Are you someone who has been struggling with anxiety for years now? Well, maybe this story will finally help you to heal from it.
Anxiety was just a part of who I was because I’d experienced it my whole life. With a lot of knowledge and commitment, I healed my anxiety. My hope is that by sharing my own story, I can help others do the same. Healing anxiety is possible for anyone who wants it badly enough.
Anxious thoughts started in my earliest memories of childhood. I would lay in bed at age 5 or 6 having thoughts that someone would break-in. If my dad was traveling for work, I’d stare at the clock with a knot in my stomach hoping he’d get home safely. My internal anxiety made me a shy kid. When guests came over, I would literally hide under tables or have a death grip around my mom’s leg. The world was a scary place for me.
Of course, now I understand my steady diet of ice cream, cookies, and processed foods played a major role in this, but more on that later.
I developed the ability to channel my anxiety. It became a positive, functional tool like it is for most textbook overachievers. I was a straight-A student and a star athlete. I could never relax until every assignment was done. My room was spotless. I was organized. I won awards.
But inside I was a mess.
After college, I moved to New York City for grad school. This is when my anxiety started spiraling out of control. My chest was tight almost every waking moment. My sleep was terrible. I was lucky to fall asleep and if I did, I’d only stay asleep for a few hours before I’d wake up unable to fall back asleep.
I was still doing well in school because studying had so long been a way I soothed my internal anxiety. But other parts of my life were suffering like personal relationships and my work at my externship. I was struggling to keep it all together and turned to partying to numb what I was unable to cope with.
My second year in New York, suddenly I found out my mom needed to get open-heart surgery. My anxiety went through the roof. I was drinking too much and started using drugs, but I rationalized it as part of normal grad school behavior. Anyone who’s used anything to cover anxiety knows that it only adds fuel to the fire. I spent most of the week in a familiar cycle of studying and working, being hungover, and repeating it. It’s hard to believe I was that person but I knew nothing else.
Eventually, I had my first panic attack.
I was sitting on my bed getting ready to meet a friend. My heart started pounding out of my chest and my hands and feet went completely numb. I tried to calm myself down but I couldn’t. Before I knew it I was full-on hyperventilating.
Consciously I knew I was having a panic attack, but the surge of adrenaline was no match for rational thought.
I considered calling 9-11.
My hands shook and I could barely put on shoes as I got myself ready for the hospital. I was convinced I was dying.
If you’ve ever had a panic attack, you have one thing on your mind: not having another one. Two weeks later I was sitting across from a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with panic disorder and handed me two prescriptions. One for an SSRI and another for a benzodiazepine.
Back then, I was being taught and bought into the “broken brain” model of conventional psychology. Medication just seemed necessary to me at that time. I spent 4 years taking them every day. I convinced myself I would need them my whole life.
One day, during a YouTube binge, I came across Dr. Natasha Campbell McBride. She was talking about her book Gut and Psychology Syndrome. It was the first time I was hearing about the microbiome and how it influenced behavior. They say when the student is ready the teacher appears. I was ready. Her work sent me down a rabbit hole of obsessive learning that changed my own mindset and the way I treat clients forever.
I couldn’t unlearn what I was learning.
By then I had finished up my Ph.D. and started working in the field. In a decade of school, I’d never heard of anything I was learning on my own. The microbiome, gut-brain axis, probiotics, and inflammation were all completely new to me. All of a sudden I’m learning that 70% of serotonin is made in the gut and bugs in our gut influence our moods. To say my mind was blown was an understatement.
I was armed with a new understanding that anxiety is not a disorder but a symptom with a root cause looking to be corrected.
Physical vs. Mental Anxiety
I think its important to address the difference between physical and mental anxiety.
Mental anxiety is a normal adaptive human response to a threat. It’s a quick fight or flight response when we are in danger that has helped us to evolve. Today, this kind of anxiety looks like nerves before a presentation or anxious jittery feelings before a date. It’s short, sweet, and appropriate to the experience.
Then there’s physical anxiety.