Note: The following is a personal story and is not meant to be taken as medical advice. Always consult your own doctor for any physical and mental health symptoms you may be having.
While the pandemic may have been declared over, like countless people and moms especially, COVID has left its mark on me. It’s a long story that I will boil down to this: last fall, I developed sudden and mysterious symptoms that included severe headaches anytime I moved my head, pounding in my ears that drowned out all other sounds, confusion, and several instances of half of my body going completely numb. Countless tests and doctor visits later, no one has really had an answer, aside from the ol’ standby that’s quickly becoming a new medical norm: long COVID.
Alongside the strange physical symptoms, my suspected case of long COVID also brought a most unwelcome sidekick along for the ride: anxiety. I’ve never dealt with anxiety this extreme before, but my new norm has included panic attacks, hypnic jerks (that thing when you’re falling asleep and your body jolts you awake) so severe I can’t sleep, feeling like my heart is racing 1,000 miles a minute, obsessive thoughts, and even actual vision changes. My anxiety has manifested in severe health anxiety, so I find one small symptom, like twitching, or forgetting a word, and fall into a deep spiral that I immediately have a horrible disease. In the last eight months, I’ve fully believed I have had mixed connective tissue disease, MS, ALS, Parkinson’s (I watched Back to the Future), dementia, POTS, dysautonomia, and at one point, a shoulder tumor.
The truth is, there very well could still be an underlying physical problem going on with me, but anxiety is terrible because it makes you doubt yourself—you don’t know what symptoms could be the sign of something deeper and terrible and what symptoms are actually the result of your underlying anxiety. It makes you feel not-listened-to by doctors, makes you forget words so you think you have dementia (another reason to panic), and makes you feel inadequate in every capacity of life. I’ve felt shame for not being able to just “snap” out of it, panic because I know darn well that stress and anxiety can actually contribute to the very health symptoms I’m worried about (like Alzheimer’s, neurological conditions, and MS) – which only makes me have more stress and anxiety – and guilt when so many people have it so much worse.
Managing my anxiety has been a long, long journey that I’m still working on—I actually had a relapse and two back-to-back panic attacks this weekend as I worked on this post— but I have found some things that have consistently been helping. If you’re a mom with anxiety, and especially health anxiety, let me first just say that you are not alone, it’s a terrible and very real disorder, and you should have no shame in reaching out for help.
I am a planner type (and yes, I recognize that association with anxiety!), so if you’re the same way, here are some super practical things I have found to help with my anxiety. (And as a reminder, always get yourself checked by an actual doctor as a first step!)
1. Following Mental Health Accounts
Yes, following mental health accounts on social media can be a slippery slope, but some have really, really helped me. For instance, following accounts or even influencers that are open about their own mental health struggles helped me take the first step I needed to seek help. Follow your instincts here and don’t replace seeing an actual mental health professional with Instagram.
2. Avoiding All Facebook Groups For Physical Symptoms
If you have health anxiety, believe me when I say I know how hard this is, but please, just don’t go there. It will not help and it will only lead you down a terrible rabbit hole. Talk to your doctor, get in therapy, and manage your anxiety before you try to diagnose your own symptoms online. I realize how hard this can be if you have a doctor that doesn’t want to help you, but everyone is so individualized, so “support groups” can be very dangerous until your anxiety is managed.
I struggled with this for a very long time, but finally found a primary care provider I trust with everything, so the search is worth it. There are so many barriers to accessing primary care in our healthcare system, but if you can, keep searching for a doctor who will be in your corner.
3. Taking Ashwagandha Supplements
In general, your best nutrition bet is to get your vitamins and minerals from your food, but I have found that taking regular Ashwagandha supplements have been a game-changer for me. (Side note: I take these specific ones and have found other brands to be ineffective.) The key to these, for me, has been to take them consistently.
When I have started to feel better and stopped taking them, like clockwork, the anxiety creeps back in and it takes me weeks to get back to where I was. Ashwagandha supplements are also clinically associated with stress and anxiety symptom reduction so as long as your doctor approves, keep a schedule for these if you try them!
4. Trying Medication
After trying many holistic strategies to manage my anxiety, but still having a relapse (see: panic attacks this weekend), I decided to try Lexapro, an anti-anxiety medication. In general, I’ve been terrified of medications my whole life, but understanding that many people with anxiety are also usually very anxious to try medications helped me realize that I am not alone.
My doctor and I decided on a small dose of 5mg daily to start—it’s only been one week and so far, I have tolerated the medication decently. I feel a bit nauseous and have had some dizziness, but I am so proud of myself for trying medication. It’s just one more tool I feel I have at my disposal now.
5. Cutting Out Alcohol
I’m not a huge drinker to begin with, but even one glass of wine seems to make my nighttime symptoms worse. Turns out, although alcohol is a depressant initially in the body, it can actually cause the opposite effect in some people with anxiety, because your body will try to counteract the depressant effect by stimulating your nervous system.
This can ultimately cause things like disrupted sleep and yup, you guessed it—increased anxiety symptoms. Everyone is different and I do have hopes that once my anxiety is better managed, I can enjoy a good glass of wine again, but for now, it’s water and herbal tea only for me, thanks.
6. Cutting Down Caffeine
A moment of silence as you process this and let me just say: This one pains me to no degree because I am very cliche of moms who love coffee, but limiting myself to one cup a day or switching to decaf on high-anxiety days does help tremendously.
7. Reading at Night Instead Of Scrolling on My Phone
Again, this one is no fun because I 100% use scrolling as a distraction and coping mechanism at the end of the day, so it begrudges me to say that switching to an actual, real, physical book and reading at night has made a huge difference. Sometimes, my phone is all I can manage, so I don’t beat myself up for not being perfect, but making an effort to decrease my nighttime phone use is so important.
8. Online Therapy
Turns out, not all therapists are built alike and after trying two in the past, that by comparison now, were completely unprofessional, I realize how helpful an actual professional therapist you fit with can be. Without experience, I had no idea what therapists were “supposed” to do, but now that I know, allow me to say that if you are feeling worse through therapy, get a new therapist. They are people too and not everyone will be a good fit. But I can honestly say that therapy right now has saved my life.
9. Changing Up My Exercise Routine
Exercise has always been a huge part of my mental health and without it, I feel even worse. But I also have tended to lean towards high-intensity, brutal types of workouts like weightlifting and HIIT. As you may guess, that type of exercise can be hard on your body when you’re already in a state of high stress and inflammation, so I’ve definitely found that incorporating more gentle forms of movement, like walking and yoga, to be incredibly helpful. Pop in a podcast and walk a few miles and I’m almost a normal person. (Almost.)
10. Being Honest About My Struggles
This one is huge for me. Honestly, just writing this post is the first time I’ve shared anything publicly about my mental health. I tried to hide how I was feeling for a long time, but recently, I realized that I can’t do this alone—and that’s okay. I’ve always been a high-functioning, hyper-independent type (as many high-achieving moms with anxiety are!), but falling to the very bottom mentally has shown me that it really is okay to lean on others to heal. I’ve admitted my struggles to my family, to my husband, to my doctor, to a therapist, to a naturopathic, to a massage therapist, to my gym trainer and now to you, the great people of the Internet.
I’m a mom with massive health anxiety that’s affected my ability to function. I’ve convinced myself I had various diseases, I’ve had panic attacks to the point I couldn’t breathe, I’ve imagined my future locked away in a nursing home so vividly I sobbed, and even as I write this, I’m not fully convinced I don’t actually have Parkinson’s disease.
I am not okay at the moment. But I am learning every day, to truly take life day-by-day, and in not being okay, I hope I can let other moms who are going through similar struggles know that they are not alone.
We might not be okay, but we can be okay with not being okay—because we’re truly in this together.
Have you found anything to be helpful with managing your anxiety? I’d love to hear!