Anxiety attacks – a beautiful disaster?
Last week I was away in England for a big family wedding. My cousin Sarah was getting married and somehow we managed to get every single cousin on my Mum’s side (there are 13 of us) in the same place at the same time. We’d gathered from all over the UK, Canada and of course, Bermuda too.
We even managed to get James there, who brought with him his wife and six-day-old baby. How is that for dedication?
The night before the big event, I arrived at a family party with my stepbrother alongside me. I asked him to go in first because I was nervous. And he basically said “What?! But this is your family! How come you are nervous?”
The thing is, I love a party and a crowded room once it gets going but I have a thing about walking in. Unless I know exactly where I’m going to put myself or who I’m going to speak to first, I’ll have a small moment of panic.
I feel a bit unanchored, and although I know nobody’s really watching me, in those first few moments I feel like everyone is. And it’s excruciating.
At work, when I’m presenting or hosting a big meeting, it doesn’t matter. I know exactly what my role is and the job is my anchor. It seems crazy to be unfazed by presenting to 100 strangers but to be overwhelmed by 40 people from your family. But there you go.
If you’ve read this column for a while, you may remember that I used to struggle wildly with anxiety. Worry and panic about God knows what became a running commentary in my brain, the backdrop to every single day.
There would be a nanosecond, when I first woke up in the morning, when I would feel the relief of being at ease.
But a moment later, my heart would start racing …. I’d be in fight-or-flight mode before I even got out of bed.
I felt like a racehorse waiting to go out of the gate. Except there was no gate. And no race!
It was exhausting. At its worst, I was scared of being left alone, couldn’t drive, couldn’t face going in to a shop, couldn’t make simple decisions and found it hard to regulate my breathing.
I remember being completely paralysed standing in the kitchen one night when I was home by myself. I couldn’t decide whether to cook dinner (I knew I had to eat) or have a bath (being in water was soothing)….so I stood still and did neither. For over an hour.
I could line up several reasons to explain why I might feel overwhelmed, but nothing that seemed to justify this total loss of control.
I’d rolled with bigger punches before, so what was different now? It was as if my personality and my body were playing tug of war — I wanted nothing more than to build my business and hang out with my friends, to work hard and play hard, but physically I was a mess.
Ironically, I’d just qualified as a nutritionist. That added a new layer of shame. Wasn’t I supposed to be the healthy one? Didn’t I know how to fix myself?
For several weeks, the anxiety and panic were so severe I really couldn’t do much apart from live to see another day. I know that sounds dramatic, but my heart was beating so fast all of the time, that I literally thought it would run out of beats.
Gradually I moved into a new phase — a kind of high-functioning state of panic. I was up and dressed and probably seemed normal, but I was on high alert. It was at this point I moved to Bermuda. I had to work, so I got myself a job and threw everything I had into it.
In the early days, I remember doing presentations with the sole objective of not passing out.
During one in particular, I was holding on to the windowsill as I talked, willing the words to come out in a sensible order while my heart raced at a million miles an hour.
My white knuckles, wrapped around the PowerPoint remote, should have given me away. But if anyone noticed, they were too polite to say anything. It took me a long time to feel in control again, probably close to a year.
These days (and 14 years on) I’m generally anxiety free and I owe the vast majority of that to nutrition: gaining weight when I needed to, balancing my blood sugar, getting enough Omega 3 fats and avoiding all sugar and refined carbs — those were key for me.
Despite a rollercoaster ride recently, I feel relatively settled — it’s a miracle that I kept my head up and didn’t sink.
The raging panic attacks are long gone, although I’m still working on handling a less aggressive form of anxiety — let’s just call it overwhelm.
It’s interesting, in Sarah Wilson’s book First, We Make The Beast Beautiful, she describes high-functioning anxiety so insightfully that it had me highlighting the page in a frenzy.
She says: “But beneath the veneer we’re being pushed by fear and doubt and a voice that tells us we’re a bad husband, an insufficient sister, we’re wasting time, we’re not producing enough … we turn everything into a cluster****.
“Sure, we look busy, but mostly we’re busy avoiding things. So we tie ourselves up in stupid paper-shuffling-like tasks that shield us from ever getting around to the important stuff. Or the tough stuff.”
I read that paragraph over a few times and then let it sink in. While I’m confident in my clinical skills (and I can run a project like Beat the Couch with my eyes shut) my admin behind the scenes is sketchy.
I allow things to build up, I then get afraid of them, I then get even more afraid of them until I’m paralysed by overwhelm.
It makes me feel bad at my job, as if I’m the only one that’s failing and that I am 110 per cent responsible for the self-inflicted drama around me.
I’ve been told that I could do better if I had better systems, if I tried harder, concentrated harder and in particular, if I didn’t fall back on the “excuse” that “I can’t do it all”.
My God, there’s an element of truth to all that I’m sure …. But do you think it helps with the overwhelm? Not really. It tends to amplify it instead. Especially at three in the morning when all my worries wake up and throw a party together in my brain.
As stressful as that sounds, it was Sarah’s book that actually helped me see anxiety as something a little different to varying degrees of torture. I’m working on the overwhelm, but I’ve also found it massively helpful to stop viewing the whole experience negatively.
The title, “First, we make the beast beautiful” refers to the idea that the first step to overcoming your anxiety, might just be recognising and appreciating the good things it brings too.
That might be hard to accept if you feel like the walls are closing in, but just let it sink in a little.
Yes it can be a disaster, but how about a beautiful disaster? People with anxiety tend to be more creative, experience more joy or feel more of a rush from simply being alive.
And I don’t mean that people with anxiety are better than anyone else, I just mean that maybe there’s a silver lining. Exploring the concept that it’s not all bad has been massively helpful for me. It’s put me in a calmer position to address the overwhelm.
Maybe I can do it all after all, I just don’t need to panic about it. Self-acceptance aside, there are some fundamental steps that significantly helped me and improved my quality of life in a major way. If you have anxiety or panic disorder, or if you don’t but do know someone who does, then have a look at the list below.
This is by no means a fully comprehensive set of solutions, but it will give you a starting point at least. And if you need extra help, you know where to find me. I’m always happy to hear from you.
Anxiety and panic — tips to calm you down:
1. Professional help
I resisted this for the longest time, partly because I didn’t want to admit I needed it and partly because I thought (as a nutritionist) that I should be able to help myself.
However, eventually I realised that there was no way I could review my own case clearly or objectively. I contacted my tutor who helped me prioritise and get myself on the right track.
I saw a counsellor too. Part of this strategy included anxiety medication short-term.
I hated the idea of it, but it helped me break the cycle and I wasn’t on it for long. (I do still carry the prescription round with me though, and knowing I have it, usually means I don’t need it.) Checking in with your doctor is a really important step.
If your case isn’t too severe, then you might find more natural supplements can do the trick. I transitioned on to these after a few weeks on meds, and then got to the point where I didn’t need anything on a daily basis.
One of the most effective natural anti-anxiety aids is the amino acid L-theanine, but you should have your nutritionist or GP review suitability of use for you. Most natural anti-anxiety meds or antidepressants shouldn’t be taken at the same time as pharmaceuticals so make sure you are professionally guided if you choose to transition.
3. Make sure you eat enough
This one can be tricky if anxiety has robbed you of your appetite.
The problem is that becoming underweight can affect cognitive ability so it’s hard to make rational or sensible decisions, which only fuels anxiety further.
This is where I found medication helpful, because it helped normalise my appetite. Once I was eating properly again, I started to think a lot more clearly.
With or without meds, it’s important to recognise that healthy food will help provide essential nutrients that contribute to recovery — so make healthy eating your focus and your job!
4. Blood sugar balance
If anxiety is making you lose too much weight, it’s tempting to focus on sugary carbs as these may lift your mood and usually contribute to weight gain.
However, refined sugars also fuel anxiety because the subsequent sugar lows can trigger the fight-or-flight stress response.
Not to mention that refined carbs then often take the place of more nutrient dense options that could have been nourishing your nervous system.
I’ve found that a protein heavy diet often works well for anxious clients, so that means looking for protein at every meal and snack.
Some slower-releasing carbs are fine — such as quinoa, beans/lentils, butternut squash and low-sugar fruit such as berries, kiwi, peach and pear — but these are still best paired with protein.
5. Avoid caffeine
Caffeine is a huge no-no if you are having anxiety issues as it can disrupt blood sugar and trigger your fight-or-flight mechanism. It’s also diuretic after 500mg caffeine, meaning that it can deplete your body of the B vitamins that are so important for nourishing the nervous system.
6. Sleep — break the cycle
Getting enough sleep is important for rest and recovery but it can be tricky if anxiety is interfering!
Medication or natural supplements can be useful here in terms of breaking the cycle. It’s important to get professional guidance though, so see your GP for guidance regarding meds or a nutritionist for help with more natural alternatives.
7. Rest, but stay busy
Resting is important, but wallowing never did anyone any good. Push yourself to try to do a little more each day.
Getting out for a walk, going for a run, meeting up with friends, reading, working — whatever it is that will keep you busy and prevent you from getting too far into your own head.
Starting a new job was really difficult for me but it was also a great distraction.
This is hugely important for good mental health and it doesn’t have to be much — just 30 minutes a day has been proven effective for reducing anxiety and depression.
Get outside if you can, soak up the sun (safely) and breathe in some fresh ocean air for a little while. Just note that if you are trying to gain weight, avoiding intense exercise is best — just pick something more gentle!
The advice given in this article is not intended to replace medical advice, but to complement it. Always consult your GP if you have any health concerns. Catherine Burns BA Hons, Dip ION is the managing director of Natural Ltd and a fully qualified Nutritional Therapist trained by the Institute for Optimum Nutrition in the UK Please note that she is not a Registered Dietitian. For details, please go to www.natural.bm or call 236-7511. Join Catherine on Facebook: www.facebook.com/nutrifitandnaturalnutritionbermuda