'd heard could be addictive.
Turns out, that’s not the only solution — nor is it the preferred solution. Xanax is in a class of drugs called benzodiazepines, which also includes Ativan and Klonopin, explains Dr. Michael Genovese, MD, a clinical psychiatrist and chief medical officer of Acadia Healthcare in Nashville, Tennessee. These drugs are meant to be used for intense anxiety and for brief periods of time, due to side effects such as dependency and withdrawal.
If used for longer than intended, patients can build up a tolerance to benzodiazepines, and they will no longer work ― which can cause the patient to take more and more, leading to addiction. This is why physicians try to minimize these types of prescriptions, Genovese says.
Instead, my psychiatrist prescribed a different type of medication, known as SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors). While they’re commonly seen as antidepressants, this class of medication has become the first-line of treatment for anxiety. Examples include Zoloft, Lexapro and Prozac, and they’re intended to help patients manage anxiety in the long run, Genovese says.
My medication has worked miracles for me. After just a few weeks on the medication, I realized that the on-edge mindset I had dealt with my entire life wasn’t normal. I realized I didn’t have to go through life with negative thoughts or worries clouding my days, nor did I have to take every little thing so damn seriously. For the last year since I’ve been taking medication, I feel happier, more present, and more free than ever before.
Of course, medication isn’t the the only tool I use to cope with anxiety. I continue to live a healthy lifestyle by sleeping enough, exercising daily, and eating well, and I’ll see a therapist off and on. But I am sure glad I took the leap and decided to try medication. It’s truly been a game-changer — no, a life-changer — for me.
MORE FROM BETTER
Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.