A Personal Reflection: The drugs do work – taking SSRIs for Panic Disorder

The journey of recovery from mental ill health can be tough to navigate. It isn’t as straightforward as a broken arm or a chest infection, where diagnosis and treatment plan is clear. It’s not linear and everyone is unique.

Medication is still a treatment which has stigma attached to it. A ground-breaking study published earlier this year demonstrated that antidepressants are effective and in fact more patients should be getting the right support through medication. Doctors hoped the study would finally put rest to doubts about the medicine, breaking the frequently portrayed stigma. For example, ‘happy pills’ is a phrase often used by the tabloids to describe the medication. This serves only to compound the opinion that an individual taking antidepressants such as SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) is miserable, weak and unable to be happy in life.

Three years ago I had a severe panic attack and breakdown. At my first appointment my GP asked me if I wanted to take medication with no real explanation. It was like being asked if I would like to take insulin for diabetes. How would I know!? I wasn’t the expert! My immediate reaction was ‘no’! The stereotype in my head was of a numb, unfeeling individual and I didn’t want people to think I was crazy. I didn’t want to think I was crazy! Instead I opted for counselling and a mixture of talking therapies and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. I was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder and Panic Disorder.

I’m a huge advocate for positive psychology – a new field of research – and I have spent the last three years building up strong foundations of practice. This includes mindfulness meditation, yoga, exercise, gratitude, journaling and a growing bibliotherapy. Yet the deterioration of my mental wellbeing in July last year made it clear to me that I needed to go back to my GP.

This time my GP was amazing and talked me through everything. I had made my appointment a month in advance and decided I would go if I still thought it was a necessity. She was pleased that I had come to see her feeling well rather than in the depths of anxiety. Often people cancel their appointments for depression or anxiety because they don’t want to bother their GP. It feels trivial or they start to feel better in themselves, a pattern I had seen emerging over a period of time. This time, I was able to have a rational conversation about how the past nine months had affected me. The doctor agreed my lifestyle practices were well-versed; I had CBT exercises in my toolbox, so medication was the next route.

Throughout the first week of taking the tablets I had awful physical side-effects. Within an hour of taking my tablet in the morning I would feel nauseous and for the rest of the day I’d feel weak. I couldn’t enjoy food, it kept going round and round in my mouth. My mouth was dry. My energy levels were low from my lack of appetite and food intake. A psychologist I connected with through Instagram saw my posts about struggling with the tablets. She contacted me and advised me to try taking them in the evening. Within four days I was feeling much better. Taking the tablet before I went to sleep allowed the nausea to disappear and didn’t affect my sleep. I still have the dry mouth, which means I drink more – especially when presenting. This also means more frequent trips to the bathroom!

Taking my medication was a learning curve. It will affect each person differently. For me, I find alcohol does not agree with the medication at all. Even if I have one or two glasses of wine of a night, I can tell the difference the next day. I drink black coffee, but I have cut back after experiencing the start of a panic attack after drinking two strong Americanos. Mentally I have been feeling good. Some people experience heightened anxious feelings when they start taking the medication, a side-effect I managed to avoid.

I’ve tried to be open and challenge the conversation around the stigma of taking medication, even when it has made me feel uncomfortable. When I met with a potential new client who was recovering from visible surgery, we spoke about her operation and rehabilitation. When she enquired how I was, I replied that I was feeling nauseous as I had started taking SSRIs. This turned into an open conversation about her own personal experience. She has since booked me as a speaker for her employee network group.

I’m due back at the GP next week to review my progress. The medication has settled and I’ve noticed I am much better in myself. There have been several times I realised the physical symptoms I usually experience with my anxiety have not happened. My brain is not triggering any warning signs. I’ve been keeping a mood journal for the past two months and my moods are balanced. My family have noticed the lack of swinging between extreme emotions. As far as my recovery goes I am not sure how long I will take the medication. But if it means continuing to take them and being able to live my most best life, then that is part of my own journey.

I’d like to share my own tips based on my experience.

  • Keep your doctor’s appointment, even if you begin to feel better. It helped me to write everything down beforehand so I was clear about what I wanted to discuss. If you need moral support take someone with you to the appointment to wait for you.
  • Ensure you take in all the information from your GP. Ask if you or they can write this down in your appointment, or ask them to signpost you to further information.
  • Be as open and honest with your manager or colleagues as possible. The side effects of medication can affect you physically and/or mentally in the first few weeks before settling, so it will definitely help to have the right support.
  • Be kind to yourself whilst the medication settles. This could mean a change in your appetite, energy levels or mood. It will pass and if the symptoms persist or if you have concerns, make an appointment to see your doctor straightaway.
  • If you do need to talk to someone for professional support you can call and speak to someone for anxiety at No Panic who have a crisis helpline 0300 7729844, or contact the Samaritans who are available 24 hours a day to provide confidential emotional support (116 123).

Ruth Cooper-Dickson – No Panic Patron

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