I had taken my eight-year-old and his friends to the movies. After settling them in their seats, I went to get some popcorn. The line was long, and, as I waited, I wondered if the children were okay. There was a friend’s nanny, whom I knew, sitting with them so there wasn’t anything to fear, yet the thought that I needed to get back as soon as possible kept bothering me. By the time I returned with the popcorn, my heart was pounding in my chest.

I couldn’t understand why I felt the way I did but decided it was time to find out. I hadn’t been sleeping well for a few months. I had not been meditating and had stopped having tea and coffee in an effort to calm my mind, but thoughts continued to move at an unnatural pace. I then sought a psychiatrist’s help and was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder.

Anxiety that doesn’t overpower us is a part of life. Normally, an anxiety attack can last from a few minutes to a few days, depending on the situation, and then subside naturally. Anxiety is a normal reaction to situations like, but not limited to, exams, interviews, health, work, public speaking, finances, social situations, and performances of all kinds. It exists in both children and adults and can pop up in relation to just about anything. However, when the feelings of restlessness, nervousness or tension don’t subside and you have a strong desire to avoid the anxiety-provoking situation at all costs, with physical symptoms like diarrhoea, constipation or sleeplessness, it is time to seek help.

Sanjay Chugh, a psychiatrist with a private practice in New Delhi, says the brain uses electrical circuits and neurochemicals. It has a resilience circuit that helps us manage stress and challenging life events. “The desirable state for our brain is that of equilibrium. Our resilience circuit strives to keep our brain in equilibrium. Anxiety pulls us away from that state. Hence, any treatment for anxiety is grounded in strengthening the resilience circuit. Once it’s strengthened, regardless of the challenges faced, our brains can stay in equilibrium," he explains.

Fortunately, professional help is available. Both therapists or counsellors and psychiatrists can help depending on the severity of the situation and your level of comfort with either kind of professional. A counsellor or therapist will use talk therapy to build your resilience pathway, which will help you relieve your symptoms and manage them better. Psychiatrists use talk therapy and also prescribe medicine if they think its necessary to strengthen the resilience circuit.

The psychiatrist I met didn’t think I needed any medication. Counselling once a week was sufficient, she said, but I asked her for something since lack of sleep had been affecting my physical health. She gave me half of the usual dose of an anxiety medication. As soon as I started the medication, a sense of preternatural calmness would wash over me. I would sleep easily and was drowsy when I woke up. My mind became a sieve with short-term memory. I had to take some time off writing and working, and went on a short holiday with the family so the cognitive effects of the medicine didn’t bother me too much. I was relieved to be able to sleep again.

Two weeks after I started taking the medicine, I began to hear murmurs in my family. My children and husband said things like “you seem too calm", “you are sleeping so much!" I found that I was beginning to enjoy the “zoned out" feeling. I decided to google the medicine I was taking. It turned out that benzodiazepines like the one I was taking could be addictive. The medicine induced a drowsy passivity that was enjoyable and relieving after the rapid-fire thoughts that wouldn’t leave me alone at night.

But I didn’t want to get addicted. So three weeks into what the psychiatrist had said could be a three- to six-month-long prescription, I decided to discontinue the medicine. I am not recommending that anyone discontinue medicine without checking with the doctor first, but that is what I did. I found that I could sleep well enough within a few days, and, while anxiety continued to pop up, it was somehow blunted. Perhaps the three weeks of medicine, interspersed with a fun and relaxing holiday, had helped calm the mind.

I am now back to life as usual and bimonthly counselling is helping to uncover the root of my anxiety and manage it better. I continue to avoid coffee and tea but enjoy a few pieces of dark chocolate on most afternoons. I can sleep well most nights now and that feels great. From my experience, it is best to address the issue as soon as you think you have it. The longer you wait, the more entrenched it can become. Also, it will take time to build the resilience circuit needed to counter it.

Sujata Kelkar Shetty, PhD, is a wellness expert and a certified life coach. She has formerly worked as a clinical scientist at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, US.

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