Dr. Jennifer Ashton opens up about her own anxiety attacks, why anxiety affects more women than men

Dr. Jennifer Ashton’s anxiety attacks started to happen after she had a severe allergic reaction to a food.

“I had a couple of episodes where I thought mistakenly that I had eaten that same food that I was allergic to,” said Ashton, ABC News’ chief medical correspondent and a board-certified OBGYN. “And even though I was not having any true physical symptoms of an anaphylactic reaction, once my mind went there, it was almost like a marble rolling off the edge of a table.”

“I started to feel dizzy. I started to feel chest tightness. My heart was racing. I was short of breath, but objectively, I was not having an allergic reaction,” she said. “And even though I recognized that I was having an anxiety attack, I was unable to stop it.”

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Even with the number of people affected by anxiety during the pandemic, and with celebrities like Camilla Cabello and Prince Harry recently speaking out about their experiences, the topic of anxiety, like most mental health disorders, is still a taboo topic.

Having an anxiety disorder is still something that’s whispered about

“Having an anxiety disorder is still something that’s whispered about, still something that has a societal bias or stigma,” said Ashton. “In a lot of ways, any psychological, emotional or psychiatric disorder still tends to be looked at as a sign of weakness.”

“It is definitely past time that we change that,” she said. “As a medical doctor, I literally do not look at anything that occurs from the neck up as any different than something that occurs from the neck down, so anxiety should be looked at no differently than asthma. As such, it should be managed with a full arsenal of approaches meaning support groups, talk therapy, behavioral therapy, modifying one’s environment or behavior and, if necessary, prescription medication.”

When it comes to medication, a prescription medication to treat and prevent future episodes of anxiety on a long-term basis is different than a medication like Xanax or Valium that is intended for infrequent treatment of acute anxiety, noted Ashton.

“I see this all the time in women where they think, ‘Well, it’s happening more and more frequently, so I’ll just take the medication more and more frequently,'” she said. “[Drugs like Xanax and Valium] are not meant nor are they really safe for long-term, chronic use on a daily basis. That’s why you really should be managed by a psychiatrist by a credentialed mental health professional.”

Treatment for anxiety disorders often includes a combination of counseling and medication — and both together is often most effective. When it comes to counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is often used to help people change thinking patterns around their fears, according to OWH.

The differing degrees of anxiety may make it difficult for people to determine whether they should seek treatment, but what matters is how it is affecting a person individually, according to Ashton.

“There is a big difference between someone who has one anxiety attack or a panic attack per year and someone who has one per day,” she explained. “There’s a big difference between someone who can manage their anxiety and still function at home and in the workplace, and someone who has to leave meetings at work or who has to go home from celebrations or social gatherings. So whether or not you have anxiety that is interfering in your life is very subjective, but in general, it’s whether or not it’s interfering to a degree that is not acceptable to you.”

Other factors like physical activity, nutrition and mindfulness can also play a role in coping with anxiety, although less is known about the role they play in treating anxiety disorders, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, an entity of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

GoodMorningAmerica.com is tackling a different taboo women’s health topic each month, breaking down stigmas on everything from mental health to infertility, STDs, orgasms and alcoholism.

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