Is there a cure to anxiety, or can you only hope to spend a lifetime coping with it?
After many years of dealing with my own issues with anxiety, I’ve realized that the best way to cope with anxiety is to surround yourself with people who support your recovery. I’ve learned a lot about coping with anxiety by being with people who suffer from the same condition.
However, not all people agree with me. I’ve met specialists who believe that this practice can be detrimental to your mental health, that being surrounded by people who are just as much a victim of anxiety can lead to an overwhelming sense of despair and depression. There is some potential truth to that, however. But I firmly believe that if you surround yourself with other people who are making a conscious effort to get better, than they can only be an inspiration to you.
Although anxiety has taken a lot of things away from my life, my family and my friends; I’ve come to accept the fact that anxiety has also shaped me in a way that has only made me stronger than I ever was before. But if you had asked me years ago that I would be saying that now, I wouldn’t believe it myself.
I’ve been asked time and time again, how I’ve come to cure my anxiety: as if there was some magic pill or drug you could take to make it all go away. Unfortunately, it’s never that simple. A cure for anxiety disorder isn’t something that happens overnight. It’s something that is worked on for months, even years, with the constant fear of relapsing.
With that in mind, is a cure for anxiety really possible? Or is coping with anxiety the most you can hope for?… Read More
I’ve gone through all kinds of therapies and treatments in an effort to curb my anxiety disorder. For the longest time, a cure for my anxiety and panic attacks seemed completely out of reach. Nothing was working, and my condition seemed to be getting worse. It’s very common for anxiety sufferers to literally try every kind of treatment under the sun, only to find themselves disappointed and desperate at the end of the day. When something as strong as anxiety takes control of your life, it’s only normal to do everything within your power to get your life back.
However, a relapse into anxiety can be as potentially disheartening as failed treatment. And that’s exactly what my friend Margaret had felt after she slid back into an anxiety attack after four years without an incident.
The Fear of Relapsing into Anxiety and Panic
When I met Margaret, I was far beyond finding a “cure” for my own condition. And at the time I met her, I realized that her influence on me might’ve been more harmful than helpful. Initially, that wasn’t the case.
I first met Margaret in a small town café where she frequented. She enjoyed the quiet times in the afternoon there; where she could read a book and forget about the world for a moment. She spoke with jovial sincerity – not too enthusiastic to seem intrusive, but warm enough to make you feel comfortable. She was the farthest example from an anxiety sufferer than you could imagine.
Margaret was in her late forties when I met her, with three bright young children and a loving husband at her side. A therapist of mine had asked me to track her down because she was a clear case of someone who had managed to recover from anxiety disorder. If there was a cure for anxiety disorder, Margaret was it. And she was proud of it. Though most recovering anxiety sufferers keep their identities confidential (which made my quest to track them down more difficult than I had imagined), Margaret was happy and willing to share her experiences.
She had lived with the condition for the majority of her life, a fact that her husband had just come to accept as a part of her. But as their family grew, and her children got older, Margaret realized that she was being too much of a burden to her children and to her husband.
She decided to take proactive control of her life. She refused to continue playing the victim. And though she had given up on false claims of anxiety cures and panic attack treatments, she was willing to give them another shot. She had the husband and her children for support, and she wasn’t ready to let them down, no matter how long it took.
Like most sufferers of anxiety, Margaret tried everything. She tried drug therapy and natural therapy. She tried going back to therapy, and she tried going to support groups. But the difference was she was doing it for a second time. Margaret explained to me that the feeling was both new and familiar at the same time. There was a cautious optimism in going back to therapy, but there was also a nagging pessimism that reminded her that these treatments didn’t work the first time around.
But she kept at it, and held on to the support for her family.
At the time, I was envious of Margaret. I was envious that she had managed to jump that hurdle of her life – that she was “cured”, happy and “normal”. Talking to Margaret made everything look so easy; but she would be the first to admit that it wasn’t.
When I asked her what particular treatment or remedy helped her the most, she actually paused a bit – as if reviewing the long list of anxiety cures she had gone through – and looked up at me as if the answer had been there all along. When she looked up, she looked me straight in the eye and said:
It was Margaret’s honest answer; and there was neither a hint of irony or drama in her voice. She said it with a sureness that rose with sun each morning. Margaret explained that she had literally tried every single (legal) treatment she had heard of; but the major difference between this round of therapy and the last, is that her family was there to support her.
She wasn’t just driven by the need to better herself for her own sake, but now it was also for the sake of her family. She felt that their future was tied to her well-being, and that mindset kept her focused on the road to recovery. Like before, there were times of great difficulty. Margaret was candid enough to admit how her husband felt the brunt of her anxious backlashes; when at times, it felt as if their marriage wasn’t going to survive another anxiety attack. But it did. And the children were there by their mother’s side.
Unfortunately, Margaret’s plight didn’t end there; although I wish it had.
Margaret and I continued to stay in touch even after our initial meeting. Our conversation sparked a ray of hope in my life and suddenly I saw a light at the end of my dark and lonely tunnel. I simply needed to stay the path towards recovery. I needed to keep on track and not waver. I suddenly became more appreciative of the support group I had around me. I suddenly became more grateful for my family and friends. But my reliance on Margaret’s story only lasted for so long. There was a twist to her tale, and unfortunately, it wasn’t a happy one.
Margaret’s recovery from anxiety wasn’t absolute. I later received an e-mail informing me that Margaret suffered from a relapse. It had been over four years after her last recorded incident, and no more than six months since we had first met.
The hammer came down when Margaret’s husband had been laid off from his job. Margaret’s condition prevented her from taking up a working position that could match her husband’s income, and soon their family was in dire straights. Her children were in high school, and the bills weren’t getting any lower. Suddenly, without warning, Margaret broke down in the middle of dinner.
I never did find out the actual details of the attack, nor did I want to know. What was important, and what struck me the most, is that the ivory tower in which I held Margaret had come crashing down. Margaret was no longer the shining beacon of hope that I held at the back of my mind. She was no longer the light at the end of the tunnel. She was no longer the cure for anxiety that I had hoped for.
She was an illusion. And the painful part was that she had known it just as much as I did.
It took me some time to get in touch with Margaret again. It was my failing as a friend, I know, but it was also my fear as a sufferer of anxiety disorder. I felt that being around her – by the mere act of keeping in touch with her – would sorely influence my chances of recovery. Even worse, she was a grim reminder that all my efforts to get control of my life were hopeless.
This knowledge of Margaret’s relapse shook me to the core. It suddenly made everything uncertain. Cures to anxiety and panic disorders weren’t cures at all but temporary reprieves. It made me feel even more aware of living on “borrowed time”. It was as if my life were being lived on someone else’s terms, and my landlord was named “anxiety”. It is a notion that most people would find melodramatic at best, but for those of us who have suffered and are suffering from chronic anxiety disorders, it is a very real fear.
Suddenly, any kind of progress could be robbed without a moment’s notice. After years in recovery your whole life could tumble down in a single second. Whatever freedom we had from our own anxious fears was only an illusion.
For the longest time I struggled with Margaret’s relapse; probably just as much as she had. She was the shining beacon of hope that a cure for anxiety disorders was possible. But that wasn’t the case any more. Instead, I began to believe that there was no cure to what we had. It was like a demon that couldn’t be killed, and instead slept soundly waiting for the right moment to come back to haunt us.
News of Margaret’s relapse began to affect my own attempts at recovery. I began missing therapy sessions for reasons I believe were completely valid at the time. I began having anxiety and panic attacks more frequently than I had only a couple of months before. It was then that I realized how much power fear and anxiety had over me.
The fear of relapsing was so potently real in my mind; that I had begun to fear it long before I was even close to recovery. I felt myself slipping in deeper into my condition. I began pushing away my family and my friends; the very people Magaret had clung on to so dearly during her road to recovery.
But then, there was no road to recovery. Instead it was just an endless street looping in on itself taking you nowhere. That’s when I honestly believed that there was no cure to anxiety; and that we were all just waiting for the one, final anxiety attack that would unravel us forever.
However, that’s why my meeting with Leonard became such a huge influence to me.
Taking It One Day a Time
Unlike Margaret, who was surrounded by the support of her family, Leonard was the exact opposite. When I first met Leonard, he was divorced to his second wife. However, Leonard makes no illusions that the eventual deterioration of both his marriages was due to his acute social anxiety.
Also unlike Margaret, Leonard is soft spoken and unassuming. He is generally quiet and only begins to open up after finding a comfortable middle ground between the both of you. For the both of us, that middle ground wasn’t that hard to find. When Leonard discovered that I too suffered from a form of anxiety disorder, we connected in a way that foreigners connect in a distant land. We were strangers to each other, but in a very real sense, we were familiar.
Like most people who suffer from social anxiety, Leonard’s condition was passed off during his earlier years as an extreme shyness. However, the symptoms and manifestations of his anxiety began to worsen.
But like all people, Leonard still sought the companionship of others. Suffering from social anxiety doesn’t mean that you don’t want to be around people, but rather you want to be around specific people. Leonard enjoys the company of his close friends and relatives. They are few and far between, but it’s obvious to see a change in Leonard’s mood and demeanor as soon as he is with them.
In that sense, social anxiety is like a heightened sense of normal socialization. The average person will enjoy the company of close friends and family over people who are complete strangers. However, the manifestations of social anxiety are much more drastic than that of the average individual.
Leonard admits that most people believe that people who suffer from social anxiety aren’t able to maintain relationships. Though it is more difficult than normal, people like Leonard are completely capable of creating and maintaining strong meaningful relationships. A testament to this was Leonard’s former wives. He courted them and dated them as any other person, though he does admit that the slowness of the process was an effect of his social anxiety and not of his dating skills.
Having talked to Leonard myself, it’s not hard to imagine that Leonard could indeed carry on a marriage. He is attentive when you talk and has a quiet charm about him. He speaks in short, calculated sentences, but each one is weighted with the utmost sincerity.
Though Leonard made no attempt to hide his condition from his former wives, they believed it was a condition that could be overcome with time. It was something Leonard had believed as well. In a very real sense, Leonard had managed to prove himself right. Unfortunately, it came at the cost of two failed relationships.
Leonard admits that he had not made a big enough effort to overcome his social anxiety during his marriages. And it was only when the last one came to a close did he muster up the courage and confidence to really turn his life around.
It made it nearly impossible for him to attend social gatherings of any sort. Even birthdays and celebrations held in his honor could only have a very select number of guests, or else Leonard would find himself frozen in the middle of his own party.
However, after his second wife left Leonard, he took it as a sign to take control of his life. He decided that he no longer wanted to use his social anxiety as an excuse to failing at relationships. That decision didn’t come easy, however. Leonard admitted that he went through a long phase of depression after the collapse of his second marriage. He felt alone and hopeless, that he was incapable of loving or being loved because of his condition.
Talking to Leonard made me realize how anxiety and panic disorders can elicit some very powerful and universal feelings from people. It’s easy to feel powerless and alone when suffering from anxiety. Most anxiety sufferers believe that no one understands exactly what it feels like to suffer through a panic and anxiety episode, but hearing it described by another person puts everything into perspective. Leonard’s condition has forced him to live long stretches of his life in social seclusion; but this debilitating manifestation of his social anxiety has allowed me to connect to him in a way that I didn’t think was possible. Suddenly, there’s this sudden realization that there are other people out there that know what you are going through. And they too are looking for a way to free themselves from anxiety.
My meeting with Leonard was an insightful one. Despite his reserved and guarded disposition, he appeared well composed and fully in control. He admits that he is a very different person from who he once was in his previous marriages. He believes that had he been like this during his last marriage, he could’ve been a better husband to his wife. But Leonard doesn’t dwell in the past anymore. He has moved on from his divorce and looks to build a new life for himself. One of the things he explained to me is that coping with anxiety and panic is all about looking to the future. Dwelling on the past can only lead to more anxiety and fear.
However, when I asked Leonard on what he believes the cure for anxiety is, he looked at me squarely in the eye and told me to simply to take it one day a time.
He corrected my belief that cures are a treatment you undergo in steps. Instead, the road to recovery isn’t something that’s paid for in installments. Every single day is a payment in full, and you have to be ready to give it your all when the sun rises.
Coping with a condition like anxiety disorder requires constant vigilance. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by looking at a cure as the end product of your ordeal. Leonard instilled something in me that I won’t soon forget. People believe that anxiety disorders are like sicknesses in the truest sense. Like a flu or a fever, as soon as it’s gone, it’s gone for good until the next germ comes around.
But anxiety and panic disorders aren’t like that. It’s important to be able to maintain your composure through the entire ordeal. There is no “cure” in the strictest sense like a switch you get to turn on and off depending on how much medication you take. But it’s also important not to be overwhelmed by the entire thing.
Leonard began to take it slowly, waking up each day, seizing it as what it was. He didn’t care anymore about what his relationship would be like. He didn’t care what his friends, family or co-workers would think of him the next day. He was just living in the present; enjoying his life for what it was at that very second.
In that sense, a cure to anxiety disorders is like a maintenance medicine you take every day. But unlike a pill you just pop and forget about, this kind of recovery requires you to maintain your composure throughout the entire twenty four hours of each day. Leonard told me that it does seem exhausting at first, but that’s why it’s important to take it each day at a time. Don’t worry about how your life will pan out in a week, a month, or a year’s time. That ultimate trigger for social anxiety, he says, is when you begin to worry about the future.
When giving a speech to a large audience, or just a simple toast among friends, it becomes a source of anxiety when you worry about a moment that has yet to come to pass. Surely, it’s important to prepare ahead of time, but it’s no use ruining your life today for something that might happen tomorrow.
Leonard admits that he still fears being in large social gatherings and avoids public gestures such as speeches and toasts. However, he does admit that he has come a long way in to keeping his fears and anxieties in check.
Leonard has become a true inspiration for my road to recovery from anxiety. And though Leonard still finds himself anxious about going into crowds and meeting new people in public, he does manage to keep himself in check by allowing himself to live in the moment. In that sense, Leonard isn’t “cured of anxiety”. However, his way of coping with anxiety and panic is something of a mindset rather than a technique. Surely, he still does the traditional mantras and breathing exercises that many books and self-help programs promote, but on top of that, he has decided to accept the fact that his life is only lived through the present; something he wished he had grasped in his previous marriages.
Leonard still isn’t dating anyone new, although he has told me that he is taking his time with getting into another relationship. He is enjoying his time with his friends and his family, and slowly beginning to open himself up more easily to new people. He hopes to establish a lasting relationship with someone who is willing to accept him for who he is, but Leonard knows that in order to do that, he needs to be able to accept himself first.
Don’t Ruin Your Life, Change it for the Better
After meeting Margaret and Leonard, I realized that their personal experiences and insights have influenced my views on anxiety disorders; for better and for worse. They had different insights to offer, but that didn’t make either of them wrong or right, it just made me realize that a cure for anxiety disorder was different for everyone. Since there is no miracle drug to truly help cope with anxiety, it’s up to the sufferer to discover the best ways to manage, curb and eventually get rid of their anxiety.
However, by this point in my life, I was still very much a long way from recovering from my personal anxiety. I made it a point not to lose hope; and though I would find myself slipping back into my old ways and my old fears time and time again, I would always find the strength, confidence and inspiration to claw myself back again to find a cure for anxiety. That motivation to better myself was only concretized when I met Diane.
Diane was young career woman in her late twenties when she suffered from a nervous breakdown. Despite a shining career ahead of her, that came all crashing down on her when she found herself unable to cope with the pressures and stresses of her demanding, yet high-paying job. Although a few weeks sick leave was recommended, Diane never fully recovered in a way most people do. She was suddenly diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.
She began to notice all the symptoms that were never originally there: sudden palpitations of the heart, trembling hands, shortness of breath, uncontrollable sweating. Diane’s life changed forever; and to be honest, she isn’t quite sure if the trigger was her work.
Diane had been a magnet for stress all her life. She had always learned to take it in stride; and although the pressures of her demanding job would sometimes take a toll on her life, she always found a way to muscle through it. But then one day, it seemed to take control of her and never let go.
It’s long been documented that anxiety attacks normally come out of nowhere. Like a mental heart attack, it suddenly hits you like a freight train, and panic immediately begins to set in. Theirs is no prior warning; there are no smoke signals in the air. Suddenly, for the first time in your life, you are unable to breath and unable to think. You look for avenues of escape and you are suddenly, constantly, afraid of many things. Diane felt her life come crashing down before her eyes.
Like most sufferers of anxiety, Diane first sought the help of different pharmaceutical medications to help cure her anxiety. But those benefits were only short lived. Diane would eventually be forced to resign from her job as she found herself unable to get back the life she had once lived.
But I eventually met Diane in her late thirties, years after her first anxiety attack. She has come a long way since then, and like all the other people I have met, anxiety has also changed her life forever.
I met Diane on a ranch in the country, the farthest place from high stakes corporate world where she had first made a name for herself. She admitted to me that a place in the country was the farthest thing she had ever wanted when she was climbing the corporate ladder, but try as she might – life isn’t something you can easily plan.
Diane didn’t strike me as a corporate type, at all, in the same way that my first impressions of Leonard and Margaret didn’t seem to show off a deep-seated struggle with anxiety. Diane spoke with a calming yet authoritative tone. Her gestures were a mix of enthusiastically animated and overly fidgety.
She welcomed me into her home; which was a blend of all things new-age and natural. Diane had pretty much revamped her life, discarding many of the needs and wants born out of being in the corporate world. She admitted to me that after going through the depression of resigning from her job, losing her career, and feeling like she was starting from scratch, she realized that she had two distinct choices: ruin her life, or change it.
Most sufferers of anxiety cling on to their old life. They see recovery as being able to step back in time to be able to live the life they once had. And if they’ve been diagnosed with anxiety for as long as they can remember, they use the lives of “normal” people as a barometer of how theirs should go. In reality, a true cure for anxiety and panic disorders isn’t like that at all. You cannot help but be changed by your condition; much like how a cancer survivor is changed forever after their disease. It is a condition that not only shapes you physically, but mentally as well. Diane only began to take that insight to heart many years after she was diagnosed with anxiety disorder.
For Diane, the choice wasn’t as clear cut as it is now, she confessed. She fell into a slump, trying to get back the life anxiety had destroyed. But after years of being unable to live her life, she decided to take a new approach towards dealing and coping with anxiety. She began to make a list of what she felt was truly important to her. After losing her job, her career, and much of her income, she felt that she couldn’t lose anything else. But then she took note of those people who stuck by her during this terrible ordeal: her friends, her family. In a very real sense, Diane began to clean house.
Diane is now living a laid-back life. She has adopted a healthy, all-organic vegetarian lifestyle. She relies on natural teas and herbs as a sedative to calm her during the afternoons, and though she still becomes nervous when heading into the big city, she relies on breathing and visualization techniques to imagine herself back in her home in the country.
Diane’s transition to a more laid back life was not an easy one, but now she cannot imagine living her life any other way. She considers herself fully recovered from anxiety, although she knows that heading back to the corporate world would most likely set her off again. But she doesn’t see that as a problem at all. She is completely happy with where she is in her life now, and though anxiety has sent her spiraling down the worst years of her life, she now acknowledges that this kind of experience has directed her to living the life she was meant to live.
It was with Diane that I realized that as sufferers of anxiety, we feel like we don’t have control over our lives. But that is just an illusion of us being prisoners of ourselves. When anxiety sets in, we take account of all the things we have lost and all the opportunities we have missed. But instead of struggling to get her life back, Diane decided to make a new one for herself.
Diane realized that a cure to anxiety doesn’t lie in being able to live a “normal” life; it is in being able to live a “new” one; under your terms, under your control.
A Cure, or a Coping Mechanism for Anxiety?
My journey to recovering from anxiety would take many years after having met Margaret, Leonard and Diane.
I now believe that there is no “cure” for anxiety in the strictest sense. Once you’re diagnosed with anxiety, it changes you forever. That isn’t much different from being diagnosed with any other kind of dreaded disease. You can never be cured from cancer. The emotional and mental effects of cancer continue to linger. If you managed to stay healthy by eating healthy, you don’t suddenly drop back to eating junk food just because your cancer is in remission. Anxiety, I realize, works in the same way. There is no pill you can pop, or drug you can take to cure yourself from anxiety. It is being constantly vigilant in making sure that anxiety doesn’t take control of your life.
But does that mean that you are only coping with anxiety and not curing it? I believe that “coping” with anxiety is a misleading term. It assumes that you are settling for something less; that you are leading a lower quality form of life. But that is not true at all. Diane has proven to me that you can live a changed life for the better. Her new way of life is not “coping” at all. It is living.
I’ve learned from Magaret, however, that you cannot let your guard down even if you’ve recovered from anxiety for years. You still need to rely on your support group; and you still need to have a watchful eye on the life you lead.
I’ve learned from Leonard that you also need to take everything one step, one day a time. Don’t overwhelm yourself by rushing ahead towards a cure. It doesn’t work that way. Every day is a decision to get better, and you have to live in that decision – as part of the present.
In a nutshell, I believe that there is a cure for anxiety. I’d like to think that I am a testament as well. But a huge part of it is coping with your condition by accepting a new way of life, a new way of thinking, supported by the people around you, every single day.