Disclaimer: Mental illness is a serious issue so if you need help, please talk to a professional. This is my personal story that I’m choosing to share in hopes that it encourages someone else on their journey. It was my own decision to tackle anxiety without taking medication, and I am not in any way telling you to do the same thing or passing judgment on those who take medication. If you have a desire to discontinue psychiatric medication, please talk to your healthcare provider about tapering off. I am not a doctor and these are my own opinions–not medical advice.
In our overstimulated Western culture, most of us suffer from one form of anxiety or another at least some of the time. We stay up too late watching violent TV shows, we eat food that makes us feel bad, we lack intimate social connections, our jobs are stressful and unfulfilling, and we’re under a constant barrage of advertisements and media telling us we’re not good enough. It’s like a perfect storm designed to give us the sense that something is off and we need to do (or buy, or take) something to get rid of that feeling!
My battle with anxiety began over ten years ago when I was in high school. I’m still not sure what triggered it, but eventually it got so bad that I was having panic attacks at least every other night while I was trying to go to sleep. I struggled with anxiety and depression to varying degrees over the next few years, with a couple of the most severe recent times being after I got married (my poor new husband really put up with a lot! He had no idea what he was in for!) and a few months after I gave birth to my first child. At the time I was thinking that those things (getting married and having a baby) were supposed to make me the happiest I’d ever been, but I was having debilitating anxiety instead! What gives?
Until a couple of years ago, I actually had no idea that what I was experiencing was anxiety (and occasionally depression) until I started looking into it more. It turns out depression is not just feeling sad a lot, and what I thought were legitimate concerns about life (ie. “what if I passed out while driving? What if my son becomes a polygamist? What if demons are real and there’s one in the corner of my room right now?!”) were just anxiety. When it got too overwhelming to deal with by myself, I ended up finally going to my naturally-minded doctor thinking they could give me some ideas for supplements that can help. Instead, I was handed a prescription for Zoloft after a less than 5-minute appointment. However, every time I almost took it I got a feeling in my gut that I shouldn’t, so I tossed it without even opening the bottle and dug even more into researching how to “fix myself” without medication.
What a journey it’s been! I realize that saying I “beat” anxiety may sound like a stretch, but I truly do feel that way. If I have a day where I start to feel my anxiety creeping back, I am always able to connect it to a specific root cause (such as not getting enough sleep, spiking my blood sugar, or being dehydrated). By being aware of the different causes and what I can do to change them, I have finally been able to get a handle on my own anxiety. Listening to my body, my environment, and my lifestyle has been a key for me in this struggle.
The following list is what I actually did and what actually WORKS. It is a result of years of research and self experimentation, and each bullet point deserves an entire post to itself! There are also things that work but are still on my to-do list (such as find a good therapist). Everyone who has issues with anxiety and depression is different and there are a variety of causes (which include but are not limited to lifestyle, head injuries or auto-immune diseases), but these are the essentials that are widely applicable and accessible to everyone!
If I were to go back in time to sixteen-year-old-self who was having panic attacks nearly every night in my room and give myself the advice I know now, this is what it would be.
How to Defeat Anxiety
Get more (better quality) sleep.
This one is YUUGE. During stressful times in our life, sleep often goes to the back burner because we have either more things to do and stay up later to do them (moms and college students, I’m looking at you) or more things to lie in bed and worry about. However, getting enough sleep is ESSENTIAL to recovering our mind and body from the stress!
Nourish your microbiome.
“Gut health” is more than just a buzzword. It may sound weird, but lots of new research is showing us that our gut microbes, as well as the state of your intestinal lining, actually play a major part in how your brain feels! You’ll notice a measurable difference in your mood when you start eating more fermented things, food that helps heal your gut rather than add to the problem, and take a good quality probiotic. I am a huge fan of kombucha and saeurkraut!
Drink more filtered water.
One of the major symptoms of dehydration is feeling anxious, and 75% of us are chronically dehydrated. Another thing to consider is the fact that most city water contains chlorine, which actually kills the beneficial bacteria in your gut that make you happy. I recommend chugging 32 oz. of clean, filtered water every morning, and then listening to your body’s thirst signals throughout the day. When in doubt, drink it out.
Eat more fat
The standard American diet contains a lot of heavily processed vegetable oils which actually cause oxidation chain reactions in our blood, which in turn causes neuroinflammation, which in turn causes depression, anxiety, and a host of other mental and physical health issues! Saturated fat and cholesterol are longer off limits according to the scientific literature, and we should also pay attention to the quality of fats and oil we cook and eat with. When 60% of our brain is fat, it matters what type of fat we feed it.
Eat less sugar and simple carbs
I’m not telling you to immediately adopt a super low-carb diet, but I am telling you to pay attention to the amount of sugar and simple carbohydrates you eat because when you absorb all of that sugar so quickly, it spikes and crashes your blood sugar. Blood sugar spikes and crashes actually have very similar psychological symptoms to depression and anxiety (heart racing, lethargy, etc).
Consider food sensitivities
Food sensitivity can be a big factor in anxiety and depression because of the inflammation it causes in your body, which leads to poor mental health. Personally, I can’t do wheat products anymore because of the terrible brain fog that inevitably happens, but others will have a longer list. If you pay attention to your body’s signals, you will figure it out!
Get on the right supplement routine
Everyone’s supplement stack will look different because ones that have worked for me are cold-pressed fish oil, a probiotic, magnesium with B vitamins, vitamin D, and desiccated liver. I also use microdoses of lithium and other minerals.
An adaptogenic is basically a plant substance that helps your body “adapt” to stress and promotes homeostasis. There are lots of great ones out there, but the ones I’ve found to be the most useful for me are Rhodiola, maca, and reishi.
Get out and move your body
SO IMPORTANT. Exercise and mental health. Bonus points if you’re outside in the sun for that sweat and vitamin D! I’m not one to spend hours in the gym, so my favorite ways to get exercise are hot yoga, high-intensity interval training, and even just going for long walks at least once a day.
Practice actual self-care
Self-care is more than taking a bath with flower petals, wearing a Lush face mask, and drinking rose while your hair is in a perfectly messy bun (although those things are delightful). To me, self-care is basically like being my own mom – it involves listening to your body and mind and attending to their needs just as you would a child! That means putting yourself to bed instead of Netflix binging, saying “no” to social events or personal favors when you’re already stretched too thin, knowing when you need to go outside and take a long walk, or hire a babysitter and relax with your significant other.
Find intimacy in your life.
Human beings are social creatures. Intimacy, or close friendship where you truly feel seen and understood, is a forgotten human nutrient. I’ve seen an enormous improvement in the quality of my life when I am proactive about cultivating intimacy with my husband, or put more effort into the friendships that are like family to me.
Being intentional about feeling gratitude for the good things in like is one of the most impactful changes anyone can make! Whenever you feel negativity coming on, you can virtually eradicate it by focusing on the things you are grateful for. Since the beginning of this year, I’ve been journaling before I go to sleep (most nights that I remember, anyway!) about what I’m grateful for and the progress I’m making on my goals. If my mind is ever keeping me awake or I’m stuck in a negative thought pattern, filling up a page or more with everything I can think of that’s bothering me, and then everything I’m grateful for is guaranteed to put me to sleep.
Realize that you are not your thoughts
This is one of the most important steps and has dramatically changed my life. Have you ever noticed that you have two voices in your head that argue? Weird, huh? Well, one of those voices is your true Self, and the other one is the Thinker. She was originally there to protect you, but what often happens is that she masquerades as “you” and convinces you that the world is a terrible place. I recommend reading The Power of Now, which explains this concept quite well.
Prayer and meditation
You can do everything else right, but without acknowledging a higher power in your life, it’s nearly impossible to reach the deep levels of peace you are after. I’ve learned this the hard way: we can only get so far working on only our physical and emotional aspects. When you pray and meditate every day, you will be shocked at the changes you see in yourself and the world around you. Everything seems to bother you less and fall into place easier, and the “issues” from your past start to melt away like butter.
Now in the spirit of full disclosure, I’m far from perfect execution on all of these things at the same time (as a mom of a still nursing 15 mo, I’m not sure that’s 100% possible anyway!). There are also other considerations such as balancing your hormones or getting toxic people out of your life.
I hope these practices are as helpful to you as they have been for me. Let me know about it in the comments or through email. I’d love to hear from you!