By Daphne Gaghagen

As a 36-year-old mother of two, I have spent the majority of my existence coping with anxiety. At times overwhelming, it has ruined countless experiences for me and destroyed multiple relationships. I would struggle to leave my home or socialize because of my unending fears regarding potential tragedy. I spent time with friends and family unable to banish these images in my head.

Only in the last few years have I begun to understand the journey anxiety has granted me, and the wisdom it has imbued . . . Even as I suffered. The person I am today is due, in part, to mental illness. I don’t say it sadly; I say it with pride, because nothing about it was easy or simple.

I’d like to share my story with fellow moms in the hope that it resonates. We all deal with something. At times, it can feel like it’s swallowing us whole. I want you to know that I’ve been there and that you should never quit being your own advocate, because at the very least, you will unlock precious secrets. You matter, my love, and what you struggle with matters too.

The College Years

When I was 18 years old, I got my first job at a coffee house. It was inside my university’s social center, a hub of activity. I took many morning shifts, arriving before dawn to unload pastries and make the first pots of java. I loved the independence and the responsibility.

My parents sent me off to college with the promise that they would fund my education, but that I was in charge of my spending money. It was a fantastic deal, and I quickly found myself working 20-hour weeks at the coffee house while maintaining a pretty decent class load of general education courses. I didn’t have a major yet, I was still figuring out how to navigate the world, and I was in college heaven on a campus that overlooked the Pacific Ocean. My life was a fantasy, and I was all in.

As a barista, coffee became an important part of starting my day. Even when I wasn’t working, I would swing by to pick up my discounted cup in my to-go mug. I had fun experimenting with syrups and beans and blends. A strong coffee drink got me through midterms and finals and boys and all-nighters.

It took a few months to start feeling the effects. I started getting regular migraines—they started with auras, a glittering arc shining through my right eye and sending my heart and brain into overdrive. My first medication was a mint-flavored pill called Imitrex. It had to be ingested within 10-15 minutes of the aura, or it would have little effect. Even then, it sometimes did nothing. I would be left vomiting and moaning in a dark room, sometimes for 8-10 hours at a time.

This was the beginning of my journey with a condition I could not explain or tackle sufficiently. These migraines, which arrived as often as twice a week or as little as once a month, came to define my life and the passage of time. I visited neurologists. I got acupuncture and massages. I began yoga and meditation. I quit coffee and all other caffeine.

Despite serious effort to thwart my migraines from running and ruining my life, ending countless nights out with friends and derailing important study sessions, they were the boss for the majority of my twenties.

A turning point came when I got a lucky appointment at the Mayo Clinic. I was seen by a sweet PhD student who switched out my meds for a nasal spray that acted more quickly and with more regularity. And she taught me about biofeedback.

Essentially, biofeedback is breathing. It’s breathing at a set pace to regulate both your blood pressure and your heart rate. This has an immediate calming effect, and if the blood vessels in your head or neck are restricted and causing a migraine, it can help to open them back up.

Biofeedback worked for me, and believe me when I tell you that I was astonished. Years and years of medications and special diets and staying out of the sun and the heat and not drinking and you’re telling me that the answer was my BREATH?

And yet, there I was, capable of significantly lessening my migraine pain with biofeedback and a couple of Tylenol. I could go about my day! I could exist and not live in constant worry and stress.

And that is where I unlocked the second half of my migraine mystery, sitting in a therapist’s office at 36 years old. She was new to me, and we were talking about my anxiety and how it affects me. She asked if I ever had panic attacks, and I could only recall one. A driver on the freeway had grown angry at me and slammed on his brakes in front of me on the freeway, nearly hitting me, and then sped away. I had hyperventilated, imagining that my children were behind me and we were crashing. I had to sit in a parking lot, breathing into a bag, until my father and mother came and picked me up.

I thought this was my only experience with panic attacks until my therapist began describing the symptoms. The tingling hands and feet. The blurry vision and the dizziness. The fear and the disappearing of the light.

I sat there in disbelief. These were my migraines. Word for word, the panic attack description matched each experience.

Healing from my Anxiety

It was a wake up call, to say the least. I always knew that I struggled with anxiety, but its manifestations in my life were still being uncovered. I was still getting to know myself.

These days, I still get a migraine every once in a while. After my anxiety increased significantly (an escalation that came with motherhood) I began taking medication for the very first time, and that helped immediately.

I still practice biofeedback whenever I get overwhelmed, however, and that has had the biggest impact of all. I spend a few minutes counting the ticks of my breath in and out with my thumb to my fingers one by one. I still get massages occasionally, I get acupuncture. I lift weights and I go to yoga. I go to crowded places. I go on vacations and I get on airplanes. I live. I thrive.

It took me 36 years to realize a fundamental way in which anxiety was derailing my happiness. My breakthrough on the connection between my migraines and my anxiety took over a decade. When I consider where I’ve been and where I’m going, I’m overcome with gratitude for the lessons learned along the way.

And now? I get to move forward and keep discovering the unique ways in which I put my stamp upon this earth. Raising my kids, loving my husband, growing and learning together. You could almost say that I was grateful for my anxiety and for the gifts it’s given to me.

Living with Anxiety and How to Cope

A little anxiety is normal for just about anybody. But if it appears to be preventing you from achieving goals or feeling at peace a majority of the time, it might be wise to seek some outside help.

For me, medication was a last resort. I will confess that I now know I should have started long ago, but I know many women who have developed coping mechanisms that are not chemical in nature.

Seek the Outdoors
A breath of fresh air. A burst of mood-boosting Vitamin D. A little exercise and movement. Each of these things can do wonders in fighting off depression and anxiety. They can also serve to remind us of the beautiful world we are so lucky to live in.

Prioritize Self-Care
A long bath or a good magazine are just two of the (very affordable) ways you can begin taking better care of yourself. There is a misconception that self-care requires a serious financial investment, but it can also just be a good cup of hot cocoa at night after the kids are in bed.

Find New Emotional Outlets
Personally, I struggled for many years with compulsive overeating, otherwise known as bingeing, in an effort to tamp down the overwhelming feelings brought on by stress and anxiety. Now, I use a mix of journaling, drawing, and reading to give myself a variety of choices when I need to distract myself and reset.

Give Therapy a Try
This is a resource I cannot recommend enough. Whether therapy has been unsuccessful for you in the past, or you’ve never even tried it, a good therapist can listen and set you gently on the path to coping and living a full and normal life.

I do believe that we are entering a new era for mental illness and an open discussion of its effects. It’s about time, don’t you think? I can name dozens of exercise and nutritional experts, but I’m not sure that I can do the same for any visible experts on the mind and mental wellness.

Grounded and graceful,
Daphne


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