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What it’s like living with anxiety

Amy Mackelden writer headshot By | May 5, 2020
Medically reviewed by Scott Dershowitz, LMSW, CMC

Most people feel nervous or stressed at some point, but when you’re living with anxiety, that restless feeling never really fully goes away. My anxiety disorder came on both slowly and all at once. For a while, I’d written off those feelings as nerves or stress and attempted to keep them under control with regular workouts. Then suddenly, some major life changes made my anxiety feel insurmountable.

It started with sleepless nights

I started to take notice when anxiety made it near-impossible to fall asleep. My brain was constantly whirring like a clunky old ghost train—with no off-switch—which meant I was never fully rested for work. I started to feel as though my chest was tight and filled with fear, my stomach wouldn’t stop fluttering, and that I’d never be able to organize my thought process or my life. 

Dr. Lisa Lovelace, a clinical psychologist at Synergy eTherapy, confirmed—those were all classic anxiety symptoms, along with racing heart, sweaty palms, difficulty breathing, stomachaches, headaches, irritability, panic, or difficulty concentrating. 

According to the DSM-V symptoms of anxiety can also include:

  • Excessive worry that is difficult to control
  • Restlessness or feeling keyed up or on edge
  • Being easily fatigued
  • Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Sleep disturbance (difficulty falling or staying asleep, or restless unsatisfying sleep)

I consulted my primary care physician, who suggested a watch and wait approach, along with continuing to exercise often. Your primary care provider might also refer you to a psychiatrist to help you understand and manage symptoms.

Finding the right anxiety medication

However, a few weeks later, when my anxiety didn’t improve, my doctor suggested trying an SSRI to help reduce my symptoms—and restore the sense of calm that I was sorely missing. Although I was scared to start a new medication, I’d reached a point where I felt like I couldn’t manage without it, so I took a leap of faith. 

My healthcare provider prescribed Zoloft, in a small dose to start with. Although the effects weren’t immediate, my brain gradually began to respond to the medication. My sleep pattern improved, and I started to feel more capable of dealing with everyday stresses. Finding the right anxiety medication sometimes might feel like a process of trial and error, and I was definitely lucky to find one that suited me right away. It’s important to remember that there are options available, and it’s okay to seek an alternative in consultation with a physician if the first treatment doesn’t work. 

Alternative therapies and lifestyle changes

My primary care physician also referred me for talk therapy, and a course in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Talking to a therapist helped me to understand why I felt the way I did, and gave me more confidence in my own decision-making abilities. Learning some basic CBT techniques helped me to start managing my anxiety in everyday life. Stephanie Woodrow, a licensed clinical professional counselor, explains, “Changing behavior patterns starts with raising awareness of them and recognizing the behaviors as they are happening. This is very difficult to do independently, which is where an anxiety specialist can be helpful.” 

Through therapy, I realized that I needed to make some serious lifestyle changes to help improve my ability to cope with my anxiety disorder. Shirin Peters, MD, of Bethany Medical Clinic suggests that people with anxiety “eat well-balanced meals composed of unprocessed whole foods; limit alcohol and caffeine intake, both of which can aggravate anxiety and trigger panic attacks; get enough sleep; and exercise daily to help release endorphins that can suppress feelings of anxiety.”

Moving forward: Living with anxiety 

I’ve now been on the same medication for five years. I still have anxiety, but when faced with stressful situations, I’m more capable of facing them head-on. I’ve also changed my lifestyle, and eliminated certain stressors, such as leaving a difficult relationship behind, and moving closer to friends and family so that I have a stronger support network. Plenty of rest, exercise, and sleep help me to manage my condition, as do the tools I learned in therapy. Managing anxiety takes work, but it’s possible. If you’re living with anxiety, keep trying until you find the combination of treatments and strategies that work for you.