You may have heard about, seen, or experienced for yourself what it’s like to have anxiety and panic disorders. It’s a battle, and it doesn’t stop just because you’ve started going to therapy or taking medication. Being properly diagnosed and figuring out the right treatment can be struggles that few people talk about, which is why I’m sharing my own experiences. My last article was about my panic attacks and diagnosis with severe social and general anxiety, as well as panic disorder.
Once I had my proper diagnoses, I could finally get it all under control with treatment. One might expect this to be the end of the war, but there was another battle ahead. I had to find a combination of medication and therapy that would work well for me.
The first medication I tried was for anti-anxiety. I don’t remember its name, but I do remember my contempt for it. I’m sure it’s changed the lives of many in a positive way, but not mine. It’s not that it didn’t work, because it definitely did. The problem is that it worked a little too well. I was suddenly less afraid in general and after a while, I noticed that I was often acting before even getting a chance to think. I couldn’t stop myself, I would do and say things and have no thoughts about them until immediately after the fact. For example, my younger brother and I grew up in a PC gamer household. One evening our parents were out, and the two of us were playing Age of Mythology. Something happened that prompted me to drop an f bomb in front of my brother. I’m perfectly comfortable with swearing, but it’s not something that comes naturally to me because I tend to be very self-conscious. Maybe a month later, after more uninhibited, uncharacteristic incidents, I was off of that medication and worried about what the next one would do to me.
The next and, thankfully, final medication I was put on was sertraline, commonly known as Zoloft. It’s often used as an anti-depressant, but is also used for anxiety and has been an important crutch on my way to taking control of my anxiety and panic disorders. It comes in increments of 25mg, so there’s a lot of room for dosage adjustment. Another perk is that it’s a good option for people who tend to be sensitive to other medications (as I proved to be with this type of medication).
Meanwhile, I was also going to therapy sessions. The first therapist I saw worked with me from February of my senior year of high school through the end of my summer break. This is nowhere near enough time for a case like mine, but that isn’t the main issue here. At this point, before I had a good handle on my social anxiety, there were certain people who I just couldn’t talk to and my mom would have to speak for me. This included healthcare professionals; I couldn’t even talk to my therapist!
This first therapist did talk therapy and was dabbling in play therapy. While I was there, I barely said anything to her and, on the rare occasions I did talk, I was very uncomfortable. The mere suggestion of my mom waiting outside of the room was incredibly stressful, so she was there for every session. It wasn’t the therapist’s fault; straight talk therapy just didn’t work well for me. Those months of therapy were mostly a bust, but not a complete waste because I was introduced to fidget jewelry and toys, some which I find very useful at times. It also got me started on using puzzles to keep my stress down, a coping strategy I continue to use today.
That September, I started college and stopped my therapy sessions. At that point, I wasn’t getting anything new out of the therapy and getting in for appointments with my new schedule posed some difficulties. Things were okay that first quarter of college, but things steadily declined from there and by spring quarter, I desperately needed further treatment. Given the ineffectiveness of talk therapy, not to mention the additional anxiety it had given me, I needed to try something different. This led me to one of the most life-changing experiences I’ve ever had: cognitive behavioral therapy with neurofeedback. Cognitive behavioral therapy is common and requires active participation in different strategies to change the way one approaches the thoughts and situations that they have trouble with. Neurofeedback, on the other hand, is not as widely used and has more skeptics.
At first, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was very tentative during the first few sessions. There was little, if any, talking on my part as I warmed up to this new therapist. I wasn’t particularly receptive to some of the cognitive behavioral therapy exercises, but my therapist was patient and we tried some where I could write down my thoughts and worksheet answers and bring them to each session. The neurofeedback, which you can learn more about here, helped me get to the point where I could talk to my therapist more and more. Eventually, I could read my written responses aloud. Then, I worked my way up to small talk with my therapist; something that might seem small but was a huge deal for me. One day, she asked if I would be okay if my mom left the room, and I decided it would be. And I was fine! I was talking to a therapist, alone. After some weeks had gone by of me being more talkative and less self-conscious than ever before, we started spacing out my sessions. We went from every week to every other week, then every three weeks, and currently my sessions are a month apart. I’ve been to 40 sessions and might be ready to stop soon, but not just yet. And it’s not just my social anxiety that’s under control now; my general anxiety and panic disorder have also gotten much better.
Now, if I’m worried or stressed about something, I can successfully reassure myself that I can handle things and everything will be okay. I can talk to people without questioning every word I say. I can talk to people, period. I can even recognize when a panic attack is starting, whether it’s creeping in or hitting me quickly all at once, and I can calm myself down and make it stop. I’m not entirely sure how this works, but I do know that it took a couple years for me to get to this point.
A while back, my therapist was preparing to speak at some event and asked if she could talk about my case. She said that she wouldn’t reveal any personal information. She said that my case is her greatest success story. From having panic attacks that keep me up all night to stopping them when they start, from being silent to being talkative, from feeling constantly pressured and afraid to appreciating every moment. Anxiety disorders are constant factors that never go away, and I feel very fortunate to be where I am today. It’s an ongoing struggle, but now I have the tools to work through it.