Kelsy Johnson


Twice a week, Cathy Diecs drives around her neighborhood, picks up a handful of women and takes them to the Lincoln Community Center for a 5 a.m. workout. All but one of the group members have school-age children who take up their evening schedules. Many of them feel the stresses of balancing work and family life while trying to care for themselves, too.

A personal trainer, dietician and Pilates instructor, Diecs is no stranger to the fitness world. Her life changed when her family relocated from South Dakota to Bismarck six years ago. Diecs began to suffer from anxiety, the most common mental health issue in the United States. The anxiety in her life built up as she took on more responsibilities for her family. She was used to training for bodybuilding competitions and Ironman races, but had to start changing her lifestyle to meet new demands for her family and work.

"I went from working out 20 hours a week to studying 20 hours a week," she said. When Diecs tried to find employment in Bismarck as a dietician, she had difficulty finding an equivalent occupation to the wellness director position had previously held at a healthcare organization. The only available jobs were entry level, and she had to work two jobs to make the same salary she made in South Dakota. She soon realized that the only way she was going to advance her career was by going back to school.

"I was at the peak of my career," Diecs said. "I left my entire support system."

Patrice Thomas, a licensed professional clinical counselor at The Village Family Service Center, says significant life changes can cause anxiety for anyone. Typical events would be having a baby, getting married or retiring. Moving to a new city or starting a new job, like Diecs experienced, could also cause a lot of new stress. Thomas notes that, although everyone experiences stress, how we deal with it depends

on a number of factors. "How it affects us is [based on] how we think about it, our support system, and our genes," Thomas said.

For Diecs, starting over at 40 was stressful and disappointing. Like many women in the region, Diecs found herself taking care of her two kids without her husband's help the majority of the week. Her husband Rob owns Budget Blinds in Bismarck and spends five days a week in western North Dakota for business.

As her lifestyle changed, Diecs turned to other behaviors to cope with stress. She depended on sweets and alcohol to "take away some of the pain."

Symptoms of anxiety typically involve worry about something or someone, Thomas said. A person may be restless, tense, irritable, have trouble sleeping or behave in compulsive ways. The worry may cause them to feel panicky, hyperventilate, or experience heart palpitations. They may also exhibit extreme fear.

"If it affects everyday activities, then it's time to get checked," Thomas said.

Four years ago, Diecs reached a tipping point with her anxiety. Her mother flew in from Arizona and brought her to a doctor. She made arrangements to see a Christian counselor and started going to a pastor for help with her marriage.

Diecs realized that she couldn't do everything she wanted to, so she shut down her personal training and started taking classes she needed as prerequisites for medical school. She learned to accept her limits the hard way, having failed a class in the process when she had too many commitments.

"Society tells us you can have it all," Diecs said. "It can't be done."

As a personal trainer and dietician, Diecs sees many women who are trying to handle the stress of family and professional lives.

"Feeling this way is common among women," Diecs says. "It's very common for us to put ourselves last."

Diecs listens to her clients and shares her own story.

"Ninety percent of them have just wanted someone to listen," she said. "My clients feel comforted when I shake my head and say, 'Yes, I understand.'"

Statistics show that women seek treatment for anxiety much more frequently than men. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, women are 60 percent more likely to experience an anxiety disorder in their lifetimes compared to men. Thomas says the numbers only tell part of the story.

"Women are relationally hard-wired," she said. "Men worry just as much, but they don't talk about it as openly."

Many women suffer from anxiety, but they do not necessarily have an anxiety disorder. Situational anxiety is brought on by difficult circumstances such as a job loss or marital issues.

"That can usually improve with effort and focus," Thomas said.

An anxiety disorder, on the other hand may not get better with lifestyle changes. Dealing with a disorder may require therapy and medication to manage the symptoms.

Healthy habits, such as limiting caffeine and alcohol and incorporating exercise to reduce stress, can help most people who have anxiety. Even a small amount of exercise makes a difference. Since time is limited for Diecs, she takes frequent 10 minute study breaks to during the day to go for a brisk walk and release some endorphins.

Thomas said meditative reading has been proven to lower blood pressure, so it is often helpful for some people to catch a few moments to read a religious or spiritual text.

With help from her counselor and pastor, Diecs incorporated some religious activities, such as prayer, meditation on scripture and listening to Christian music in the car to help deal with her anxiety. Religion played a strong role in her recovery from anxiety.

Support systems are huge in managing anxiety. Thomas recommends a strong focus on building healthy relationships. Local community support groups can also help. Mental Health America of North Dakota, for example, offers free anxiety and depression support groups. Church groups are also great resources for people to make social connections. "Developing healthy relationships is essential," Thomas said.

Diecs has found group settings to be valuable. Although she has "all the equipment in the world" to work out at home, her 5 a.m. fitness group helps her stay motivated and on track.

While her current fitness program doesn't look like it did when her children were small, Diecs has found a way to make things work with her schedule and reduce her stress along the way. In the process, she's learned an important lesson.

"My workout times are sacred," Diecs said.

Kelsy Johnson, a native of Bismarck, works as a freelance reporter and nonprofit writer in Fargo. She divides her time between her two passions: storytelling and martial arts.