My experience with debilitating anxiety, and the 8 things I did to overcome it
The worst 3 weeks of my life happened not because there was anything particularly stressful going on, but because my brain decided to contort itself into a malignant mass of anxiety. I haven’t experienced anything more difficult than dealing with the torment it put me through, and the hard work it took to heal.
Almost 7 months later, I still don’t know why it happened. Much of it is likely beyond my control (hello, brain chemistry!), but I came up with 8 things I could control. Many of these factors might be worth considering for your own mental health, especially if you’re experiencing anxiety. Anxiety is, after all, the most common mental illness in North America, affecting 12% of Canadians and 18% of Americans every year.
One of the most important healing factors for me – completely restructuring my work, including my schedule, deep-seated beliefs about productivity, social media use, and system for getting things done – could help you decrease stress even if you don’t experience full-blown anxiety.
The Anxiety Shitstorm
On the morning of April 9, 2019, I was brushing my teeth in the bathroom when, out of nowhere, a panic attack hit me. It started with an intense wave of dizziness and the bizarre loss of hearing that strikes right before you faint. At the time, I thought I could be having an allergic reaction. I grabbed my EpiPen and told my husband that something was seriously wrong.
The room spun, my breathing was shallow, and the only thing I felt was a sense of impending doom. I lay down in bed, and ended up staying there for 3 weeks.
The “on” switch for paralyzing anxiety had somehow been flipped, and it wouldn’t turn off. I felt as though my brain had completely ceased normal operation, and had broken beyond repair. Thinking about responding to even a single email felt unconquerable. Pure fear – of what, exactly, I don’t know – made even the simplest day-to-day tasks impossible. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t eat. I had to miss a planned visit from my aunt and uncle who live out of town. I didn’t work out for 3 weeks: the longest period I’ve had with no training since I started 17 years ago.
I remember sitting on the living room floor, crying, because I couldn't face our weekly grocery shopping trip. It feels ridiculous thinking about it now, but at the time, my broken brain couldn't handle even the most basic day-to-day operations.
The day after my panic attack, I remember having to pee. The thought of getting out of bed and walking 20 steps to the bathroom was so overwhelming that I just stayed in bed and didn’t move. For 7 hours.
All stimuli being presented to my brain were interpreted as threatening, and my heart wouldn’t stop racing. Familiar sounds – even the sound of my husband’s footsteps around the house – seemed frightening.
Two days after the panic attack, I saw my doctor. She prescribed Ativan and told me to come back in 2 weeks. Ativan was the only thing that dulled the anxiety, but I knew it wasn’t a long-term approach. At my next visit, she prescribed the more long-term medication Effexor.
So, why did the “anxiety switch” turn on? Was it a (very) delayed reaction to having moved away from my home city? Was it a sign that I was working too much and not taking enough time off? Was it my forward-thinking brain that likes to catastrophize, finally saying, “I’ve had enough”? Or a hormonal imbalance? It was likely a combination of all of these factors, plus, I hypothesize, just plain ol’ brain chemistry.
Being inexperienced with this sort of thing, for 3 weeks I tried to hide from anxiety in the “safe zone” of my bed, and will it away. I learned later that avoidance and attempting to control the anxiety was precisely the wrong approach.
Once I got through the brutal first two weeks of Effexor side effects (nausea, headaches, brain fog, insomnia for the first time in my life), I started working with a counsellor. While neither of us was clear on why this Anxiety Shitstorm, as I now call it, occurred, not being mindful of my work schedule certainly played a large role. And it was something I could directly control. (Brain chemistry – not so much!) I’ll share more on this shortly, and I’ll hopefully bring up some points you can consider for your own work schedule.
In the weeks following the panic attack that set things off, I threw absolutely everything I could at the anxiety. I interpreted this experience as a wake-up call to take my own mental health as seriously as I do my physical health. We all know someone who had to experience a major health scare like a heart attack before he or she started exercising regularly and eating well. This was similar for me.
By the way, my friend Vanessa and I named my anxiety Barry. Naming it reminds me that the anxiety is an entity separate from me. It doesn’t define me, and while it’s part of me, it isn’t all of me. “Barry” wears a 1970s-style beige polyester suit with prominent armpit sweat stains. He’s got thin, greasy hair and a bald spot awkwardly covered with a combover. These days, Barry makes only rare appearances, but when he does, I let him hang out for a bit while I go about my business, knowing he’ll leave me alone soon enough.
8 things I tried to alleviate anxiety
Here’s everything I tried to help alleviate my anxiety. Some things worked well, and others didn’t. If you experience anxiety yourself, you may find some new strategies to try. And just because some of them didn’t work for me, doesn’t mean they won’t work for you!
Meditation is one of the most effective anxiety management strategies I’ve come across. I’ve meditated off and on for years, but after the Anxiety Shitstorm, I’ve recommitted to a daily practice. As Dan Harris puts so well in his excellent book 10% Happier, meditation is “a radical internal jiujitsu move that [is] supposed to allow you to face the asshole in your head directly, and peacefully disarm him.”
As I write this, I’ve meditated for 184 days in a row. I’m a huge fan of the Headspace app, and alternate using that for guided meditation, and doing my own practice.
For anxiety management, mindfulness is what we’re going for. According to Google’s dictionary, mindfulness is “a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.”
Mindfulness is the ability to recognize what’s going on in your mind, without getting sucked into it. Dan Harris writes, “…the voice in my head is still, in many ways, an asshole. However, mindfulness now does a pretty good job of tying up the voice and putting duct tape over its mouth.”
Being present and developing mindfulness translates into all aspects of our lives, not just kicking anxiety’s ass. I’ve noticed it’s helped everything from being able to focus on one thing at a time while working, to dealing with nervousness while flying.
As mentioned earlier, I’m now on Effexor – a long-term anti-anxiety medication. It’s a serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI), and can help with the brain’s “rewiring” process when coupled with things like counselling and meditation. The first two weeks of side effects were horrendous, but it’s been fantastic since then.
I’m on an extremely low dose – the one they use to test whether a patient tolerates it before increasing to a more typical dose – but it really seems to help. Being on medication is one of the biggest changes I’ve made, so it furthers my hypothesis that much of my anxiety is pure brain chemistry, rather than a response to a certain event or situation.
At the suggestion of my counsellor, I spoke with a naturopath. I’m extremely skeptical of this profession, as many naturopaths engage in ridiculously non-evidence-based practices like homeopathy. However, the one I spoke with seemed more legit than most, with a background in biology and kinesiology. She had me do the DUTCH hormone test, predicting that my progesterone would be incredibly low. She was right.
I’ve used IUDs for birth control for over a decade. They release low levels of a synthetic form of progesterone, so my body no longer needs to produce its own. Sure enough, via the DUTCH test, we discovered that my natural progesterone level is essentially zero. My estrogen levels are normal, which means there’s a large imbalance between progesterone and estrogen levels. Could this be part of the Anxiety Shitstorm?
My current IUD is at the end of its lifecycle, so I may try to go without and see if it makes any difference – but not before my husband gets a vasectomy, which he’s happy to do!
Side note: It’s unfortunate that hormone testing is available, even in Canada, only if you pay for it ($400, to be exact).
I did a lot of reading on anxiety, and I found it extremely helpful.
Hope and Help for your Nerves, by Dr. Claire Weekes
Dr. Weekes is often considered to be the pioneer of modern anxiety treatment via cognitive therapy. Originally written in 1962, the writing style seemed very out-of-date, but the concepts described are still relevant.
Dr. Weekes explains that the problem is not the anxiety symptoms themselves. It’s the meaning we create for them. Recovering from debilitating anxiety involves learning to accept the symptoms at face value.
Here’s Dr. Weekes’s method for reducing anxiety:
1. Acknowledge the symptoms you’re feeling. Don’t avoid them.
2. Accept them for what they are: shallow breathing, racing heart, chest tightness, trembling, etc. Don’t fight them.
3. “Float” through the symptoms. Let them run their course without blowing them out of proportion or pushing them away.
4. Let time pass. People with anxiety have experienced episodes many, many times. “This too shall pass.”
DARE: The New Way to End Anxiety and Stop Panic Attacks, by Barry McDonagh
Well, it’s not exactly a new way to end anxiety, but it is a useful one. McDonagh recommends the following 4 steps for dealing with anxiety:
1. Defuse. “The biggest mistake most people make when anxiety strikes is to get caught up in ‘what if’ thoughts”, McDonagh says. Defusing means approaching anxiety with a “so what?” attitude.
Example: What if I have a panic attack right here in the car?
So what! I’ll pull over and get through it like I’ve always done in the past.
2. Allow. By “accepting the anxiety that you feel and allowing it to manifest in whatever way it wishes”, you’re well on your way to dissipating the anxiety.
3. Run toward. If the anxiety persists after the first two steps, McDonagh suggests running toward anxiety and reframing it as excitement. In clinical psychological terms, this is “arousal reappraisal”, and it works.
4. Engage. Participating in something that requires your full attention will prevent your mind from defaulting back to worry and fear.
Pretty similar to Dr. Weekes’s method, wouldn’t you say?
Rewire Your Anxious Brain: How to Use the Neuroscience of Fear to End Anxiety, Panic, and Worry, by Dr. Catherine Pittman and Elizabeth Karle
An interesting look at the neurobiology of anxiety. The authors differentiate between amygdala-based anxiety (which feels very physical, and is the type I have) and cortex-based anxiety (which involves worry and racing thoughts). I hadn’t seen a comparison like this before.
On Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety, by Andrea Petersen
Given to me by my friend Vanessa, this book reassured me that I’m not going crazy, after all! Petersen details her own anxiety disorder diagnosis and recovery, and ties in the biology of anxiety and fascinating clinical research on the topic.
Harris is a news anchor who had a panic attack on live national TV. He writes about his discovery of meditation in the least “woo”, most refreshing way I’ve ever come across:
“Meditation suffers from a towering PR problem, largely because its most prominent proponents talk as if they have a perpetual pan flute accompaniment.”
“I suspect that if the practice could be denuded of all the spiritual preening and straight-out-of-a-fortune-cookie lingo such as “sacred spaces,” “divine mother,” and “holding your emotions with love and tenderness,” it would be attractive to many more millions of smart, skeptical, and ambitious people who would never otherwise go near it.”
Themes among all anxiety books
Several themes across all these books became apparent:
- Relabeling anxiety as excitement.
- Acceptance versus avoidance, and not getting caught up in worry about worry, or fear about fear. It’s similar to when my husband uses cannabis for pain relief: “The pain is still there, but I don’t care about it as much.”
- Mindfulness: observing your thoughts from a place of detachment.
- Individual experiences that mirror mine: an anxiety “switch” that suddenly turned on and didn’t turn off.
I tried various different supplements, with varying effects:
In speaking with friends and members of social media groups, CBD was – by far – mentioned the most in relation to anxiety management. So many people seem to swear by it. According to Examine.com, CBD shows a lot of promise in animal research, but there have been relatively few human trials.
Unfortunately, CBD did nothing for me. As someone who reacts strongly to everything, this was surprising! I tried CBD oil in varying doses, bought a vaporizer, and even read the book CBD: A Patient's Guide to Medicinal Cannabis. Nothing.
One of my friends suggested trying an oil with a 10:1 ratio of CBD to THC. I might give that a try.
Valerian root tea
My sister recommended this as a before-bed routine to help with sleep. This stuff works! It made me extremely relaxed…but it turns out I’m allergic to it. So I was sleepy but also had an angry rash all over my back and stomach. Not a good combo, and super disappointing since this is one of the few supplements that worked.
This is one of those supplements (like creatine) that I take because of the scientific evidence, not because I notice any obvious differences. It’s one of the main active ingredients in green tea, and has been found to promote relaxation and decrease the perception of stress.
I worked with a clinical counsellor for 6 weekly sessions. Since there were no obvious (or even less obvious!) triggers for the Anxiety Shitstorm, we worked on maintenance strategies, and I had my first experiences with hypnosis (which, much like meditation, gets a bad rap but actually has useful and evidence-based applications). It felt similar to guided meditation, resulting in deep relaxation, focus on a particular sensation or concept, and a drastic decrease in “background” thoughts.
Redesigning my work day/week
This is something I’ve been working on since I started my business 8 years ago, but since the Anxiety Shitstorm it’s become much more important. Meditation, medication, and redesigning my work days are the 3 most effective anxiety-management strategies I’ve used. My capacity for busyness is now greatly reduced; if I cram too much into one day, Barry (my anxiety) will rear his ugly head the next day.
I’ve been attempting to decrease my weekly work hours and take weekends off regularly. As I’m sure most entrepreneurs have experienced, work tends to expand to fill the available time. If you’ve got 4 hours to write a report, it’ll take 4 hours. If you’ve only got 2 hours, you’ll find a way to get it done in 2 hours. So, I’m assigning my tasks as little time as possible.
In August I took my first real no-work vacation in two years, having my awesome assistant Izzy take over my coaching practice for a week. I definitely need to do this more often.
Two books, both by Cal Newport, have been particularly useful in redesigning my work schedule: Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, and Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.
Moving away from “busy” as a proxy for “important” or “productive”
I’m working hard to change my mindset about busyness (this has been a work in progress for many years). We often use being “busy” as a way to boast about the meaningfulness of our lives, and to signal that what we do is of utmost importance.
Just remember that we’re judged on our output, not on the number of hours we put in.
Cal Newport writes, “Knowledge workers…are tending toward increasingly visible busyness because they lack a better way to demonstrate their value.”
“In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.”
“Very busy!” used to be my default answer to, “How’re things going?” Not anymore. I’m still productive, but I’m not “busy” doing it. I’ve got a clear plan for my work priorities each day, and I aim to complete them in as little time as possible.
Here’s a brilliant passage from Tim Kreider’s The ‘Busy’ Trap:
“Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.
Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.
Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”
I find that a distracted brain is more likely to be an anxious one, so I institute regular blockout periods from social media, using the SelfControl app.
In Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport writes:
“The urge to check Twitter or refresh Reddit becomes a nervous twitch that shatters uninterrupted time into shards too small to support the presence necessary for an intentional life.”
The days I feel the most productive and the least scattered are the days where I’ve blocked myself out of social media for several hours at a time.
In keeping with my goal of minimizing distractions, I have email open only when I’m actively checking and answering messages (twice a day, scheduled into my calendar).
In Deep Work, Cal Newport writes:
“…by seeing messages that you cannot deal with at the moment (which is almost always the case), you’ll be forced to turn back to the primary task with a secondary task left unfinished.
…this is a foolhardy way to go about your day [checking inboxes], as it ensures that your mind will construct an understanding of your working life that’s dominated by stress, irritation, frustration, and triviality. The world represented by your inbox, in other words, isn’t a pleasant world to inhabit.”
I’ve unsubscribed from everything. When requests come in that aren’t related to coaching awesome vegan clients (i.e., the main focus of my business), my default answer is “no”. My husband and I were asked to participate in a video project that would have featured us and our work. We passed. I said “no thanks” to a $5000 project that related to veganism, but didn’t immediately relate to my coaching practice.
As someone who runs a 100% online business with clients all over the globe (and as someone who attempts to keep things as paper-free as possible), I use a ton of tech. I do try to stay mindful and use only that which is useful for my business, but in any given week, I use Asana, Google Calendar, iPhone reminders, Trainerize, Zoom, DropBox, Skype, Voxer, various screen recording apps, at least 3 different text editing applications, iMovie, GarageBand, and much more.
For the first time in almost a decade, a few weeks ago I went back to using an analog, paper-and-pen planner, and it’s been an absolute game-changer. It’s not just any ol’ planner – it’s the Full Focus Planner by Michael Hyatt (and no, I’m not an affiliate). It’s brilliant.
My main schedule, commitments, and reminders still live in Google Calendar, but the planner functions to prioritize my daily “big 3” tasks, list smaller To Dos that aren’t in Google Calendar, and create a rough schedule of when I’ll work on those To Dos. There’s something about writing things down that feels better than entering them digitally, and there’s lots of research to back this up (e.g. people who write down their goals are much, much more likely to achieve them versus people who keep them in their heads). Instead of keeping a running To Do list as a text file on my desktop, which always felt like a losing battle, To Dos are now listed in my planner.
This particular planner also has a fantastic Weekly Preview, in which you take stock of the previous week and plan ahead for the coming week. Using this old-school paper planner along with all my digital tools has decreased my feeling of overwhelm (like the never-ending To Dos), and increased my focus. If you’re a planning and productivity nerd like me, check out the Full Focus Planner.
Prioritizing non-work life
Music has always been a part of my life, but since the Anxiety Shitstorm, I’ve made a commitment to have it be more prominent.
Along with saying “no” to additional work projects, I’m saying “yes” to more music projects. In June I started a project with a new performance partner: we’re rehearsing the entire soundtrack to the Amélie movie, composed by Yann Tiersen. I’ve also been playing didgeridoo more often, including performing at our town’s biggest street festival, and an upcoming studio recording session.
In typical action-taker fashion, I threw everything I had at my anxiety: hormone testing, reading and learning, supplements, counselling, prioritizing non-work life, redesigning my workweek, meditation, and medication. The latter 3 made the most difference, although I’ll continue to pursue all 8.
The Anxiety Shitstorm was a wake-up call to take my mental health as seriously as I take my physical health. It showed me that the worst imaginable hell can be created by my own brain, but also that this same brain can heal.
I’ll give the last word(s) to Andrea Petersen, author of On Edge:
“People who have a brush with death often talk of how it has given them a sense of what really matters. An omnipresent fear of disaster, a constant bracing for catastrophe can do that, too. Time takes on more urgency. Anxiety means I’m simply not mellow enough to take things for granted. And that has made my life all the richer.”
About Karina Inkster
Karina is your go-to vegan fitness coach, providing a friendly kick in the butt that motivates you to live your best, healthiest, most plant-strong life. Author, speaker, podcast host, award-winning online coach, 17-year vegan, and lover of chin-ups, Karina works tirelessly to ensure her clients skyrocket their energy, confidence, and plant-based health superpowers. Apply for coaching here.