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My (Unexpected) Battle with Social Anxiety

December 26, 2019

The author of this blog post is a patient at Psychiatric Associates. She asked to write this post in the hopes of helping others. We've concealed her identity to protect her privacy.

I didn’t realize it for years, but I’ve had social anxiety since I was a child—from feeling nervous in groups to absolutely dreading presentations in front of the class.

But I was still a pretty outgoing person otherwise, and that “nervousness” was manageable through my teens and early adulthood. Besides, going to a psychiatrist or therapist just wasn’t something that was even considered by most people at the time—at least not in my Iowa hometown.

Then I turned 40. I don’t know if it was a hormonal change or what, but my anxiety went from a rare annoyance to a personal and professional meltdown. 

It started with a meeting for work. There were about 10 of us at a large table, and I kicked off the meeting. As I felt everyone looking at me, my heart started to race. Then I began to sweat and lose track of my thoughts. I knew if I didn’t get out of there immediately, I was going to faint.  

I muttered something about a “health condition” and stumbled out of the room. It was incredibly embarrassing and more than a little worrying. (Looking back, I now know I had a panic attack. But that didn’t even occur to me at the time.)  

That event started a slow but vicious spiral. Within a year, the same thing happened again. Not surprisingly, I became terrified of any kind of meeting. I wasn’t really scared of the meetings themselves but of the anxiety and the embarrassing situations that could unfold. I was having anxiety about my anxiety, in other words. 

When things got so bad that I couldn’t even go out to dinner with close friends or hang out at a tailgater, I knew it was time to do something. A friend told me about Psychiatric Associates, so I made the call. 

Seeing a psychiatrist for the first time

I met with Dr. Todd VerHoef at Psychiatric Associates. He asked me a lot of questions and listened to what I’d been experiencing. 

When he told me about social anxiety, it was incredibly reassuring. It was a huge relief to not only put a name to what was happening but also to know that social anxiety is very common. 

Anti-anxiety medication

Dr. VerHoef recommended a low dose of an anti-anxiety/anti-depression medication. He explained that anxiety and depression often go hand-in-hand, so medication that treats depression often helps with anxiety, and vice versa. 

Initially, I didn’t like the idea of a psychiatric medication. (I don't like taking medications of any kind, to be honest.) Because this drug was supposed to help with anxiety, I thought I’d feel drunk or drugged. 

But Dr. VerHoef explained that this kind of medication (a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, or SSRI) doesn’t work that way. SSRIs increase serotonin levels in the brain. (Serotonin is a neurotransmitter—it carries signals between brain nerve cells, or neurons.) The medication increases the amount of serotonin in the brain by blocking the neurons’ ability to reabsorb serotonin. That way, more serotonin is there to transmit messages between the neurons. 

To be honest, I still don’t completely understand how that whole process helps with my anxiety. But it does.  

At first, I didn’t feel any different at all on the medication. But over the course of three or four weeks, I could feel anxiety’s grip on me start to loosen. And I didn’t feel drunk or loopy. I just felt “normal.”  

Within a couple of months (and with the help of some relaxation techniques), I felt immeasurably better. I didn't notice any side effects of the medication. I just felt like me—but with a lot less anxiety.  

Don’t put off getting help 

It seems very sad to me that so many of us suffer from mental health issues that are—in many cases, at least—easily fixed. But because we don’t generally talk about mental health like we do physical health, no one knows how to go about getting help.  

I’m not saying that anyone with anxiety or depression should be on medication. What I am saying is that anyone with anxiety or depression should get help—whether it’s from a psychiatrist or a therapist (or both). There are lots of ways to treat mental health problems, and medication is just one of the options. 

In fact, my only regret with all of this is that I let it go on so long. That’s why when my friends and family members share their mental health struggles (or those of their kids or spouses), I tell them my story and encourage them to get help. And it’s why I offered to write this blog post. I hope it’s helpful to someone.