I’m often asked questions about medication; if I take it, if I think someone else should take it, and even what kind of medication to try. In this blog, I’m sharing my experience with taking anxiety medication and how those experience got me to where I am now in recovery. I’m also sharing skills I use to continue my recovery and not coincidentally, these are the same tools and processes I share with people I coach. I want to be sure to say this again for the people in the back, I am not a doctor and I am not telling you to take medication, or to not take medication, let alone what medication will or won’t work for you. If we haven’t met before, I’m a life coach who absolutely can help you recover from anxiety and feel confident in your ability to continue to do anything you want to do. All that being said, I hope this blog is helpful to you in making decisions that work best for your body and your life.
Let’s talk medicine.
One of questions I'm often asked or I see in different forum groups or support groups and certainly one of the questions I asked as well back when I didn’t know anything about anxiety or recovery was, will this work and how long will it take? My guess is you’ve probably asked these questions as well. You may also find yourself asking for reassurance to feel better, or Googling symptoms to find peace of mind. These very common anxiety reactions are simply an effort to help you feel “normal'' and safe right away. This is also a common question when people begin taking anxiety medication; they want it to work like Advil another fast acting medication. This makes complete sense! Anxiety is a miserable feeling, so of course you want it to go fast. There are a lot of people and businesses out there who will tell you they have a quick-fix, magic cure to anxiety; everything from trinkets and fidgets to gut flushing super juices who thrive on this feeling of urgency. I’m not saying those things don’t help, but I am saying that quick fixes and anxiety do not often go together. This is especially true when you are trying to feel good for the long run. You can try all of the options available and possibly feel better for a short amount of time, or you can create change and long term recovery. If you want to make changes that will take you past instant gratification, the process doesn’t happen in an instant. I wish I had better news for you but stick with me.
As someone who tried lots of quick fixes, the work is worth the end results and the medication, in my experience, can help make the work easier to do.
In this quest to feel back to "normal", or even just better, medication is often a route that people choose. I took medication for years and I don’t regret it one bit, but I think it’s important to understand that medication is not a cure. It can help to settle down your body and your brain so you can start creating habits that go beyond the medication and those new habits or responses to anxiety, which are really a lack of response, are what creates long-term recovery and success. Taking anxiety medicine may allow you to not be dependent on medication for the rest of your life. This is also something I hear often from people in different groups, or from people that I work with in a coaching relationship; they think medication might help or they want to try it, but they don’t want to take it forever. If you choose to use medication in your recovery process, the medication can give you a calmer body with fewer anxiety inducing thoughts while still allowing you to feel anxious feelings so you can create better responses to those feelings and thoughts. Eventually, you may be able to go off medication and feel incredible simply because you gave yourself the time to learn how to respond instead of react.
I told you I would share my history with medication but please remember, this is simply my experience which is guaranteed not to be your experience. No two people have the exact same symptoms, stories, or reactions to anxiety so it is to be expected that you won’t have the same results. Your story will be different than mine, but I do think there is power in hearing other’s experiences with anxiety and recovery.
My anxiety medication story started back when I was in the third grade. I don’t know what medication I took in the third grade, but my understanding is that it was to help me not feel nauseous. At that point in my life I had an upset stomach a lot - especially during school. Honestly, that pill was likely an anti-nausea medication but it may have been only a TicTac. I don’t know for sure that it worked, because I still felt anxious and feeling anxious can cause you to have an upset stomach. It is also worth noting that kids often say they have an upset stomach when they can't find the words to describe how anxiety feels.
Fast forward through middle school when I had my first panic attack and on to high school when my anxiety really began to spiral out of control. I was a couple of years into unintentionally developing bad habits in order to feel better. Those habits were actually making my anxiety worse. Of course, I had no idea and those reactions were all I knew to do. Habits like constantly checking bumps or moles, asking my parents and friends for reassurance, and avoiding most situations that made me feel anxious. Toward the end of high school, I started taking Zoloft. It was one of the earlier medications that came out to help with anxiety and depression so my doctor had me try it. Taking Zoloft as my first medication gave me a glimmer of hope that I would feel better as well as a name for how I felt but the benefit was not there. My anxiety got worse and I developed depression as well. Again, this was my experience and it may not be your’s! Many people have incredible results on Zoloft. For me, it did all of the really scary things that you don’t want anxiety medication to do. I stopped taking Zoloft when I was a freshman in college after staying on it for far too long, still holding onto hope that it would start to work make me less anxious.
While I was away at college, living in a world where mental health was still hush-hush, medication was relatively new and definitely taboo, and away from my parents, my anxiety continued to grow and my reactions grew more necessary for me to get though most days. After two years of crying, coming home midweek, and constant reassurance seeking, my mom recommended that I find someone to talk to. I began therapy at the Purdue School of Psychology for a short amount of time where they taught me some breathing skills and CBT, however, since I didn’t have working medication, I was desperate to feel better, and I had no idea what was going on inside my body, therapy made everything much worse for me. My thoughts were that medication made me worse, therapy made me worse, and that I was never going to get better. To the credit of the sweet Purdue Psychology student who was working with me, I’m sure she was doing a great job, but I wasn’t to a place where I understood anything at all about what was going on with me. I continued to have panic attacks, to ask for reassurance, and look up things on this brand new doctor that had just emerged named Google. You can imagine how that went.
Somehow I managed to graduate and shortly after graduation, I got married. Still dependent on my parents to help me feel better and without medication, I tried going back on Zoloft. Of course, it worked the same way did when I was in high school; not at all and with horrible side effects. I stopped the medication again.
As time went on, new medications were developed and my doctor had me try Lexapro . I finally found a medication that worked for me and I felt great. I would take Lexapro for a while, think I was cured, and go off the medication. I also stopped taking medication with each of my pregnancies. After I delivered each baby, I would get really bad postpartum anxiety because when your hormones drop, your anxiety goes up. I went back on Lexapro after each of my children was born and took it on and off for almost 20 years.
This is where things started to change for me and I want you to really understand that because the Lexapro worked, but even more because as the Lexapro worked I learned what was going on in my brain, how anxiety felt inside my body, and about my reactions to feeling and thinking with anxiety. Not because medication took away all of my anxiety, but because it didn't, I learned what was going on and started viewing anxiety in a different way. Yes, my medication worked, but part of the reason it worked for me was because it allowed me to still feel anxious and not spiral out of control. Learning to tolerate the feelings of anxiousness and not get wrapped up in the scary thoughts finally began to happen.
Here’s how change started for me. I decided I was going to start taking walks in the evening, and to be really honest with you, I was walking to eat more cookies and to escape the chaos of my house. I had four kids at home and I needed some quiet, so that was the route I took. At some point, I started listening to audiobooks about anxiety, about how the brain works, about manifestation - whatever distracted me and made me feel good. It was on these walks that I finally learned how anxiety felt for me specifically and realized my thoughts were only thoughts. The Lexapro calmed me down enough that I could feel the surges of adrenaline and notice the thoughts that seemed to pop in out of nowhere that were directly connected to how my anxious body felt. I was observing myself and learning what was going on without making it mean anything at all about my health, my future, or who I was in the past.
When I started working on my health coaching certification and then my life coaching certification, I dove deeper into learning how to regulate the nervous system, as well as how foods, sleep, stress, and self talk all were contributing to anxiety. Couple these things with slowly changing all of the bad habits I had created and I finally began to consciously choose new response habits instead of the reactive habits I had used for my entire life.
Clearly this did not happen overnight. It took me 30 years, but please know, this does not have to be the case for you! Use my experience to your benefit and you won’t have to spend 30 years in trial and error. Learn to make decisions to calm down your body and understand your brain so you are able to choose helpful responses when you feel anxious, instead of taking every other route imaginable in an effort to feel safe.
Make no mistake, I’m not downplaying the intensity of your anxiety or mine. None of my anxiety happened on purpose, for any reason I can put my finger on, or was my fault… Except it was. I did not make myself anxious and you have not made yourself anxious but you are KEEPING yourself anxious. All the time you spend seeking reassurance and Googling is keeping you spiraling in a fight or flight, react, repeat habit.
(Yikes… catch your breath after that one!)
Here’s how you can start your recovery journey for long-lasting anxiety relief. Before you do anything, you have to make a decision to commit to the process. I help people through these steps and keep them moving forward when things feel scary and uncertain. Even though the steps I’m sharing are simple, the process takes dedication and perseverance. I’ll tell you right now, you are going to be uncomfortable. That is a GOOD THING! It means you are challenging your brain to see the truth and think differently.
First, understand exactly how anxiety shows up in your body. Your body gives you a heads up every single time you’re about to feel anxious. Maybe it’s in your chest, your stomach, your jaw, your back… wherever it is, find it and get really familiar with how it feels. This spot is your alarm and when you learn that this alarm is a FALSE alarm, you can choose an intentional response. When I am coaching an anxious person, we always circle back to this spot for comfort and truth.
Next, take a look at the things you are saying to yourself. If you’re always talking about how anxious you are, how badly things are going, the things you fear, and so on, you are reinforcing your anxiety story and causing your brain to believe something is wrong. Making subtle shifts in what you allow your mind to say about who you are and what is going on in your life changes your focus. When your focus shifts from anxiety to what is going well and you continue to do this shifting of thoughts over and over, your brain starts to catch on.
Third, decide what areas of your life you’d like to improve. Notice I didn’t say, decide what areas of your life are a mess. What could use some attention?
Are you sleeping enough?
Are you eating healthy?
Are you moving your body everyday, even when it feels like too much and you just don’t want to?
All of these things play into how your body feels and when your brain is sensitive to your body, if something doesn’t feel right or well, your brain will search for a reason why.
Finally, create intentional responses for when you feel anxious instead using your habitual reactions. This might be the most challenging part because it requires you to feel anxious and choose to do something different or nothing at all because doing nothing shows your brain there is nothing wrong.
So if you came here, hoping that I was going to tell you what medication will work best for you, I can’t do that. That is between you and your doctor. My hope for you is that you will consider committing to yourself and your own recovery for the long-haul…even when the temptation to hurry up and make it go away quickly sounds better. I also hope you feel solid about your decision to either take or not take medication but even more, I want you to know that you have everything you need right now to change your life. It starts with a decision. Anxiety is not a life sentence and you can recover. I can help.