With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, I wanted to share my story and experience in dealing with anxiety, panic, and feelings of depression. I know firsthand how scary and lonely it can feel when you first start to identify symptoms and how important it is to seek help. Know that you are never, ever alone. All three are much more common than many think, and there are so many resources and ways to improve your quality of life and make progress every day. This is not forever.
A quick history: I experienced my first panic attack when I was 23. It was a Friday night and I was home alone in my apartment watching Netflix. It hit me out of nowhere. There were no obvious triggers, no stressful or anxiety-provoking events taking place, or any logical reason why I would experience a panic attack out of the blue. I also had no history of anxiety or anything that resembled panic.
All of a sudden, I felt like I was dying. I had shortness of breath, tingling in my limbs, feeling like I was on the verge of either vomiting or passing out. I paced frantically around my house, opened windows, laid on the floor - nothing helped. I called my parents that night, they had left their phones at home. They probably had 30+ missed calls from me. I contemplated calling 911. Was something wrong with me? WHAT. WAS. HAPPENING.
After maybe a half hour of this, the symptoms started to subside. This I now know, but at the time did not - the adrenaline can only last for so long. You literally exhaust yourself until it fizzles out. A panic attack simply cannot last forever. It WILL end. Seven years in of varying levels of anxiety and panic, I find a lot of comfort in knowing that for me, it will pass.
Flash forward to today, and I am still managing feelings of panic and anxiety on a daily basis. Some days it might be a fleeting moment, some days it's hours of discomfort. An enormous part of managing it day-to-day was learning to accept it.
It's counter intuitive, but my acceptance of feelings of anxiety and panic has made it much easier to ride the waves.
The more energy you put into fighting it and beating yourself up over it, it feels like you're actually layering on more anxiety. You're having anxious feelings about having anxious feelings.
So very first step was to say to myself on a daily basis:
It's OK to feel the way you feel today.
Giving myself permission to feel the way I feel and not try and force myself into being a less anxious, happier, lighter version of myself created space for me to make progress with my mental health.
Immediately following my first wave of panic, anxiety set in as I feared having another panic attack. Depression set in because I worried that this would be my new normal. And from there, it just continued to snowball. I felt so stuck.
I was convinced that these feelings, to a certain extent, were a product of my lifestyle and environment. I started researching and experimenting with different methods and have found a balance of things that work well for me. You'll see that it's a long list. Improving your mental health is not a quick fix, and there's no one solution.
*Disclaimer: the below methods have worked for me, personally. I've gone through trial and error and have found the right balance that works for my body and my mind. Everyone is different. You should always do your own research and consult with a doctor and/or therapist for professional opinion*
Diet + Exercise
Physical health and mental health are interlinked. I notice a huge change in myself when I'm more sedentary and not eating a balanced diet. Things like drinking enough water, getting in at least 2 cups of veggies per day, supplementing with vitamins (Omega-3, Vitamin D and B, Magnesium, Turmeric to name a few), and making sure I'm filling up on protein and fiber sources are just a few staples of what I try and stick to each day. When I make shifts to my activity level and what I'm putting in my body, my mood shifts significantly.
Mindset work to focus on feelings of gratitude is a life-changing practice. I started with a gratitude journal that's available on Amazon. A daily practice of focusing on everything you are grateful for, rather than what could or did go wrong, will help you make progress toward a more positive mindset. It's simply a few minutes of reflection each day with prompts that will help you focus on all things you have to be grateful for in life. No matter the situation, gratitude can always exist. Trust me - this works.
Therapy is a game changer, and the stigma surrounding it needs to go. I've seen two therapists at different times in my life - once to cope with the death of friend by suicide, a second time to seek help with managing my anxiety. I no longer go to therapy, but I would go back in a heartbeat if circumstances changed or I was having trouble managing it on my own. Our friends and family are not equipped to help us navigate the nuances of mental health. I was referred to a therapist through my PCP and was able to use up to 8 sessions with only a co-pay through my insurance. If you're not sure where to go or what to do, therapy is a great place to start.
Intentional, Deep Breathing
Learning how to breath deeply has been my #1 tool to not only slow and stop a panic attack that's lurking around the corner, but it's also prevented many of them entirely. My therapist was the first person to call it to my attention. He asked me to place one hand on my chest and one hand on my belly, and take a deep breath. What he observed was the majority of my breath was generating from my chest. He taught me how to breathe from my belly, and ever since that lesson I practice intentional, deep belly breathing every single day. An added bonus to calm the body and mind - count your breaths in and out. The act of counting distracts your mind from potential anxiety-provoking thoughts.
Ever since that panic attack, I carry around a prescription for a low dose of Ativan. I don't take it, but I know that it's there. I mostly use it for calming pre-flight nerves and scenarios that might trigger panic from claustrophobia, but that's about it. However, just the simple comfort of knowing that if I felt like I could not control my anxiety and panic, there was relief right at my finger tips, is enough to feel in control.
As many 20 somethings do, I changed up my BCP a couple of times and tried out an IUD to see what worked best for me and my body. The pill was OK, but I experienced a lot of negative side effects when I started the IUD. It made me feel like an absolute lunatic, and like there was this dark cloud hanging over me. My doctor told me that it was probably just me and that I should consider an anti-depressant. Yup. Luckily, I listened to my body and had it removed. My experience was so bad that I decided to stop the use of hormonal birth control after that, and have never regretted it. I recognize that this decision is super personal and not the right fit for everyone.
This shit really works. In 2017 I had one of my worst bouts of anxiety. I committed to attending a gentle yoga class 2 x per week after work. Even if I was tired, anxious, fearful, I showed up. I have always loved the benefits of a good workout and exercise 4-6 days a week. But, I discovered that I couldn't stand the idea of being in a 60 min. gentle yoga class. I couldn't sit still or be in silence. I couldn't sit with my own thoughts. Yoga has taught me to be OK with doing less. Within a couple of months of regular practice, I'm now able to walk into class and turn my brain off for an hour.
Meditation apps like Calm and Headspace have also been SO helpful for days where getting to a yoga class isn't possible. A simple 10 minute meditation in the car or at your desk can be enough to calm your mind and give yourself some space from the outside world. Shut your eyes, shut the world out, and focus on you. Like anything, consistency is key. Commit to a 5 minute meditation every day, for 3 weeks. See how you feel. Bump it up to 10 minutes.
Cutting Back on Caffeine
For all the coffee fanatics, I'm not suggesting you give up coffee forever. But if you are dealing with feelings of anxiety, your caffeine intake is likely a contributor. Start to cut back slowly, and see what changes. For me, I've completely replaced coffee with a morning tea and have never felt better. Taking significant caffeine sources out of the equation, as hard as it was, definitely took the edge off of my overall anxiety level. Now, I fuel up in the morning with a protein and fiber heavy breakfast and a cup of tea. Better than the empty stomach and large coffee that was hitting my stomach first thing in the morning. If you're experiencing frequent bouts of anxiety, take a look at your caffeine consumption.
Learn to Say "No"
I push myself and muscle through life, often at the detriment to my own mental health, because I don't like to quit. I like to believe that I can do everything and anything. The past couple of years I've been challenging myself to say "no" more often. To people, environments, situations, jobs that just aren't for me. It's OK to walk away from something that you know is not good for you. Trust your gut, and at the end of the day know that protecting your health and sanity needs to be your #1 priority.
I started using CBD oil this past winter and have really enjoyed it. I will say, the effects are subtle but noticeable over time. This is not a drug or a quick fix. I have used Pure Kana in mint at 600 mg, and CBDistillery at 1,000 mg. Just as the websites suggest, start out at the lowest dose and see what works for you. For me, I'm experiencing lower baselines of anxiety and more overall happiness after 5 months of daily use. I love utilizing CBD to help me get a better night's sleep or take a bit of the edge off an extremely busy day.
This is a new one for me, and admittedly super hard to do in the winter. I've read about the many benefits of a cold shower, but never put it into action. The first 20-30 seconds are torture. Lots of heavy and deep breathing, use of the F word. In ways, it does trigger some of those same feelings of experiencing a panic attack. But after about 45 seconds in, the body starts to relax and adjusts to the cold. The result? A lighter, happier, more energized feeling to carry you into the day. Plus, you've already endured something uncomfortable and survived. You've hyperventilated, screamed, and gone through fight or flight. For people who experience panic, there's something about triggering that on your own and getting it out of the way that makes you feel like everything will be OK. Because it will.
Share Your Story
Talk to people! Share what works for you. Don't hide your struggles, and don't be ashamed. You never know who might be battling these same symptoms silently. When I started talking openly about my anxiety, a lot of my friends and family were surprised. I know that I project the image of being very strong and stable. But, we all have our weaknesses and insecurities. Sometimes the people who appear the strongest need to be checked in on too. We are all dealing with something. For me, being open about my anxiety has helped me with my own, and I hope has helped others. The more we can be open and transparent about mental health, the more we can lean on one another and help each other get through it. No state is permanent, and there are so many ways to make it better. It takes consistency and daily work, but it's so worth it.