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Nothing to Fear: Living with Anxiety Disorder

I've always considered myself a strong woman. I lived by mottos like "What you can't help, you live with" and "What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger." Through frequent moves, a stalker, eight years of college while working, a series of miscarriages and a baby with a physical disability, I weathered the storms and carried on. But I didn't realize how thin the façade was getting until one October night several years ago when I woke up at 3 am, certain - absolutely positive - that I was dying.

Well, obviously I didn't die and I wrote the episode off as a strange but very vivid dream. But that night marked the beginning of my struggle with GAD - generalized anxiety disorder. Without warning, my vision would spin, my heart would pound, my hands would shake and my mind would race in alarming circles. My sleep suffered, my faith suffered and my behavior changed as I struggled to understand. The attacks became debilitating as it became difficult to even leave my house. What was happening to me?

A stream of emergency room visits, doctor's appointments, medical tests and medications did nothing to explain or alleviate my misery. Some suggested allergies, some suggested MS, and some prescribed tranquilizers. One medication reduced the severity of the attacks but then my own thoughts began to scare me. I became more and more convinced that what ever the problem was, it would eventually kill me. And it wasn't until almost two years after that first "dream" that I was finally diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

The best way I've ever heard anxiety described is "revving in neutral." You know that moment when a car has just missed hitting you? You're safe but your mind and body are completely keyed by the adrenaline-charged "fight-or-flight" instinct. Now imagine living with that reaction on an unrelenting basis. That's the group of anxiety disorders, and they affect approximately 40 million American adults every year. It's also one of the ironies of anxiety disorders that such a large group of people can feel so totally isolated.

If you struggle with anxiety or panic attacks, you aren't alone. And if I were your big sister I'd give you this advice, based on my experience:

Anxiety is often a symptom as much as it is a syndrome. Many physical problems can trigger, or at least aggravate, an anxiety disorder. Tackle those first.

It makes sense, doesn't it? The fuel you put in will play a part in how smoothly the engine runs. The best thing I ever did was get off my low-fat diet. That doesn't mean I started eating Twinkies every day but I made some key changes that made a world of difference.

I probably would have been diagnosed much faster if I'd really admitted what was going on in my head. Eventually I found a counselor who provided good coping strategies. And I was so fortunate to have my family and friends stand by me through those darkest days.

To help curb the adrenaline rush, I've scrubbed floors at 3 in the morning rather than "lie there dying." I began walking, although it wasn't easy. The first few times out I clutched my cell phone all the way around the block, convinced I was going to collapse. But as I stuck with it, it became easier.

Let's face it, there are a lot of things to be anxious about. So give yourself a break and cut back on the news, the over-commitment, the pressure to be busy - whatever it is that overloads you. The most peaceful moment I remember during that entire two years was the afternoon I took a book out on the sidewalk and sat there in a sunbeam with everything except my "mom sense" turned off as I read.

Am I cured? Not exactly. I still have anxious moments, and occasionally stress will trigger a panic attack. But now I recognize it for what it is and it doesn't spiral out of control. It hasn't killed me, I'm functioning again, and you know what? I'm stronger for it.