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Overcoming Anxiety

posted May 31, 2017, 9:21 AM by Eli Roberts

by Amanda  

“Mom! Come see these animal tracks under the playscape! You can be the mountain lion, and we’ll be the bunnies. Please, Mom?”

“I’m sorry boys. I just can’t right now. Please, just go play.” I stood, frozen with fear. The panic over the potential source of pain in my upper abdominal area overcame me - swallowed me whole - engulfed my mind in a world of negative possibilities, each one ending in painful, agonizing disease and death, leaving my children motherless and my husband to fend for himself as a single parent.

          Later that afternoon, I found myself in a dark room, sobbing, covered with a heavy quilt in the dead of summer- wishing for an end to my suffering. Ironically, I was afraid to take anti-anxiety medication for fear of its myriad side-effects, including addiction. I wondered if there was any hope for me. Out of utter desperation, I consulted my local moms’ group listserv online, and only minutes later, my in-box filled with recommendations for psychiatrists, acupuncturists, nutritionists, spiritual advisors, and others who had helped the group overcome anxiety and depression. After several tearful, hushed phone calls, I had scheduled appointments with a nutritionist and a psychotherapist and had registered for an anti-anxiety yoga therapy clinic. Three years later, I am on the mend, able to enjoy my sons’ laughter on the playground and live in the moment with them as opposed to being trapped in a fear-induced rumination of repetitive thoughts, flooded with stress hormones, and robbed of my ability to feel joy and pleasure.

          Now, I know anxiety relief is possible through non-pharmaceutical methods, including changes in diet, nutrition, and exercise, dedication to stress-reduction and management, and cognitive-behavioral modification.



Nutritionist Dr. Marlene Merritt inquired about my symptoms. I told her I felt light-headed, dizzy, lethargic, yet jittery all the time and that every intestinal cramp or abdominal sensation became major triggers for my health-related anxiety. She asked what I’d eaten for breakfast. I told her I had always tried to eat a healthy well-balanced diet; for example, I’d eaten organic, whole-grain cereal in skim milk with a banana for breakfast and Triscuits with low fat cheese and avocado for lunch. Dr. Merritt quickly identified a lack of high quality protein in my day’s meals and suggested, “Increase your intake of vegetables, protein  (including hormone-free, grass-fed beef and free-range chicken), high quality fats (such as coconut oil, avocados, olive oil, and pasture-raised butter), nuts, and other wholesome foods. Cut down to 60 or fewer carbohydrates per day, and… no more bread.”

Changing my diet would allow my body to adjust out of the insulin-resistant, pre-diabetic stage many Americans currently, unwittingly experience.  She explained that insulin-resistance is on the rise in our country as a result of our dependence on processed foods full of refined carbohydrates and sugars. Processed food goes into the body and quickly converts to glucose. The pancreas secretes insulin, allowing us to assimilate and use that sugar. We feel satiated for a while, then we experience a quick decline in blood sugar levels within the next couple of hours, necessitating another meal, and perpetuating the cycle.  Increasing protein and fat intake and snacking on nuts or vegetables throughout the day helps keep blood sugar levels stable.  After an adjustment period of about five days, I felt 80% better and had no more dizzy spells. Eating this way is sometimes difficult, but the difference I feel makes the challenge worthwhile. When I slip up and eat junk food or overindulge on tortillas or bread, the little intestinal cramps and dizzy spells creep right back into my life, piquing my anxiety.


Stress Reduction

The second specialist I saw, Genevieve Yellin, Registered Yoga Therapist (RYT), developed an Overcoming-Anxiety Yoga Therapy Clinic as a result of her own struggle with side effects from pharmaceuticals she used to treat her debilitating anxiety.  Through the integration of holistic healing methods, such as acupuncture, massage therapy, gentle yoga, aromatherapy, and meditation, she gradually reduced her dependence on pills, and is now helping others overcome their anxiety, naturally, through education and experience in those same techniques. 

Genevieve taught me a few different forms of meditation, including chanting mantra, which turned out to be highly effective in helping me redirect my thought patterns from obsessive ruminations to positive affirmations. She described our minds as “creatures of habit,” and explained that the more we allow a thought to run wild, the stronger the neural pathway becomes for that thought, and the more difficult it becomes to change it. She said repetitive, anxious thoughts are like wagon wheels, and the neural pathways are like deep ruts on a dirt road. It is very hard to jump out of those ruts, but it is so necessary in order to change direction. The use of mantra is a great solution.  Every time my paranoid mind interjects, “That pain MUST be cancerous,” I visualize a red stop sign and answer myself with, “I am happy, healthy, and safe.”  I repeat my mantra at least 108 times per day, once for each bead on my mala, or prayer/ meditation necklace. I record the number of mantra repetitions on an iPhone app called Mantra Tracker. My current total is 65,308 recitations; and, chanting, even silently while driving or walking or bathing my sons, has become a natural response to my insistent, anxious thoughts. 

Genevieve described anxiety symptoms as self-perpetuating and shared that the more often our bodies and brains are flooded with cortisol, adrenaline, and other stress hormones, the more quickly and easily we engage in the fight/freeze/flight response. Exercise and relaxation help flush those excess hormones from our systems. The more often we trigger our relaxation response, the easier it becomes for us to unwind, and the more tolerance we have, so we’re not instantly triggered by every tiny stressor.  One of the most effective breathing exercises I learned was the extended exhalation technique where I breathe in for a count of 8, hold the inhalation for 2 seconds, then slowly exhale for a count of 16 seconds. In other words, the exhalation is twice as long as the inhalation. In her clinic, she also leads students through guided relaxation meditations and offers the services of an acupuncturist to deepen the relaxation response. Armed with these tools and knowledge, I trigger my relaxation response several times daily to keep my stress hormones low.

Cognitive Behavioral Modification

Finally, I consulted a third specialist, Uva Most, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker with Stillpoint Psychotherapy.  Uva helped me gain confidence to break free from my ruminations and automatic “spiraling down the rabbit hole.” Through weekly 50 minute sessions, she helped me identify self-perpetuating habitual thoughts and behavioral patterns and gave me specific tools for helping to interrupt harmful, ingrained patterns. For example, I used to feel symptoms then immediately look them up on WebMD. Uva encouraged me to wait a few days, to allot myself five minutes to “go down the rabbit hole” and really dwell on the symptoms, including looking them up online with the conscious awareness of the risk I was allowing myself to take.  Through this self-examination, I quickly learned my symptoms were often temporary and did not necessitate trips to my physician, real or virtual.  I also noticed that focusing on the symptoms and looking them up on the web made me feel worse – absolutely heightening my symptoms of anxiety: racing heart, nausea, numbness in the extremities, and an overwhelming sense of dread.  Uva reiterated Genevieve’s basic message, “Neurons that fire together, wire together. If you want relief from ingrained patterns, you must forge new neuropathways to re-wire your brain.”

Uva also encouraged me to try skullcap tincture three times a day to assist with softening my anxious response to overstimulation. Within the first 20 minutes, I noticed a difference: it felt like I had put cotton balls on my frazzled nerve endings. Now skullcap helps in disquieting situations where anxiety-triggers may run high, necessitating additional support.

With the help of mental and physical health specialists and by modifying my behavior, I have tamed my fear and taken my life back. Yes, I am keenly aware that everything is temporary; thankfully, I’m no longer ruled by obsessive thoughts of death and disease. I am reminded, as Franklin Roosevelt famously reported, “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.”