This post is all about the third of the 50 anxiety management strategies I wrote about in my last post: MEDICATION. Like the previous two strategies I wrote about, sleep and exercise, medication is a prevention method.
It took a long time for me to decide I wanted to try using medication for my anxiety, and that fact is strange and surprising to me.
I’ve never had an aversion to medication, aside from the fact that it does cause me some anxiety that I am on a number of regular meds (more on that later). I’ve always had people in my family who need daily medication to stay healthy. My dad has been on thyroid medication since I was really little (and now so am I and my mom, surprise). I even have a friend who’s been on antidepressants since we were in middle school, and that’s always just been a fact, not something to have a negative opinion about.
I’ve also seen many people in my life profit from taking medication for mental illness(es).
Not Cynical About Medication’s Effectiveness
I’ve also never been a skeptic about the effectiveness of drugs. My mom is a pharmacist, so I’ve always had a pretty pragmatic view of medication. As a person with chronic migraines, Advil has been my friend since I was old enough to take it. I also have exercise asthma which my inhaler works wonders on, and bad acid reflux that Zantac treats magically.
Clearly, I’m on a lot of meds. At one point in my life, I was taking four pills at night and one in the morning. Chronic conditions tend to do that to you. I’ve got hypothyroidism (under active thyroid), chronic migraines, anxiety, asthma, seasonal allergies, environmental allergies, and eczema (asthma, allergies, and eczema are a trifecta that often come in a package deal). I also took birth control for a decade. That’s probably a long enough story for an entire other post. For the sake of this argument, it was just another daily pill requirement.
So why did I feel like medication for my anxiety was not for me?
Reflections on Medications
Taking all these meds has recently become a cause of a lot of my anxiety. There’s got to be something I can do to cut the number of health problems I have, right? I don’t want to be shackled to meds my whole life. Unfortunately, genetics has a lot to do with it. However, since I’ve had years to track and observe my conditions and their responses to different events and stressors, I’ve made some reflections recently.
Thyroid meds are for life. I’ve accepted that. And it’s easy to do, because the pill is replacement therapy. It literally gives you what you don’t have. Wham bam, thank you ma’am. No side effects, nothing. With the pill, I have normal thyroid levels. Without it, I don’t. I fall asleep standing up and my hair falls out. No brainer. The only mild annoyance to do with having hypothyroidism is the once yearly blood test to make sure my dosage remains correct.
Things That Have Changed
Birth control is not forever. It also has a ton of side effects. So recently, I quit. More on that in that later post I mentioned earlier.
I also used to take preventative migraine medications. They stopped being effective, so I stopped taking them. The side effects of those were fatigue (solved that by taking them at night before bed) and dry mouth. Annoying, but no solution to that. Turns out the migraine prevention meds I was on were actually also used as an antidepressant, so when I quit those without the guidance of a doctor (again, it’s a long story that I CAUTION AGAINST) I had major withdrawal symptoms for a few days. Again, DO NOT RECOMMEND.
Also recently came down with stomach problems that I was taking daily meds for. They stopped working, so I stopped them. Thankfully, no side effects from stopping those, but my stomach still isn’t better. More tests upcoming.
What I’m getting at is this idea that once you’re on a lot of different meds with a lot of different side effects and possible interactions, it can start to feel like maybe some of them are actually doing you more harm than good. Which I think is one of the reasons I was hesitant to go on medication for my anxiety. I didn’t want to add to the already difficult and sometimes harmful cocktail I was already consuming.
Myth: Taking Medication is “Giving Up”
Another reason I think I was hesitant to go on medication for anxiety was the feeling that I’d given up, or failed. That sentiment is perpetuated by the toxic mental health culture that has persisted for years (but is fortunately fading with time and effort). This culture is maintained mostly by people without mental illness who say things like “Just calm down” or “just smile,” as if it’s that simple.
I felt like if I had to go on medication, I just wasn’t trying hard enough in therapy, or with my CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), or with my self-care (exercise, sleep hygiene, etc.). Which is totally not true.
Sometimes these things are not enough. I was seeing a counsellor for about 8 months before I decided I wanted to try medication, and that decision was made completely independently of the opinion of my counsellor or anyone else. I did yoga, learned and practiced meditation, exercised, worked on my sleep hygiene, journaled, ate a healthier diet… all of those things helped me. But I still felt like anxiety was running my life more than I wanted it to. Deciding to try medication was not giving up. It was just adding another thing to my list of management strategies.
Medication Benefits I’ve Experienced
The first major benefit I’ve experienced is, obviously, a reduction in my anxiety. It’s hard to describe. I still have anxiety. Medication is not a cure, like antibiotics are when you have a nasty infection. But they do help me.
I like to think of people as operating on different frequencies. Unmedicated, my frequency is very high. This manifests itself both mentally and physically. Mentally, I have a hard time thinking things through before I react, controlling my emotions (lots of irrational anger and tears), I’m constantly dwelling on things, and I worry about everything, all the time. Physically, I often have headaches, digestive issues, tenseness in my neck and upper back, shaky hands, and a knot high in my stomach that never goes away.
Medicated, my frequency is several notches lower. I’m able to process things that annoy me without reacting with anger. I don’t cry much. I can control my emotions more easily.The dwelling still happens, but I find it easier to stop those thoughts using CBT or ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy). The same goes for my worries. I find it easier to tell my brain to stop worrying about things when those worries come up. I have fewer headaches and digestive issues, and consequently less muscle pain. It’s really hard to get rid of the knot in my stomach, but it’s not as bad.
I tell more jokes. Overall, I’m more relaxed. I’m definitely happier.
I also have far less frequent panic attacks. I think I’ve only had a couple since starting the meds, when they used to be weekly or so. It’s still a struggle with things like going to the grocery store (I’m sure I’ll do a post about that in the future), but overall life in general is much easier and less stressful. It’s great!
Ways to use Medication as Self-Care:
- Take them! Consistency is key. It can take up to 4-6 weeks for SSRIs to take effect, so it’s important to continue to take them every day even if you don’t notice much change at first. It’s also good to have someone who is in your life regularly actively paying attention to how you’re doing when you start meds. Andrew noticed a change in me long before I recognized it myself.
- Also, take other meds when you need them. There’s no need to suffer without providing relief when you’re able to (headaches, acid reflux, etc.). Medication is not failure.
- Regularly follow-up with your psychiatrist or physician, whoever is providing you with your prescription. They can help you manage things like side-effects, will know if it is a good idea to change dosage, and will be able to help you if you think you need to change medication or stop.
In that vein, next I’m going to talk about a few things that you might find a bit difficult when transitioning to taking meds for a mental health disorder.
Everyone goes about it differently in the medical profession. Some doctors will prescribe medication without much conversation with you, while others will want to do what I would call a mini therapy session each time you go for a follow-up and refill.
You could also see a psychiatrist and get therapy from the person who prescribes your medication. Personally, I get my prescription from my family doctor, and see a certified counsellor for therapy. It’s all very individual.
Coming off the Meds
First thing’s first, this might never happen. Just like my thyroid medication, I might be on an SSRI for life. And that’s okay.
However, there is the possibility that I won’t need them anymore at some point in my life. I am hopeful that will be the case (again, see my not liking being shackled to medications).
There is a withdrawal process for medications like these, so it is important to make sure you are conferring with your physician or psychiatrist if you are planning to lower your dosage or stop taking your medication entirely. As I said earlier, I stupidly took myself off a preventative migraine medication that also happened to be an SSRI cold turkey, and it was not pleasant. Consult a medical professional.
Other People’s Opinions
This isn’t something that I’ve ever experienced first-hand, but I’ve touched on this already – there’s a lot of stigma related to medication for mental illnesses. Many people think that mental illnesses are not something that should be medicated. But really, it should be looked at as something just like my thyroid problem. It’s a chemical imbalance in a person’s brain than can be rectified using medication, just like my under active thyroid gland can be supplemented to normal levels by meds.
Finding the Right Medication for You
Finding what’s right for you can be an arduous and stressful process (and is definitely long). Fortunately for me, the first one my doctor decided to try me on worked really well. But there are many SSRIs out there, and they all can have different effects and side-effects on different people. The same medication could make one person with depression start having suicidal thoughts, and another person with depression feel like an entirely new person.
Also, these medications tend to take a long time to come into full effect (like I said, up to 4-6 weeks), so it is a long process before you even know if a given medication will be at all effective for you. Then if it’s not, you’ve got to slowly come off it and start the process again with something else.
The same goes for if you’re experiencing negative side effects. I’m taking Cipralex, and a side effect that I experience is low libido. When I started taking it, this was small change in comparison to the amazing positive effects the medication was having for me, but after about 18 months, it’s getting kind of annoying. Now I have to start having the mental conversation about whether I want to try something else.
Also, I’ve noticed I almost never cry now. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. For one, most of the times that I used to cry were when I was having a panic attack. Obviously, I’m stoked that those panic attacks are incredibly rare now. However, I also don’t really cry at anything else, and at times I worry that the medication is somehow dampening my emotional reaction to things. This is a concern of a lot of people about medication for mental illness – that it changes who you are as a person, or makes you feel numb, so essentially, nothing at all.
I often wonder if that’s just what a “normal” person feels like – consistently less emotional. Now that I’m a lot more stable mentally, I find myself wondering what I would be like if I weren’t taking the meds anymore. It’s something my doctor has suggested we try in the next little while, so I’ll definitely post an update if that happens.
If there’s only one thing that comes across when you read this post, I hope it’s that this is really personal. Like all things to do with mental health, medication is a very individual issue. The decision to or not to medicate someone with a mental illness is up to that person and their medical professional. What is helpful for one person could be harmful to another. Some people will need a combination of medications to feel themselves, while others will only need one. Some people will need small doses, others large ones. And things can change over time, too. The most important things are to find what works for you, and to ignore the stigma. Do what works for you. Always.
Personally, I highly recommend that if you are on medication, you are also seeking counselling or therapy. I wouldn’t be doing nearly as well as I am now on medication if I didn’t also supplement that with monthly sessions with my counsellor.
I started taking medication after I’d been seeing a counsellor for almost a year. Counselling wasn’t enough for me, and medication made things miles better. But I definitely don’t consider the meds as a substitute for the progress that can be made (and has been made for me) through therapy.
If you’re struggling with your own medication journey, I wish you all the best. And feel free to ask me any questions you may have, and I’ll do my best to answer them!
Peace and love,