Arnel Reynon illustration
I realize now that my diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder — one type of anxiety-related disorder — shouldn't have surprised me. After all, I had been trapped in New York City on Sept. 11; lost my coveted job as part of a hostile merger two years later; and, way before then, padlocked the memories of a violent childhood into the recesses of my subconscious, or so I'd thought. One evening in May 2004, I was reflecting on my mother's premature death, which triggered a panic attack — although I didn't know it at the time.
As I headed to the emergency room that night, I thought I was suffering from an allergic reaction or having an asthma or heart attack. I was hyperventilating, had hives (mimicking my severe allergic reaction to nuts) and felt pain in my left shoulder. Trusting my self-diagnosis after concluding that my heart was fine, the ER doctor gave me a hefty dose of Prednisone (designed to reduce symptoms related to allergic reactions). I'd taken the drug before, never paying attention to the serious psychological side effects it can cause. About seven days into my 12 days on the drug, I started feeling afraid, it seemed, of everything. My doctors explained that my amygdala (the emotional command center in the brain) was suffering from a serotonin imbalance. After going from doctor to doctor during a two-month period, I eventually was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and ultimately pursued psychiatric counseling.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that anxiety disorders affect about 40 million American adults in any given year. "Women are twice as often diagnosed with panic disorder and three times more likely to suffer from agoraphobia," says Dr. Roxann Roberson-Nay, director of a current NIMH-funded research study at Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Medicine that is exploring the genetic link between those who suffer from anxiety disorders and their children. "The other disorder where you really start to see gender differences is generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)," she adds. Individuals who suffer from GAD have persistent, excessive and unrealistic worry about everyday things, according to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America; GAD affects about twice as many women as men.
Women often reach out to their primary-care physicians as first responders in seeking treatment. "We are seeing more patients for anxiety," says Dr. Danny Felty of Chippenham Family Medicine. When helping his patients, Felty prescribes a combination of physical, mental and spiritual goals as part of his wellness approach. He recommends getting good rest and plenty of exercise, while also establishing boundaries with caffeine, refined sugars and alcohol. He also encourages his patients to be more aware of their mental and spiritual health by monitoring intake of negative news, seeking fellowship and knowing their beliefs, as he calls it. "Be engaged in that process and in developing your faith life," he says.
Gynecologists and obstetricians also are on the front lines of helping women manage their anxiety. Dr. Warren Broocker, a partner with Virginia Physicians for Women, notes that anxiety can be linked to hormonal imbalances affecting women, especially during pregnancy, after giving birth, and during perimenopause or the full onset of menopause. "A combination of things brings on anxiety, and we don't always know why," Broocker says. "I do see an increase in women willing to discuss it. They should not be afraid to talk about it because there are valid treatments available that will make them feel better."
Talking about anxiety symptoms may be the first step toward relief. "Anxiety is your body's alarm system telling you something isn't right," says Catherine Thorne, a licensed clinical social worker affiliated with Tucker Psychiatric Clinic. "When someone is dealing with anxiety, they're often dealing with fear. The role of the therapist is to help them face their fear."
Especially during these anxious times for our country, I'm grateful I've faced my deepest fears while learning how to live with my anxiety-related diagnosis. I now have a better understanding of what my triggers are and how to strive for mindful balance in my life. I've learned to live in the present, and I have filled my personal toolbox with everything I need to get me through whatever comes my way.