Until a couple years ago, I didn’t think I was an “anxious” person. On the outside, I’m easygoing. I’m adventurous, spontaneous and social. I’m not afraid of flying, public speaking or crowds.
But throughout my entire life, I have worried, silently and constantly, about almost everything. I’ve worried about possibilities that I knew, deep down, weren’t at all rational. I’ve always feared that worst-case scenarios would come true ― even though they hardly ever do.
I didn’t realize that these thoughts stemmed from mental illness. Since I never had full-on panic attacks, I didn’t think that I “had anxiety.” I thought it was normal to feel this way. I thought I was fine — that is, until I went on anti-anxiety medication at 29 years old. And it changed my life.
Little did I know, I was one of the 40 million Americans adults dealing with an anxiety disorder ― about 18% of the population. And up until last year, I was also part of the majority of people with anxiety who don’t receive treatment.
Figuring Out If You Have An Anxiety Disorder
Anxiety disorders come in many forms. What I have is known as generalized anxiety disorder, which is marked by consistent, excessive worries that are difficult to control or stop. It affects about 6.8 million American adults ― and women are twice as likely as men to have it.
Other types of anxiety disorders include panic disorder, social anxiety, phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, separation anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Because anxiety has such a wide range of signs and symptoms, it can be difficult to diagnose, according to Christen Sistrunk, a licensed professional counselor in Texas who specializes in treating anxiety disorders.
The first step to evaluating whether you have anxiety is to figure out the type of anxiety you have ― and how it affects you, said Justin Baksh, chief clinical officer of Foundations Wellness Center in Port St. Lucie, Florida. For instance, maybe you feel it because you brain can’t shut off. “No matter how hard you try, your mind wanders into the future about finances, work, family issues, and so on,” Baksh said.
Or perhaps you experience more physical symptoms, like an upset stomach, digestive issues, sweaty palms, a constant uneasiness, heart palpitations or bouncing legs. Depending on the type of disorder, you could also experience specific fears, avoidance of social situations, shaking, dizziness, fear of losing control, a sense of unreality ― the list goes on.
How Experts First Treat Anxiety
Once you understand the type of anxiety you’re dealing with, you can start to explore measures with a physician or mental health professional who can help you manage the symptoms. While anxiety can present itself in many different forms, all anxiety disorders have one thing in common: They are highly treatable, and most of them respond well to medication, said Chelsea Hudson, licensed therapist in Chicago and founder of Cityscape Counseling.
However, that doesn’t mean you should immediately head to your doctor to get a prescription. Many people think medication is a magic bullet to feeling better, Baksh said, but in reality, it’s part of a comprehensive treatment plan that should also include other interventions, such as lifestyle changes and therapy.
Seeking professional help from a counselor, guided imagery, family and peer support and meditation have all been shown to help alleviate anxiety, Baksh said. Cognitive behavioral therapy in particular has been shown to be effective in treating anxiety disorders, Sistrunk said.
The catch, of course, is that therapy is often a financial commitment many people can’t afford to take on (that is, if they even have access to it in the first place). Many therapists do not take health insurance, and it’s expensive to pay out of pocket. If you can’t find an in-network provider or you don’t have insurance in the first place, there are some more affordable solutions. Text-based talk therapy services may be more budget-friendly. Examples include Talkspace (for which Michael Phelps is a spokesperson), BetterHelp and AnxietyCoach, an iPhone app from the Mayo Clinic. Additionally, there are many other ways you can make therapy less expensive.
Lifestyle changes can also play a big role in managing anxiety. Incorporating more exercise into your day, improving your sleep and eating healthier can all help, said Katie Ziskind, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Connecticutand owner of Wisdom Within Counseling.
When It’s Time To Take Medication
All that being said, there are people who do benefit from taking anti-anxiety medication in addition to the above treatments. While there is no definitive time or sign to start medication, the general consensus among experts is this: When anxiety starts to significantly affect your ability to function in your everyday life, it might be time to try it.
In other words, if you feel overwhelmed or paralyzed by anxiety, if you have trouble focusing at work, if your relationships are suffering or if your health is deteriorating, reach out to a doctor. And remember, there’s no shame in doing so. Mental health medication can be just as essential as heart medication or anything else. And for those of us who have a genetic predisposition, anxiety can be especially responsive to a prescription, Hudson said.
Today, the most common medications prescribed for anxiety are actually antidepressants, known as SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors). Examples include Zoloft, Lexapro and Prozac. They’re intended to help patients manage anxiety in the long run, according to Dr. Michael Genovese, a clinical psychiatrist and chief medical officer of Acadia Healthcare in Nashville, Tennessee.
Benzodiazepines, which include Xanax, Ativan and Klonopin, are also used to treat anxiety ― but in the short term. They are meant to be used for intense anxiety and for brief periods of time, due to dangerous side effects such as dependency and withdrawal.
If patients build up a tolerance to benzos, they will no longer work ― which can cause the patient to take more and more, leading to dependency or addiction. “For this reason, we try to minimize benzo prescriptions,” Genovese said.
Finally, while medication can make anxiety easier to cope with over time, it’s not a be-all and end-all solution. “Medication won’t make an anxiety disorder disappear like an anti-inflammatory may make a headache dissipate,” said Ruthie Kalai, a licensed clinical social worker based in New York and Florida.
Instead, medication can help ease symptoms — including feelings of irritability, agitation and hopelessness — so that recovery and healing can take place. “This then allows the client space to make the necessary psychological changes through therapy,” Kalai said.
Another caveat: Medication doesn’t always work right away, so patience is key. “It may take time and multiple sessions [for] your doctor to learn which meds work best for you,” Ziskind said.
As for me? I have no doubt that getting on the right anti-anxiety medication has changed — and maybe even saved — my life. It’s helped me get a grip on my anxious worries and thoughts, and with my symptoms managed, I’ve been able to dig deeper into the source and triggers of my anxiety.
My medication is far from the only tool I use to cope with anxiety. Along with practicing yoga daily, spending time in nature, eating well and sleeping enough, my medication is just one part of my ever-growing anti-anxiety toolbox. And I sure am glad I have it.
“Living With” is a guide to navigating conditions that affect your mind and body. Each month, HuffPost Life will tackle very real issues people live with by offering different stories, advice and ways to connect with others who understand what it’s like. In May, we’re covering anxiety in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month. Got an experience you’d like to share? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.