I was with my 6-year-old daughter, playing her favorite game—pretending we’re sisters—and I kept messing up. “No, Mama. You’re Lindsey and I’m Chloe,” my daughter said after I had mixed up the names of our characters for the fourth time.
The thing was, my mind was not on the game. It was not on my daughter.
Instead, my mind was filled with thoughts like these: My husband had been quiet that morning before he left for work. Was he mad at me? Was our marriage in trouble? How were we going to pay for college? Was that tingling I felt in my leg the sign of some horrible illness? Did I have multiple sclerosis? I hadn’t heard from my friend Ianthe in a while. Was she OK? The worry bounced from topic to topic. And it almost completely blocked out the present moment: me on the floor of my daughter’s pink bedroom, my little girl just wanting to play.
One thing became clear to me: My anxiety was out of control. And it was time to do something about it.
Anxiety is a normal human emotion. And a certain amount of it is actually a good thing. It motivates us to study for tests, prepare for presentations and save for retirement. But anxiety becomes a disorder when it causes “clinically significant distress or impairment” in functioning, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the reference guide that mental health professionals use for diagnosis. Anxiety disorders have become the most common mental health issue in the country. One in 3 Americans—and 40 percent of women—will have an anxiety disorder at some point during their lifetime. Anxiety disorders come in many different flavors, from social anxiety disorder to panic disorder to generalized anxiety disorder, which is characterized by overwhelming worry.
Even before that pivotal moment playing with my daughter, there had been other signs that I needed to address my anxiety. I was having panic attacks, my heart racing, my whole body filled with a feeling of overwhelming doom. I was getting frantic about my health and spent too much time on Google, researching various symptoms. I had even called my doctor after reading online about the actress Valerie Harper’s cancer, thinking that, because I got dizzy sometimes, I might have it too. I was rejecting invitations from friends and didn’t even seem to have the energy to respond to texts or phone calls. Anxiety was making me feel so shaky, so tired and so inept that even that tiny effort had become overwhelming.
Worse, I knew what could happen if I gave anxiety control over me. I’d struggled with it since I was a sophomore in college. Back then, a bout of panic disorder forced me to skip my final exams and drop classes. Before I was finally diagnosed and treated, I spent more than a month on the sofa in my parents’ home, nearly immobilized by fear.
Although it was painful to admit, I knew I had to stop pretending I was OK and get back into treatment. Therapy, medication and adopting healthier habits had worked for me in the past. I got a recommendation for a psychiatrist, who put me on a low dose of Lexapro. I also began weekly sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). My therapist had me write down my irrational fears: that I had a terrible disease like ALS, that I was having a stroke, that my anxiety would irreparably damage my daughter. Then, I wrote down the evidence that these thoughts were likely false. (All the results from medical tests had come back normal, for example.) This is known as cognitive reappraisal. I was also given relaxation and breathing exercises. (Mindfulness practices, including meditation, are increasingly being used to treat anxiety disorders, and scientific studies have found that they significantly reduce symptoms in patients with anxiety disorders.) I compiled lists of things that made me happy—reading to my daughter, calling a friend—and picked one to do when the worries surged.
I also redoubled my efforts to get enough sleep and exercise. There’s a growing body of research showing that getting too little sleep can fuel anxiety. Some studies have found that difficulty sleeping is a precursor to a bout of anxiety or depression. And depressed or anxious people who sleep too much (10 hours of more) or too little (six hours or less) are at greater risk of having more chronic illnesses. As for exercise, studies show it is modestly effective at reducing anxiety symptoms. Some scientists have pointed to exercise’s ability to boost brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein important for maintaining mood, that is sometimes reduced in people with anxiety disorders. And it’s even better to get that exercise in a park. Spending time in nature can reduce stress, improve cognition and calm anxiety. Researchers at Stanford University had two groups of people take a walk: One group walked in a park, the other along a busy street. Those who walked in the park had decreased anxiety after their stroll.
So, I made sure I got my eight hours of sleep and took walks in the park. And, while I’m not a big fan of running or lifting weights, I do love yoga. Although I didn’t always have the time to schlep to a studio for an hour session, I found 15 minutes to do a quick online yoga class. There’s scientific evidence that yoga, in particular, is helpful for anxiety. In a 2016 meta-analysis of 17 studies, yoga was found to have a “medium effect” on anxiety symptoms.
Over the years, I’ve also found that anything I can do to ground myself in the present moment also helps to keep anxiety at bay. Even dusting or scrubbing toilets (!) can quiet my worrying. But baking is one of my favorite soothing activities. I love the tactile pleasure of kneading flour into butter. The focus, but also the slight mindlessness, of following a recipe. The wonderful alchemy of transforming a collection of ingredients into a pie or cake.
A few months after that fateful day playing with my daughter—after the medication, the CBT, the renewed commitment to sleep and yoga—we were pretending once again to be sisters. But, this time, my mind was right where I wanted it to be—in that pink bedroom with my little girl.
Andrea Petersen is the author of On Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety.