From Overcoming Anxiety to Boosting Self-Confidence: One Man's Journey
That was 25 years ago, and I attributed it to teenage anxiety. Only recently did I discover that being plagued by self-doubt and paralyzed by fear isn't a personal flaw. And it didn't have to be this way.
The DeclineFor years, my timidity loomed over me like a dark, laughing cloud. Simple tasks were agonizing. Many were ordinary, like refraining from taking the major opportunity. Others were so particular that they were comical: I once brought my didgeridoo to a lecture by a world-renowned didgeridoo player, only to keep it concealed beneath my chair for the entire talk. I attributed it to some aspect of myself.
More From Men's Health I'd attempted counseling twice—once as an adolescent after my parents' separation and again with my spouse, to prevent us from following the same path. Both offered some assistance but were temporary solutions for immediate issues.
What started as inaction festered into a persistent concern about some unidentified and insurmountable problem. I would notice a swelling on my neck in the mirror. The following week, it would consume me—this protuberance that was surely something invasive and fatal. It never occurred to me that my physical sensations were a result of my mental state.
The ReckoningExternally, I appeared to be doing well, teaching writing classes at a local college and helping manage my household. However, internally, I was preoccupied and terrified. One night, after my wife put our one-year-old to sleep and climbed into bed, our cat leaped up to affectionately rub against my face; I shoved her away with a cry. Adrenaline surged through my body.
I unexpectedly experienced difficulty in respiration. My spouse gently rubbed my back to soothe me. This marked my initial panic attack. Several weeks afterwards, during my visit to the physician's clinic where I requested an EKG for an imagined heart-related occurrence, I brought up the frightening incident involving a cat. "Have you ever considered taking an SSRI?" inquired my doctor.
I had never experienced depression before, so why would I require antidepressants? My healthcare provider explained that the same category of medications that assists many individuals in warding off their darkest thoughts could also alleviate the catastrophic thoughts that were wreaking havoc on my life, in other words, anxiety.
The past few years have witnessed a foreseeable increase in cases. According to the World Health Organization, anxiety and depression experienced a 25 percent rise in the initial year of the pandemic. A study from BMJ Global Health revealed that men were significantly affected, with one third reporting an elevated level of anxious and depressed emotions. Honestly, I'm surprised that the numbers aren't higher. One part of the difficulty in addressing men's mental health challenges is their hesitance to acknowledge the issue in the first place. We only pay attention to a man's mental state when there are high stakes involved, such as the mental faculties of a president or the assumed psychological struggles of a shooter. What we fail to recognize are the countless invisible obstacles that many of us face on a daily basis: minor frictions that, if relieved, would unlock our full potential.
- Five Signs You May Have Anxiety
Personally, because I believed that my problem was an inherent part of my identity, I never confronted it. Gauri Khurana, M.D., a psychiatrist who teaches at Yale University, witnesses the negative consequences of neglecting mental health firsthand. Whether physical or mental, "this is how the body expresses its pain; it causes distress," she explains, noting that anxiety is connected to high blood pressure, an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, arthritis, fibromyalgia, and more.
My partner had been actively pursuing her own mental health goals for years. She understood that I needed assistance. Our life was rapidly becoming more complicated. We already had a one-year-old and another child was on the way. If I couldn't handle a cat jumping on me, our growing family would devastate both me and our relationship.
So when my doctor recommended an SSRI, I felt grateful and agreed.
I still vividly recall the day I took my initial dose. My doctor had referred me to a psychiatrist, who prescribed an SSRI along with a plan for self-guided relief, which included exercise and deep breathing.
I'm confident the strategy was beneficial, but it was the medication that made me sense distinct and fresh.
I’m at the campus where I instruct only a few days a week, so my interaction with colleagues is limited. While walking out of my last class of the day, I notice a fellow instructor’s office door slightly open. I should stop by and have a conversation, I believe.
I had been in this situation numerous times: An opportunity presented itself; I thought about taking action; I overanalyzed a potential outcome; and before I realized it, I had moved on, regretting my decision. Next time I will not mess it up. However, the pattern continued as expected.
Now, with 10 milligrams of a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) coursing through my veins, I don’t hesitate. I knock on the door, she greets me with a smile, invites me in, and we converse.
It felt like a small marvel. Or so I believed. I would later discover that it takes several weeks or more for the medication to take effect. My newfound confidence was somewhat of a placebo effect. “When you are anxious, you are highly susceptible to suggestion,” says Dr. Khurana. And in this case, it was in a positive way. “I believe the most crucial aspect of seeing a doctor or therapist is having hope that things will improve,” she says.
Over time, the tiny medication became a part of my mental-health routine. Exercise, sleep, and proper nutrition are also important. However, I now understand how the combined impact of the medication in my system and the perceived cognitive boost create a sort of superpower. Previously, I left my imperfect self in a vulnerable and worn-out state; now I have a layer of protection against my fears.
It is not that I am no longer damaged. I never was. Realizing this has given me something unattainable from a container: self-assurance, plus the freedom to pursue what anxiety prevented me from doing.
This article originally appeared in the October/November 2023 edition of Men's Health magazine.
Jon Irwin is an instructor and a writer. For nearly two decades, he has written about art, culture, technology, and the human body. His work has been featured in Men's Health, The Washington Post, Billboard Magazine, The Atlantic, and Variety, among other publications.
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