Why I Decided to Take an Anxiety Med for the First Time in My Life

I come from a family of addicts, so I was hesitant about taking medication for my anxiety. When I ended up being prescribed an SSRI, I learned that antidepressants can often relieve the symptoms of anxiety.

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Jun 16, 2022 PUBLISHED
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During most of my childhood, my mind jumped from one anxiety to the next. 

Sometimes I was anxious about little things, like clean underwear. 

Growing up with divorced parents, my little sister and I went back and forth between our parents’ homes almost every other night. My dad didn't keep any clothes for us, so we had to pack everything for the next day. 

As my little sister and I would wait at the curb for my dad to pick us up, I’d check my bag and tug through clothes to locate my clean underwear. More than once I’d forgotten to pack them. And I was frequently anxious about it. 

After checking through my bag for the underwear, I’d look up and see my little sister on the curb, twirling in circles. "You're too close to the street!" I’d snapped at her, my breath stuck between my ribs.

“What if a car rolled past and hit her?” I thought. 

Other times, my anxiety and worry was so enormous—the drought in California or a war overseas—that I'd cry myself to sleep.

It wasn’t until my twenties that a therapist gave me a diagnosis for what my father had always referred to as my “being-an-overly-sensitive-child”.

I learned I have General anxiety disorder (GAD).

" Anxiety on its own is a normal human emotion," says dual board-certified neurologist and psychiatrist, Dr. Julia Samton, M.D., who specializes in treating anxiety.

"As humans we're going to experience some anxiety,” explains Dr. Samton, the cofounder of The Midtown Practice in New York City. "It's important for a clinician to figure out if this anxiety reaches a clinical level. In other words, if it's interfering with your life, that's when we move to treatment."

A Monarch original illustration and quote on getting help for one’s anxiety by Julia Samton, MD.

Anxiety and the global pandemic

According to Dr. Samton, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a traumatic time for all of us. 

“From a clinician's perspective,” she explains, “it was the first time that we all experienced trauma with our clients."

Success Coach Julie Lowe, the mom of two boys in Lexington, Kentucky, had been running a successful consulting company for nine years when the pandemic hit. 

"I hit a breaking point with my mental health," she explains. As the founder of Socially Aligned , she says that she was trying to work full-time from home while homeschooling her kids when "everything kind of hit,” including not being able to sleep. 

A Monarch original illustration of a mother, struggling with anxiety during the pandemic, holding her baby and her child’s hand.

“During the pandemic, it all kind of fell into place for me,” says Liz Prato, a licensed massage therapist in Portland, Oregon, and author of Kids in America: A Gen X Reckoning. When her mind was racing and sometimes she felt like she couldn’t breathe, she realized: “Oh, I’ve had anxiety my whole life." 

The same is true for Sondra in Southern California (who prefers not to use her last name). "I didn't recognize my own anxiety until it started to affect my youngest son,” she says. “He was 10 at the time when schools closed due to COVID restrictions. He started experiencing anger issues and violent outbursts for the first time in his life and it made me realize that my stress and anxiety—even though I tried very hard to hide it from him—were affecting him."

A Monarch original design of a picture of a woman wearing a mask during the COVID-19  pandemic appearing to be anxious.

Amanda Rawson Hill, a writer in California whose next novel, The Hope of Elephants, is due out in September, says her anxiety first showed up when she was in college. Though, at the time she didn’t realize what was going on.

"I would have panic attacks in the testing center during a test,” she says. “But I didn't realize that's what they were and that they were related to anxiety."

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Amanda's mom and sister kept asking her to get some support. 

She finally took an online quiz about anxiety, saw a psychologist, received an anxiety diagnosis, and was prescribed the antidepressant Lexapro. “I started feeling a difference in about a week or two,” shares Amanda.

Every woman interviewed for this story says the COVID-19 pandemic made them realize how much their anxiety was affecting every part of their lives.

Name your anxiety to tame it

Sometimes, putting a name to anxiety is enough to help understand it. 

In my own life, I thought my coping strategiesgoing to yoga or therapy or seeing girlfriendswould keep me grounded. 

But during the pandemic, as a journalist and the mother of two daughters, I became overwhelmed with handling homeschooling, working, and maintaining my marriage.

I also come from a family of addicts, so I was hesitant about taking medication for my anxiety. I tried to stay connected online and continued to see my therapist virtually twice a month, but some nights the anxiety consumed me. 

I was up for hours, worrying about COVID or the climate crisis. Sometimes at the same time.

And as I tried to manage my anxiety with the coping strategies I was taught, my mental health struggles seeped out to my children and my partner. The sleep deprivation wore on me. 

Alas, I finally faced my hesitation about medication and made a call to my doctor. 

Seven months ago, I started taking Lexapro, and the changes are evident. 

I'm sleeping again. I'm more focused. I'm letting go of the anxious thoughts that used to paralyze me.

"There's definitely a difference for me between being on the meds and not," says Amanda, explaining that she started taking Lexapro during the pandemic but switched to Zoloft when she found out that she was pregnant. 

"I've been able to function again," she says.

A year into the pandemic, Liz in Portland found support in a book by Courtenay Hameister called Okay Fine Whatever: The Year I Went from Being Afraid of Everything to Only Being Afraid of Most Things.  

"I picked up the book because I was so on edge—so close to losing it—from both the devastating Portland-area wildfires and the pandemic," Liz says.

According to Liz, Hameister's descriptions of her own dread and anxiety are funny and insightful. 

As a result of reading Hameister’s book, Liz was able to connect many dots in her own life. Notably, her father and brother had both suffered from serious mental illness. 

Classes for her career as a licensed massage therapist also helped Liz understand how stress affected her own nervous system.

SSRI and SNRI antidepressant medications for anxiety

"I had taken antidepressants at various times in my life, after some trauma,” explains Sondra. “And my PTSD came rearing its ugly head once COVID hit."

In the summer of 2021, Sondra found a new therapist online, who prescribed the anti-anxiety medicine Inderal, as well as the antidepressant Zoloft. 

"The adjustment period for this was difficult," Sondra says. "My husband took our youngest out of town, so I spent the entire week adjusting to the medicine which I nearly quit after the third day due to the major side effects. It was definitely not easy. I wasn't able to work or do much this entire week, but once I started week two of daily meds, I felt like a whole new person and had only wished I had started taking them earlier."

Dr. Samton says the most common medications prescribed for anxiety generally fall into the category of SSRIs or SNRIs.

SSRIs:

  •  Prozac (fluoxetine)

  •  Zoloft (sertraline)

  •  Celexa (Citalopram)

  •  Lexapro (Escitalopram) 

  •  Paxil (Paroxetine)

  •  Viibryd (Vilazodone)

  •  Fluvoxamine (Luvox)

  •  Trintellix (Vortioxetine)

SNRIs:

  •  Effexor XR (venlafaxine)

  •  Pristiq (Desvenlafaxine)

  •  Cymbalta (Duloxetine)

The difference between SSRIs and SNRIs is that SSRIs impact the levels of neurotransmitters called serotonin, whereas SNRIs impact the levels of both serotonin and norepinephrine. 

Both can help with anxiety, however SNRIs can sometimes help when people have tried SSRIs and not gotten relief. 

A Monarch original checklist of common SSRI and SNRI antidepressant medications prescribed for anxiety.

Anxiety treatments and coping strategies

"Therapy and medication have definitely been a life-saver for me," explains Sondra. She says hiking a few days a week has also helped to relieve her anxiety. 

She also quit drinking. Sondra tells us she’s been sober since Thanksgiving 2020. "I couldn't be happier,” she says. “I think I was hiding my anxiety and depression all these years by self-medicating."

Today, Liz in Portland says that she regularly gets messages, takes baths, and plays the ukulele. 

"I also don’t watch TV shows or read books that can plunge me into anxiety and despair," she says. "The most important skill I’ve learned is to pay attention to the early signs of anxiety in my body and believe it or not, I learned about breathing techniques from Ted Lasso! Controlled breathing has had a really profound effect on being able to re-route my nervous system."

Julie in Kentucky says that part of taking care of herself is influenced by her new career as a life and success coach who specializes in teaching nervous system regulation, stress management, self-care practices, and subconscious reprogramming to high-achievers. 

She created a system called "DESIGN" to manage anxiety, which she says, "really helped me to successfully come off the daily anxiety meds when I was ready.”

Daily Movement

EFT Tapping (especially helpful in the moment when feeling stressed or having a panic attack)

Sensing Meditation

Investigate Stressors (what's in my control and what's not? If it's in my control I can problem solve, if not, can I change my attitude about it?)

Get Connected (co-regulate with people that make you feel calm - whether that's a friend, coach or therapist and don't isolate yourself)

Nervous System Regulation (humming, rubbing, or clapping our body, tense, and release -- and of course good sleep habits and exercise)

A Monarch original graphic explaining the DESIGN system for managing anxiety by Julie Lowe, founder of  Socially Aligned, LLC.

According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, an international nonprofit organization founded in 1979 and Dr. Samton, "18% of Americans are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder each year." Out of this number, "only 37% are treated."

"I don't think people really understand the degree of impact that the pandemic has had on everyone," says Dr. Samton. "It's been pretty destabilizing, and certainly has brought up a ton of anxiety, and there's a good reason for it. At the same time, seeking treatment can be very helpful."

Find out more about COVID trauma.

Do I have an anxiety disorder? 

If you're concerned you might be dealing with anxiety, take our free 2-minute online anxiety screening. It was developed using the GAD-7, a widely used tool to screen for anxiety symptoms. 

Keep in mind, the results from the screening should not be used as a replacement for professional help. 

How do I find a therapist who specializes in anxiety?

The Monarch Directory by SimplePractice makes it easy to find a therapist who specializes in treating anxiety.

You can click on the drop down filters, choose anxiety, and enter your location. You can book telehealth video sessions or in-person appointments, and even filter by availability and request a free 15-minute phone consultation directly online. 

Remember, anxiety doesn’t have to control your life. Talking with a licensed mental health professional may help. 


Find a therapist who specializes in treating anxiety. Check out the Monarch Directory by SimplePractice to find licensed mental health therapists near you with availability and online booking.


Article originally published Jun 16, 2022.

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