As some of you may know I have recently suffered a bereavement in my family. It was very sudden and unexpected, and the initial feeling was of pure shock. The ensuing emotions were of sadness, despair, longing, and then anxiety. I had already written a draft post about it before all this had happened, and now it’s even more significant.
Anxiety is my go-to emotion for any stressful life event (sometimes even during a happy time), so I knew to expect it. I’m just hard wired that way, and I have long since stopped trying to fight it or deny that it happens.
During the last 2 weeks the physical symptoms of anxiety have been quite prevalent: tight chest, rapid heart beat, pins and needles, jelly legs, hot and cold flushes, clenching of teeth, tense muscles, digestive problems and headaches. Mentally, the symptoms have included racing thoughts, feelings of dread, feeling that I’m losing control, and depersonalisation.
When I first began to experience panic attacks years ago I was so scared that I was losing my mind that I considered sectioning myself. Anxiety is a very real and very frightening condition, but it is also very common and easily treatable.
Initially my doctor prescribed me citalopram. I was in such a state that I gulped that first pill down in a second, desperate to just feel normal again. It didn’t work like that though. Stupidly I thought that I could take a magic tablet and everything would be better, my crazy thoughts would go away and I would go back to being me. I remember my doctor telling me to practice deep breathing and start exercising…“What?!! Just give me the f***ing drugs”!
If only I’d have listened and researched a bit more into it, I could have got a handle on this years ago, and wouldn’t have been on and off medication with its awful side effects.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not against taking medication at all, and I do believe it helped me in the short term. However, no tablet in the world can stop your brain from thinking altogether. I wanted to know what I could do to help myself, and to do that, I learned everything there is to know about anxiety.
The science behind the fear
When our brains perceive that we are under threat, they release the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Thousands of years ago this was extremely useful for when we were faced with a sabre toothed tiger for example. We could either run or stand our ground – the fight or flight response.
It is merely a survival technique that is triggered unconsciously (like breathing or digesting food). However, in our modern world, threats aren’t so straight forward as coming face to face with a deadly animal. Sometimes our fight or flight response gets it wrong, like a faulty car alarm.
Our brains just haven’t evolved quickly enough and we are essentially using primitive tools in an advanced world. Our bodies are amazing and complex though, and those stress hormones could actually save our lives. Here’s why we experience all those unpleasant sensations during a panic attack and the reasons why:
- Our blood pressure increases and breathing speeds up in preparation for muscular effort (e.g a fight)
- Our legs shake (jelly legs) as they are prepared for running (flight)
- Our hands shake as the large muscles of our arms are prepared to fight
- Our palms and feet may become sweaty to give us better grip
- Blood is shunted away from our stomach to the major muscle groups where it will be used during an emergency – hence the digestive problems such as heartburn. This is also why sometimes during a panic attack we might feel like being sick or have diarrhoea…if we are lighter then we are better able to run from an attacker
- Our pupils dilate to let more light in so as we can gain more information about the situation
How incredible is that? So basically a panic attack is our unconscious mind trying to protect us. These ‘trip-wires’ (the fight or flight response) can vary from person to person.
Some are more sensitive than others, and they are triggered by the amount of stress and anxiety in a person’s life. Or even after a stressful situation has occurred, purely by thinking about it.
These stress hormones, especially cortisol, can have a real detrimental effect if they are being constantly pumped into the bloodstream long term. It destroys healthy muscle and bone, slows down healing and normal cell regeneration, impairs digestion, metabolism and mental function, interferes with the healthy endocrine function, weakens the immune system and causes adrenal fatigue – ever felt tired but wired?
Chronically elevated cortisol levels that are not burned off also cause brain fog, depression, mood swings, memory loss, concentration problems and, of course, anxiety. It also explains that when we are experiencing a high level of stress or anxiety we are usually constantly ill with colds and really run down.
How to reduce anxiety
Doctors prescribe antidepressants for people with anxiety as they can suppress cortisol levels, thus reducing the anxiety symptoms. However, the effect can wear off as the body gets used to taking the tablet every day.
There are also other side effects associated with these drugs (I experienced horrendous side effects initially, and found that I was more anxious in the first few weeks). There are other, natural, and much more effective ways to reduce cortisol levels and get anxiety under control:
- EXERCISE – This really is magical. It’s like pouring water over a fire, and it works every single time. Endorphins that are released during exercise completely burn off the stress hormones. That’s just the tip of the iceberg…the benefits of regular exercise really are astonishing. It helps the body regulate insulin, boosts immune function, lowers blood pressure, wards of cancer and increases seratonin levels. It’s basically a free antidepressant but you also get fit, lose weight and don’t have any side effects. You don’t have to join an expensive gym, I work out at home in my pyjamas with an exercise DVD every other day. My 2 year old does it with me! We also walk a lot, and swim. Exercise benefits hormone levels because, although it temporarily increases adrenaline and cortisol production, it generally helps bring cortisol back down to normal levels afterward. This cycle helps your body better handle stress and gives your autonomic nervous system (the one that controls your stress and relaxation responses) its own workout. This means that the next time your stress hormones rise due to a perceived threat, you should be able to lower cortisol levels more easily. I have definitely found this to be true. Even when I do get anxious now it pretty much disappears as soon as it has arrived.
- PRACTICE MINDFULNESS – Meditation is something I associated with buddhists or hippies and pretty much dismissed it years ago as nonsense. How wrong was I! The benefits of it are unbelievable. A recent review of nearly 50 scientific studies found that mindfulness was as effective as anti-depressants in helping with depression and stress, but with no side effects. How amazing is that?! We can actually train our brains to turn off the stress response and change its functioning. I use the Headspace app on my phone and I look forward to my 10 minutes out every day. I couldn’t live without it now, and I have definitely noticed a change in my overall mood.
- PRACTICE DEEP BREATHING – When we are anxious it can sometimes feel that we can’t breathe properly and that we don’t have enough oxygen, when in fact the opposite is true – we have too much of it! To get rid of the excess oxygen we need a certain amount of CO2. To do this we need to breathe out for longer than we breathe in. Deep breathing is so effective in doing this, by breathing into our tummies or diaphragm which is below our chest. This causes stimulation of the part of our nervous system responsible for relaxation. This is a basic law of biology and if you breathe in this way then your body will have no choice but to respond, regardless of what your mind is thinking. I do this as soon as I feel anxious and it works.
- AVOID RUBBISH FOOD – Poorly managed blood sugar can contribute to high cortisol levels. The worst are pre-packaged, processed food that are high in refined sugar and trans fats. Sugary drinks, alcohol, caffeine and too many carbs should also be consumed in moderation or not at all. There is a whole load of evidence now to suggest that depression/anxiety are associated with gut health. It’s funny now that during this extremely stressful time in my life I have actually turned to super green juices and green tea rather than alcohol and chocolate! And I feel so much better for it. Make sure you’re eating loads of fruit, vegetables and protein. I also make sure I eat oily fish twice a week, and keep well hydrated during the day with water. Don’t get me wrong there are days when only a glass of wine and a slice of pizza will suffice, and that’s ok as long as the rest of the time you eat healthily.
- FIND AN OUTLET – Start a hobby, join a group (online groups are just as good), write, paint, dance, sing, knit, cook, take photos…anything that uses the creative part of your brain. Channel your excess energy into something that you enjoy doing. There’s a million things out there and we have infinite possibilities at our fingertips with the internet. The world is your oyster! I started this blog as a direct result of my over anxious brain, and it’s the best thing i’ve ever done. I love the process of writing everything down, it is so cathartic. The blogging community is so supportive, and there is always someone out there who has gone through something similar.
- LEARN CBT TECHNIQUES – Or common sense as I like to call it. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy is the most effective way of treating anxiety because it focuses on thoughts and thought processes. I was never referred to a CBT therapist and couldn’t afford to pay privately, so I read a couple of books and loads of information online. It helped tremendously, and I automatically use these techniques now whenever I have intrusive thoughts. One of the best techniques is to simply write all your thoughts down on paper. By seeing them in black and white you can see how logical they are. The next step is to challenge them. For example, you might have a negative thought of “I’m worried that I’ll embarrass myself at the staff party”. You can then challenge that thought with a more positive outlook such as “I probably won’t embarrass myself”, or “who cares if I embarrass myself? What’s the worst that can happen?”. Over time, this will happen naturally. I really think that even changing certain words has helped me in overcoming anxiety. For example, I don’t like the phrase “I’m fighting a battle inside my own head”. Not only do I hate fighting in any form, it also implies that it’s a battle that you might lose. I prefer to say something like “I’m going through a bit of a shit time at the moment and the old cortisol has stepped up a gear.”
All these things combined have worked absolute wonders for me. I take real comfort in the fact that I can just breathe or take 10 minutes out to meditate, and I will feel instantly calmer.
It’s not a quick fix though, which I have come to realise. Just like with physical health and diet, you can’t just exercise and eat well for a week and expect to lose a stone, it’s a gradual process over time which has to be maintained.
I will never neglect my mental health or take it for granted. Life is full of ups and downs, with plenty of stressful moments along the way (especially parenthood!), but I feel so strong now…I’ve got my armour.
I am not a doctor or medically qualified in anyway, and if you are experiencing anxiety/panic attacks I would urge you to please go to your GP straight away. I’m lucky now in that I have got to a point where I feel like I can control my anxiety naturally, but at the start there was no way I could have done it without medication.
With a combination of medication, therapy and some of the other techniques I’ve listed, you will make a full recovery. There is absolutely no shame in admitting you need some help. Taking care of your mental health is the single most important thing you can do for yourself and your family. The more we talk about it, the easier it will become.