Maybe you have been suffering from anxiety related problems for awhile. You have tried meditation, yoga, deep breathing techniques, exercise,and even supplements to help ease your anxiety. Therapy has helped some but despite all your efforts your anxiety persists. Medication is suggested and you balk at the idea. In fact, just thinking about taking an anti-anxiety medication makes you feel more anxious. So what is the answer? If the situation described above sounds familiar you are not alone.
I have always been wary of taking medications to treat my anxiety or depression due to biases I developed growing up. As a child I watched my mother, who has paranoid schizophrenia, take a wide array of pills, none of which seemed to really help her and often caused debilitating side effects. Yet if this was real life research, I was basing my whole premise on one case study.
As an adult I chose a career in mental health and ended up working for a mental hospital, coincidentally one where my mother had gone for treatment. It was through my many and varied clinical experiences that I witnessed how, in a lot of cases, medication can alleviate the symptoms of psychiatric disorders. And in some cases it was life transforming for not only the individual but for the person’s family as well.
In my personal life I would also find examples of how medication could cause life altering changes for the better. In a post I wrote for our depression site I discussed a group I joined for people who suffer from social anxiety. One of the leaders of the group described how he was extremely agoraphobic. He told us all the story of how he was once confined to him apartment out of fear. He relied upon his sister and other family members to help him by bringing him food and other essentials. In amazement I asked the question everyone wanted to know, "How did you overcome this?" It was evident that something had changed because here he was in a public place leading a group no less. This is when he confessed that therapy helped a lot but medication helped even more. It was the combination of the two treatments which gave him his life back.
In another example closer to home, I have witnessed the transformative power of medication for my son, Max, who has autism. When Max entered adolescence he began to suffer from extreme mood swings which would cause him to shift from angry tantrums to fits of sobbing. His mood was affecting every aspect of his life from his sleep to his ability to learn. Behavior modification was largely ineffective because his mood was not caused by his environment. He would literally wake up this way. This was biology at work. It took me over a year of deliberation before we took my son to a neurologist who prescribed a low dose of Prozac. I was amazed by the effects of this little pill to turn an irritable crying boy into a child who could more easily adapt and handle life’s frustrations. To see him smile again and enjoy the day lifted my mood as well. The medication was no miracle cure. Yes there were some side effects. But this was a decision I did not regret.
For every person who benefits from medication to treat their anxiety or depression, there may be an equal number or more who may see no benefit at all. There is also that possibility that the medication may even worsen your condition. In fact there are warnings on many antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications that you should look out for mood changes such as an increase in anxiety, depression, and fear. There may be warnings about a greater risk of suicidal behavior especially for children and teens who are given psychotropic drugs. There are also side effects to contend with, some are relatively minor and may not last long while others may be life threatening. There is also the risk of dependence for some medications and especially for the class of anti-anxiety drugs called benzodiazepines. The cost of medication may be a limiting factor for some, especially if you lack insurance. And let’s not forget withdrawal symptoms should you decide to wean off your medication. There is no doubt about it. There is a risk to taking medication to treat your anxiety or depression. But there may also be risks in allowing your anxiety to hold you hostage and rob you of enjoying your life. Medication is not a cure but it is one tool in our arsenal to help ease the symptoms of extreme anxiety.
All of these factors weighed in my mind when I finally asked my doctor about prescribing something to help with my extreme phobia of flying. Some of my family live far away and in order to see them I can only get their by car, train, or plane. Travel by car or rail takes time that I really don’t have. But travelling by plane affords me more time to spend with my family. I have used all the calming techniques in the book from positive imagery (I am gliding over hills in a sleigh instead of rocking in a plane thousands of feet off the ground due to turbulence) to chewing gum manically to expend my nervous energy. But I am still scared to death up there. My neurologist prescribed a low dose of xanax to take for such plane trips. She warned me of the possible side effects and the potential for dependency. I must admit that when I took that first pill I was fully expecting to turn into some whacked out version of bugs bunny alternating as jeckle and hyde. Needless to say I did not turn into some crazed monster or dope head. The pill simply allowed my mind and body to relax enough to stop the otherwise relentless flow of adrenaline and fear coursing through my veins. It helped me to survive the plane ride without needless suffering. In other words, the pill helped.
Twenty pills can easily last me six months. No dependency here. No horrible side effects. The medication simply offered me some relief from extreme anxiety due to a particular situation. I can now feel more at ease in flying and I get to see my family more often as a result.
Over the years due to all of these combined experiences, I have changed my perspective on medication to treat psychiatric symptoms. Medication is no panacea. It is not a cure. But in some situations it can help. It is one of our many choices in treating both anxiety and depression. For every action there is a risk. But there are also risks for not making choices. To take medication or not take medication is a very personal choice. Nobody can make it for you. Weigh your options carefully. Make a list of the pros and cons. But sometimes the only way you will know if something will work or not is to try it. Nobody can predict how a particular medication may or may not work for you. But isn’t it nice to have treatment choices?
We would love to hear from you. Are you a person who feels anxious at the thought of taking medication to treat your anxiety? What are your greatest fears? Has your experience with taking medication been mostly positive or negative? Please share your story here whether it is good, bad, or something in between. We can all learn from each other’s experiences. Thank you ahead of time for sharing yours.