How I Got Through The Anxiety Shit-Storm That Was My Life
On the morning of April 9, 2019, I was brushing my teeth in the bathroom when—out of nowhere—I was hit by a panic attack. It started with an intense wave of dizziness, a sort of floating sensation and a sudden and bizarre loss of hearing along with ear pressure. 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.
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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 mass of anxiety in an episode that lasted for days.
I remember sitting on the living room floor, crying, because I couldn't face our weekly grocery shopping trip. My brain couldn't handle even the most basic day-to-day operations. I felt broken beyond repair, and consumed by a pervasive feeling of dread and fear that seemed to come for no reason.
I couldn’t work. I couldn’t eat. I turned down invitations to get together with family. Even the idea of responding to a single email felt unconquerable. I went a full three weeks without working out -- the longest period I’ve had with no training since I started two decades ago!
Everything became a threat, and my heart wouldn’t stop racing. Even familiar sounds, like my husband’s footsteps around the house, seemed frightening. It was enough to make me feel crazy.... and nothing seemed to help or relieve my anxiety.
When I reflect on this time of my life, I still don’t understand exactly why it happened. Much of what happened was likely beyond my control—hello, brain chemistry! After all, anxiety is the most common mental illness in North America, affecting 12% of Canadians and 18% of Americans every year.
So, how did I get through the three weeks from hell?
Is there a cure for anxiety? Or at the very least a way to heal?
Well, first I should note here that I’m not a psychologist or a psychiatrist, but I do have experience managing my own anxiety, which has been an obstacle to both my wellbeing and my performance as an athlete at times.
Knowing how serious this episode had been, I decided to go see my doctor. She prescribed Ativan, which dulled my anxiety, but it was clear that this wouldn’t be a long-term approach. At my next visit, she prescribed the more long-term medication Effexor. I knew that anxiety medication would be an effective tool, but I felt strongly that there were underlying issues for me to deal with if I was going to move forward in the most healthful and holistic way possible, and no amount of medicine was going to do that work for me (nor would it magically fix things).
Once I got through the brutal side effects of starting my anxiety meds, I started working with a counsellor. I knew I was going to have to go deep if I wanted to ensure a good recovery and reduce the likelihood of something like this happening again.
In the weeks following the panic attack that set things off, I threw absolutely everything I could at the anxiety. This experience was a big wake-up call to take my mental health as seriously as I take my physical health. Just like someone who decides to improve their diet after a heart attack scare, I knew I had to get on top of my mental wellbeing.
While the initial anxiety episode lasted 3 weeks, it took many months to feel fully functional again,
Overview: How To Deal With Debilitating Anxiety
1) Mindfulness And Meditation
3) Hormone testing
4) Books That Can Help With Anxiety
5) Supplements For Anxiety
7) Finding A Better Work-Life Balance
7 Things That Helped Me With Anxiety
Here’s a list of seven things that 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!
1) Mindfulness And Meditation
Meditation is one of the most effective anxiety management strategies I’ve come across. I’ve meditated off and on for years. But after my panic attack, I recommitted to a daily practice. As I write this, I’ve meditated for 184 days in a row. I’m a huge fan of the Headspace app, and alternate between using that for guided meditation, and doing my own practice.
In his book 10% Happier, Dan Harris calls meditation “a radical internal jiujitsu move that… [allows] you to face the asshole in your head directly, and peacefully disarm him.”
When it comes to anxiety management, mindfulness is what we’re going for. Mindfulness is the ability to recognize what’s going on in your mind, without getting sucked into it. It’s a mental state wherein we become acutely aware of the present moment, acknowledging and accepting any feelings, thoughts, or sensations that come our way.
Being present and developing mindfulness translates into all aspects of our lives, not just in kicking anxiety’s ass. I’ve found that mindfulness has helped me with all sorts of things, from being able to zero in on a single task, to letting me acknowledge and deal with my nervousness while flying.
As mentioned earlier, medication can be instrumental in getting a grip on your anxiety, and can help with the brain’s “rewiring” process when coupled with things like counselling and mindfulness. Treating anxiety without medication can be an option for some people, but don't let the belief that medication is inherently bad prevent you from seeking treatment.
I’m now on an extremely low dose of Effexor, a long-term anti-anxiety medication which is classified as a serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI). My dose is the same as the one they use to test whether a patient tolerates this drug before increasing to a more typical dose—minimal, but it really seems to help. The first two weeks of side effects were horrendous—for a while it felt like Effexor was making my anxiety worse... but since then I've found this medication to be super helpful.
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. Medication for supporting mental health faces an alarming amount of stigma, unfortunately. Just remember that this is a personal decision, and only you can know what is right for you.
[2022 update: I was on Effexor for two years, then gradually decreased my dose as I weaned myself off it. I'm now medication- and anxiety-free!]
3) Hormone testing
At the suggestion of my counsellor, I spoke with a naturopath. I’m extremely skeptical of this profession, as many naturopaths engage in practices such as homeopathy which are not evidence-based. However, the one I spoke with had a background in biology and kinesiology, and seemed more legit than most. She had me do the DUTCH hormone test, predicting that my progesterone would be incredibly low. She was right.
For over a decade, I’ve used IUDs for birth control. These release low levels of a synthetic form of progesterone, meaning my body stopped needing to produce its own. Sure enough, the DUTCH test revealed that my natural progesterone level was essentially zero. My estrogen levels are normal, which meant there was a large imbalance between progesterone and estrogen levels. Could this have led to my anxiety shit-storm?
Unfortunately, hormone testing is not usually covered by medical care, and even in Canada where a great deal of healthcare is free, you have to pay this out of pocket (usually around $400).
4) Books That Can Help With Anxiety
I did a lot of reading on anxiety, and I found it extremely helpful. Here are 5 books that I would recommend for helping you get a more holistic understanding of anxiety.
i) 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. Weekes explains that the problem is not the anxiety symptoms themselves, but the meaning we create for them. Recovering from debilitating anxiety involves learning to accept the symptoms at face value.
Here’s Dr. Weekes’ method for reducing anxiety. Nice and simple!
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.”
ii) DARE: The New Way to End Anxiety and Stop Panic Attacks, by Barry McDonagh
This book was also pretty helpful for me, as it offers 4 simple 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.
In many ways, McDonagh’s method is fairly similar to Dr. Weekes’ method above, wouldn’t you say?
iii) Rewire Your Anxious Brain: How to Use the Neuroscience of Fear to End Anxiety, Panic, and Worry, by Dr. Catherine Pittman and Elizabeth Karle
This book provides an interesting look at the neurobiology of anxiety. The authors differentiate between amygdala-based anxiety (which feels very physical, and is the type I was dealing with) and cortex-based anxiety (which involves worry and racing thoughts). I hadn’t seen a comparison like this before, and I found it really useful!
iv) 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.
v) 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works--A True Story, by Dan Harris
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, with gems such as:
“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.”
Helpful themes from these books
As I read through these books, several themes became apparent:
Relabeling anxiety as excitement.
Acceptance versus avoidance, and not getting caught up in how you think you should be feeling.
Mindfulness: observing your thoughts from a place of detachment.
Experiences that mirror what happened with me: an anxiety “switch” that suddenly turned on and that I couldn’t turn off.
5) Supplements For Anxiety
There are lots of different supplements that people take to help deal with anxiety. Here are a few that I tried, 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 supporting it, 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 shit-storm I experienced, 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.
7) Finding A Better Work-Life Balance
This is a biggie. As an entrepreneur who works mostly from home, it’s easy for my work life to slowly creep into—and eventually devour!!—my home life. If you’re interested in reading more about this, check out my article Finding A Better Work-Life Balance.
In typical action-taker fashion, I threw everything I could at my overwhelming anxiety: hormone testing, reading and learning, supplements, counselling, prioritizing non-work life, redesigning my workweek, meditation, medication, and then some.
For me, my panic attack 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. And while I doubt I'll ever be able to live without anxiety (and why should I?), I'm glad to have successfully overcome a severe and debilitating episode of anxiety and fear. In that sense, this is a success story, not only for getting through it, but also for helping me build my resilience and capacity.
Facing my anxiety has been instrumental to my personal and professional growth. If you’re struggling with anxiety, there is hope! Talk to your doctor, talk to your friends, talk to professionals, and know that this too shall pass! And keep in mind that the best treatment for anxiety is going to depend on your unique situation.
By the way, two things I did not mention here are exercise and nutrition. Like I said, this list is what I tried to deal with my own anxiety… exercise and nutrition are a staple for me, like breathing air! But exercise and nutrition are also crucial to keeping down your stress and anxiety. If you need help with either of these things, contact us or apply to train with us today!
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, 19-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.