During the last half of 2018, and for the first time in my life, I experienced overwhelming anxiety and panic attacks.
In a nutshell, here’s how it happened:
Aging + sending my firstborn to college + perimenopause + being sick multiple times + taking antibiotics three times in three months + too much time Googling
All of this landed me in my doctor’s office on the morning of Christmas Eve, and I walked out with a prescription for Lexapro. I took the meds for six weeks before deciding that it just wasn’t right for me.
You see, normally, I cry at everything – greeting cards, commercials, dog rescue videos, songs, poems, etc. On Lexapro, I cried at nothing. I felt completely numb and disconnected. So, I weaned myself off and committed to doing the work of healing myself.
First though, a disclaimer. I’m not a doctor or a psychologist. And I’m not you. I’m just a middle aged mom sharing my story and what helped me in my journey through anxiety. :)
My Journey Through Anxiety
Talking about it:
Until Christmas Eve, I hadn’t told anyone about what I was feeling. I kept it all inside, which only fueled the endless loop of anxiety.
I finally told my husband and kids, my mom, and my siblings. Just that made me feel so much better, like an enormous weight was lifted off my shoulders. When I told my best friends, they were so kind and shared their own experiences with anxiety.
I also found great comfort in reading about others’ experiences with anxiety on Drugs.com and Mayo Clinic Connect. Both are great resources for people who don’t have a support system in their friends and family. And, the information I read on Drugs.com about what to expect when you taper off anti-anxiety medication was invaluable. I felt confident and well-prepared after reading it, and grateful to have found it.
Listening to these podcasts:
These podcasts from Rob Bell (and his wife, Kristen) and Tara Brach gave me so much hope and insight.
- Rob Bell – Kristen Bell on Anxiety – Part 1
- Rob Bell – Kristen Bell on Anxiety – Part 2
- Tara Brach – Part 1 – Healing Anxiety – How Meditation Frees Us
- Tara Brach – Part 2 – Healing Anxiety – How Meditation Frees Us
Taking these vitamins and supplements:
In my research on anxiety, I discovered that it can sometimes be caused by vitamin and mineral deficiencies (particularly vitamin B, vitamin D, and magnesium) and by hormonal issues with the thyroid or pituitary gland, and during perimenopause / menopause when hormone levels fluctuate.
I had my vitamin D level tested and was at the low end of “normal” (43 out of the normal range of 30.0 – 100.0 ng/ml), and also had my thyroid and follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) tested, which both came back normal. My 50th birthday is this year and I’m likely in perimenopause with the night sweats, anxiety, and trouble sleeping to show for it. (Here’s a great article by Dr. Christiane Northrup about the perimenopause transition – I was both shocked and consoled by the number of women who commented and described the same sudden onset of anxiety and panic attacks that I’d experienced!)
I take the following vitamins and supplements to support my body as I age, go through menopause, and mitigate anxiety:
- Daily Nutrient Pack (this is a multivitamin and omega combo pack)
- Bone Nutrient Complex (this complex has vitamins C and D, plus biotin, calcium, magnesium, and other trace minerals)
- PB Assist Probiotic Defense Formula (this is a probiotic that I take every day, especially after three rounds of antibiotics in three months)
- Vitamin D 1000IU (because my vitamin D level was on the low end of normal, I take one of these daily in addition to the others above)
Reading these books (for very different reasons):
Brain Body Diet: 40 Days to a Lean, Calm, Energized and Happy Self by Dr. Sara Gottfried – this whole book is fascinating, and the chapter on anxiety is especially helpful for me. When I saw my doctor about my anxiety and panic attacks, I asked her if it could be caused by a gut imbalance due to three courses of antibiotics, but she quickly dismissed that idea. You can imagine how vindicated I felt when I read this from the chapter on anxiety: “Antibiotics wipe out the bad bacteria, but they also kill the good bugs that can keep you calm and content. Repeated courses of antibiotics are associated with a 17 to 44 percent increased risk of anxiety (!!!!), and 23 to 56 percent greater rate of depression.”
Upstream by Mary Oliver – this is a collection of beautiful poems and essays on nature and literature. I read a few pages before bed each night to relax and unwind. When I’m done with Upstream, I’m going to read Inward by Yung Pueblo.
Brain Games Large Print Find-A-Word – I leave this book on the couch in the living room and do one or two each day. Searching for words has a way of distracting anxious thoughts and strengthening my brain at the same time.
Creating an aromatic anchor:
You know how when you smell coffee brewing in the morning, you think, “Time to wake up“? That’s because our brains and noses are intricately connected. I’ll explain what I mean about this connection with a quote from doTERRA’s Emotional Benefits of Aromatherapy ebook.
“Because our sense of smell is so closely connected to the part of our brain that stores memories and emotions, it is easy to see why specific aromas elicit specific emotions or feelings. The idea behind using aromatherapy for emotional benefit is that the user chooses certain essential oils to trigger desired feelings and emotions, particularly when aiming to combat or dispel negative emotions.”
I had heard someone speak about creating an “aromatic anchor” that would signal to her brain that it was time to go to sleep, so I figured I could create one to signal to my brain that everything is ok and there is nothing to fear.
Anytime I was feeling anxious, I would roll on a combination of rose, frankincense, and peppermint over my heart and inhale deeply. I chose this trio because these scents are grounding and soothing to me. This blend helped me get through the day we moved my oldest daughter into college without having a breakdown, though I did have to roll racing stripes of it up and down my body. ;)
Making dietary changes:
- Reduced caffeine – between perimenopause and anxiety, caffeine started to make me feel jittery and anxious. And I read that it affects hormones, so I went from drinking three cups of coffee per day (before noon) to just one cup in the morning.
- Reduced alcohol – even though having a glass of wine or a cocktail can be relaxing in the moment, it’s not a long term remedy for anxiety. I found that it affected my sleep and made me feel even more anxious the next day.
- Reduced sugar – I don’t eat a ton of sugary things, but noticed that I felt “revved up” when I did, so I avoided my holiday favorites like homemade fudge and sugar cookies.
- Increased water – I drink a lot of water anyway, but increased my daily intake to 3-4 liters to cleanse and hydrate my body.
Making lifestyle changes:
- Social media: I actively spent more time with my family and less time on social media on my phone and desktop. I’ve found that spending too much time on social media has a negative impact on me and during my anxiety and panic attacks, even more so. I read this article about Facebook moderators and felt deeply saddened for them, and for all of us who experience anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder from what we witness online.
- Phone: My nervous system was shot, and the slightest sound would have me on high alert, so I made sure all notifications on my phone were turned off and kept my ringer off as well.
- Bedtime: I honored myself with a 9pm bedtime each night (still do) so my body could rest and restore
- Morning gratitude: When you’re in the midst of anxiety, it can seem like nothing good is happening. So each morning, I thank God for ten things I’m grateful for and it starts my day off on a positive note.
- Observation > meditation: Meditation is supposed to be good for anxiety, but I have a really hard time doing it. Instead, I’ve been “observing” my surroundings when I walk with James (my dog) and drive to pick up the kids at school. Just this simple practice of noticing quiets my mind and calms my body, and has been a great alternative to meditation.
Finding the gifts in anxiety:
Never in a million years would I think that I’d be grateful for anxiety, but I am because it presented me with these gifts:
- Deep compassion for myself, and for anyone struggling with anxiety and panic attacks
- A not-so-gentle nudge that it was time to change some things and take better care of myself
- The opportunity to help others by sharing my experience and what I learned from it
- The reminder to always be my own advocate
Blowing my own mind:
Anyone who has anxiety knows how your mind can make you believe that something bad is going to happen or that something is really wrong with you.
But how many have realized that if our minds can can make us think bad things, can’t it also make us think good things? Can’t our minds also convince us that good things are going to happen and that everything is right with us?
I had that thought one day while walking with my dog and blew my own damn mind. I’m serious. Our minds are powerful! If you have anxiety like I do, learn how to harness your mind’s power for good.
More on the mind:
- How Positive Thinking Builds Your Skills, Boosts Your Health and Improves Your Work by James Clear
- Benefits of a Daily Diary and Topic Journals by Derek Sivers (I especially love the “Ask yourself questions, then question your answers” section! It’s such a great way to work things out on paper, see all the angles, and even call bullshit on yourself.)
- The Way I Think by Dr. John Suler (When I was really struggling with anxious thoughts about my health, I took myself down the “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” path where I imagined the worst thing actually happening and then determined what I’d do about it. I found that it stopped me from getting into a full-blown panic because I realized that having a plan of action foils my anxiety and puts me back in control. The Way I Think is an exercise written by a clinical psychology professor for his students, and I think it would be just as helpful as my “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” question.)
- Positive Thinking: Stop Negative Self-Talk to Reduce Stress by Mayo Clinic Staff
It’s been a few months now since anxiety had me in its hold, and I’m feeling better every day. I hope what I’ve shared here can help even one person. Have you experienced anxiety? What things helped you the most?