From Medication to Meditation: 11 Strategies for Managing Anxiety and Stress Without Prescription Drugs
According the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “an estimated 40 million American adults suffer from anxiety disorders.” Are you one of them? I was. I was what you might call an early bloomer. I had reached my adult height by the age of 10 and started getting my menstrual cycle by the age of 11. Right from the start I had wicked PMS with severe anxiety. By the time I was 30, I noticed the length of my PMS grew to the point that I would have PMS for 2 weeks or more, then have my period and then a week of almost feeling normal before the cycle would start all over again. Someone told me about taking B vitamins and I did that for a while, but it did not help enough.
Eventually I went to see my OB/GYN and she diagnosed me with PMDD (Premenstrual dysphoric disorder) and prescribed Zoloft. Zoloft was a miracle drug for me in the beginning! For the first time in my life I felt completely free of anxiety. Until that point, as bad as my anxiety had gotten, I had no idea the amount of anxiety I had felt on a daily basis for my entire life. Until I wasn’t feeling it anymore. I took Zoloft for maybe two years before one time when I went out of town to visit a friend for a few days and forgot to bring my Zoloft with me. I didn’t worry about it too much because I figured that I was feeling well enough that it wouldn’t hurt to be without it for a few days. I *was* fine for a few days, but by the third or fourth day I started feeling EXTREME anxiety. Every time I stood up I felt like I was getting electrocuted in my brain and I felt like I wanted to cry and/or scream all the time. I spent the day on my friend’s couch hoping it would pass, and when it didn’t, I decided to make the 4+ hour drive back home before it got any worse.
When I got home, I started doing some research and I discovered that what I was experiencing was withdrawal from Zoloft. It turns out that many people experience these symptoms when coming off of Zoloft. I hadn’t meant to stop taking my medication, but I didn’t know any better and didn’t understand the importance of continuing it. After figuring out that I was going through withdrawal, I further realized that my body was “addicted” to Zoloft. Not wanting to be addicted to anything, I made the decision that I didn’t want to take it anymore. I called my therapist and the prescribing psychiatrist (I had started therapy by then and had a psychiatrist prescribe for me instead of my OB/GYN). Both of them were angry with me for (unintentionally) going off of my medication without consulting them first. My therapist refused to talk to me again, and my psychiatrist had the same reaction. I set up an appointment with my psychiatrist and she told me that “You have an anxiety disorder and you will need to be on anti-anxiety medication for the rest of your life. You may as well get used to it.”
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All I wanted to know was, since I had unintentionally come off of Zoloft cold turkey, should I go back up to the dosage I was taking before (which was quite high at that point) and then taper from there, or should I go back to a lower dose and taper from that. She refused to help me and left me completely on my own to figure it out for myself. I had about a half bottle of Zoloft left, so I took a small amount every day and gradually decreased the amount and frequency. The indicator for me of when to take another dose was that I would feel the electrical zaps in my head and know I should take more. Eventually I was down to maybe a half tablet every four or five days. I was getting severely low in my supply and so decided I would have to just stop taking it and deal with the electrical zappies and hope that I didn’t experience them for the rest of my life. I did continue to get electrical zappies for several months, but they did diminish over time until I no longer experienced them.
*Let me be clear that I do NOT recommend tapering yourself off of ANY medication without medical supervision. I was lucky that I got through it because I didn’t have a choice (or felt like I didn’t at the time), but I do wish I had a medical professional to help me. It may have helped me to understand what was going on and perhaps do it more safely.
My anxiety never did get back to the intensity of before going on Zoloft and I was grateful that Zoloft got me through a period of severe anxiety, however, I never wanted to have to rely on anti-anxiety medication ever again. I started to look for ways to control my baseline anxiety without medication.
It’s been over 10 years since I’ve taken anti-anxiety medication and so I wanted to share some of the strategies I’ve learned along the way that help me to remain medication-free.
Journaling: Writing down what I’m feeling and about daily challenges helps to get these things out of my head and onto paper where they have a beginning and and end and don’t have to continue to take up space in my head so I can sleep soundly.
Gratitude List: I’ve done this differently at different times in my life. I’ve done it at the beginning of the day and at the end of the day. I’ve done 5 things I’m grateful for daily and 10 things I’m grateful for daily. I’ve done a free form list and a targeted list. At one time my targeted list was writing one thing each day that I was grateful for in various areas of my life. For example, I might write about one thing I’m grateful for in the following categories:
- My son
- My family (mom, etc…)
It’s up to you to decide what these categories are for you and these categories may change as your life changes. Some things will be easy and others may be a stretch. Both are helpful. The easy ones give you a starting point and the harder ones are areas that are perhaps difficult for you, but forcing yourself to find something to be grateful for can completely change the situation to the point that it becomes easy to find reasons to be grateful!
Meditation/Quiet Time: This is such a subtle way to reduce anxiety. Once you have a regular practice you won’t know how much it’s helping you until you don’t do it for even one day. Any time I’ve felt anxiety creeping back in while I was on a regular schedule of meditation/quiet time, I quickly realized that I had missed my meditation that morning. I’ve done as much as 30 minutes per day, which I think is a perfect amount, however even five minutes per day is really all you need to see a significant difference in anxiety levels. In college, I got a CD that is still my favorite guided meditation: Your Present: A Half-Hour of Peace: A Guided Imagery Meditation for Physical & Spiritual Wellness by Susie Mantell. It’s gotten me through some difficult situations in my life. When I listen to it at bedtime, I rarely get past 10 or 15 minutes before I’m out for the night. Very relaxing!
More about meditation: My friend Bruce Wayne McLellan has recently committed to helping 1,000,000 people have a daily practice of meditation. He’s doing this in several ways with his Everyday MindfulnessTM program. Every morning at 7 am he does a Facebook Live video and invites the world to meditate with him. He’s providing meditation classes locally and has a meditation group and guided meditation audio on the Insight Timer* app. I asked Bruce for a quote about meditation and he said, “Meditation is not about controlling thoughts and feelings, meditation is so our thoughts and feelings don’t control us.” When I asked him to elaborate on how meditation helps with anxiety, he said, “There are 75+ benefits that have been scientifically validated for regular meditation. Regular meditation is the key. The ancient yogis believed that the mind follows the breath. Science has validated that phenomenon. So, as I slow the breath, I slow down the thinking. If you’ve ever experienced anxiety, you’re probably familiar with the racing of thoughts. The reason I am committed to daily meditation on Facebook is so that many others may benefit from the 75+.”
*Get this App: The Insight Timer app, available for Apple or Android, is a helpful tool to stay on track with meditation. It motivates users by providing a worldwide community of meditators that support each other to meditate daily. You can connect with friends, time your meditation, find free guided meditations, join groups and track other meditation activities such as going for walk or doing yoga. You can earn milestones for consistently meditating and at the end of each meditation session you can see who else was meditating with you and thank them for meditating with you. You are also prompted at the end of each session to journal any insights you gained during your quiet time. It’s a brilliant way to keep you inspired to meditate and feel good about even one minute dedicated to this practice daily.
Therapy: So, I don’t go to that therapist from over 10 years ago anymore, and I didn’t go for a very long time after that, but I did start back with a great therapist about a year and a half ago. There is often a perceived stigma of seeing a therapist, as if there is something “wrong” with you if you choose to seek this type of help. My perception is that going to therapy is the sign of a healthy person. They may have some work to do, sure, but seeing a therapist means that they are doing the work to feel more comfortable in the world. Not many things are more healthy than that! For me, a therapist is like getting on the scale or looking in the mirror. It’s a way to have an unbiased person listen to me and reflect back what I wouldn’t naturally see so that I can become the best me.
Support Network: This is a BIG one for me! No matter what you are going through, there is a support group for that! Seriously. A group for everything! Facebook and Meetup have groups for every thing you can think of from support for solo parents to business networking to mom support groups to meditation and yoga groups. When I’m learning something new in my personal or professional life, I find a group that matches it. It’s also important to have friends and family that you can talk to about what’s currently going on in your life. If you don’t have these people in your life, refer to the info above about groups and make those connections there. A good therapist is also an invaluable member of any personal support network.
Eliminate the Negative: About six years ago I stopped watching the news. Like, I literally, NEVER watch the news. I wait until enough people are talking about an issue on Facebook before I might decide to go learn more online. I am a much happier person since I started doing this. As an extremely empathic person, watching the news on a daily basis is like poison to my soul and so I just don’t do it.
Affirmations: This may feel silly at first, but it’s a major part of anxiety reduction for me. I have certain phrases that I can repeat when I feel anxiety creeping in that help me to calm down. I may not believe a word of what I’m saying when I start, but after a while, I begin to believe the positive statement and can focus on moving forward with doing the next right thing.
Surround Yourself with Positive People: Here’s how to tell if someone is a positive or negative influence in your life. If while you’re near them you feel anxious, angry, tired, sad, or like you want to run away screaming, then they are probably a negative influence in your life. Be true to your instinct and RUN!!! If while your’e near them, you feel energized, happy, motivated, serene and like you wish the time with them would never end, then they are most definitely a positive influence in your life. Keep near these people, but the key is having just one is not enough. You have to surround yourself with positive people as much as possible. First of all, relying on one person for this is not fair to them. They are going to have a bad day, and then what? And that’s a lot of pressure to put on one person! So, find as many of these people as possible and soak it in! Soon (if you’re not already), you will become a positive influence for other people in your life and a calming presence for someone who needs that.
Quit Complaining: I once took a challenge to not complain for 21 days. What happened was that instead of complaining, I would catch myself and look for gratitude in the moment. My mind switched from looking for the negative to looking for the positive. Try it! If you complain one day, then start over until you get 21 consistent days of no complaining. It’s life changing!
Feed Your Brain: Watch motivating videos on your TV and online. Read positive articles and books. Listen to positive podcasts. Listen to uplifting music. Do this as much as you possibly can! I recently watched The Abundance Factor movie by Riley Dane and got a nugget from there that has inspired me to meditate every day for the past 24 days and to write this post today. In an interview with Bob Proctor in the movie, he had this to say (I’m paraphrasing here). “To change your life do these things everyday: When you wake up in the morning write down 10 things you’re grateful for, send love to 3 people that you’re having a problem with, and sit quietly for five minutes and ask for direction for your day.” I’ve been doing this for 24 days and I’ve noticed much more serenity in my life and an increase in my ability to focus and to stay positive even in the midst of a so-called negative situation.
Movement: This is perhaps the most difficult discipline for me to maintain, and it ALWAYS makes me feel better when I do. After a few significant injuries, I tend to shy away from physical activity, but I have found a few practices that work for me when I do them. Walking is meditative and gets my heart going. Yoga is also meditative and strengthens my body in a way that walking alone doesn’t do. I’ve found that doing 30 day challenges can be a great motivator to make it a daily practice and it’s time for me to do another one soon (want to join me?)! Yoga with Adrienne is a great way to start with her 30 Days of Yoga and REVOLUTION: 31 Days of Yoga challenges.
How do you handle anxiety? What methods have worked for you? What new thing are you going to try next?