** I originally wrote this post a few years ago for an old blog, but with today being the notorious Blue Monday and my 2012 mission to help raise awareness for mental health, I thought I’d reshare and add resources for those living in Amsterdam.
‘It’s true I had a lot of anxiety. I was afraid of the dark and suspicious of the light.’ ~ Woody Allen
You may have experienced the symptoms. Palpitations, gasping for air, sweaty palms, all wrapped up in the sudden feeling of impending doom – and nope, you’ve not been caught in the act by shocked and appalled parents. You’re about to have, or are in the midst of having, a panic attack. The world as you know it has ended. You’re not sure what is about to happen, but you are certain that it is the very worst thing that ever could.
Popping my panic cherry
My first panic attack came about 9 years ago and seemingly from nowhere. One minute I was lounging on the couch, watching television (actually it was the news…), the next I was racing around the room, eyes wide open, heart pounding, hyperventilating and convinced I was about to drop dead or the world was going to explode. The episode lasted for two hours, until I was completely exhausted and my housemates had gone from bemused to concerned. The next night, around the same time, I felt lightheaded, started gulping air and went off on one again.
Knowledge is a cold shower
I typed my symptoms into Google and came across a lot of sites relating to anxiety. This was news to me, I had always been pretty confident and level-headed. I was a strong, assertive and intelligent girl damn it! So what was the deal with the panic attacks?
After a week of almost daily attacks I took myself off to the family doctor. He prescribed beta blockers to control the physical aspects of the ”episodes”, helping me to break the daily cycle. I felt reassured just by having the medication in my pocket, the knowledge that I could put a stop to the attack before it started. It didn’t quite work like that though, the attacks came on strong and unexpectedly and by the time I was in the middle of one, I couldn’t take my finger off my pulse long enough to take the medication. Back to the docs. This time he said a very simple but profound statement to me,
“Think about what’s going on in your life, because life doesn’t have to feel this hard and happy people don’t have panic attacks.”
Woooah. Okaaay. What was the problem then? Well, in hindsight, I had lost my nanna and close friend within 9 months of each other and dealing with it by going out and getting drunk and not looking after myself definitely didn’t help. At the time though, I was grieving, hungover and eating crap so I wasn’t in the best state to ponder on my mental health.
It was a long time before I got to the stage where I could talk about it. When I did…..what a %*@ing relief! I started to address the problem in different ways and I’m going to share them with you, hopefully it’ll take you less time (and misspent energy) to get to the place I’m at now.
If I could talk I’d tell you…
With 1 in 4 of us destined to experience mental health issues in our lifetime, there is a high probability that you or someone you know has also experienced them (and has also kept quiet out of fear, embarrassment or denial). By speaking up, you are acknowledging something is not working for you and welcoming help and support – this is not a failing, it’s the single biggest step you’ll take in overcoming your anxiety and helping others to do the same.
We tend to be our own worst enemy when it comes to keeping things to ourselves. I could bring on a panic attack by worrying that I might have one in front of my friends and be forever known as the wierdo woman-mental. So we made a joke about it. I told my closest friends what they could do to help me during an attack and they promised not to point and laugh if they happened to be in the vicinity.
I found that the more I talked about it in a lighthearted way, the less significant and threatening the thought of these attacks became – if they happened, it wouldn’t even matter. Aswell as bringing some comic relief, talking about it strengthened my friendships. Letting my guard down (or having it totally blown off it’s hinges by an impromptu panic attack) allowed people to get closer to me. Not a bad thing as it turns out.
Don’t aid and abet panic attacks by keeping quiet, they are isolating enough!
* The Cove in Amsterdam offers Cognitive Behaviour Therapy in English.
I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour…
It was a logical step. I would start feeling anxious around 6pm, then focus on the feeling until I had a panic attack by about 7pm. I could have set an alarm for the time I would have an attack (instead of beeping, it would be the sound of me hyperventilating. That would stop you hitting the snooze button, eh?). Sooooo, instead of doing that, I went to the pub. The second drink normally got me out of the danger zone. After that I was relaxed enough to get nicely tipsy and let go of any worries I may have had.
Unfortunately, low blood sugar levels and dehydration can also get the body all wired up. So, instead of having panic attacks in the evening, I started the day off with them, like a fry-up for the mind. Lovely. I found a way around it though, with the old ‘prevention is better than cure’ remedy…..drink cola for a quick sugar hit. Yep, this was short lived also.
Goodbye Sugar Girl
Well, I can’t say I gave up sugar without a second thought…I still rely on it too much at times and I just love cupcakes…ahhh! Every year I have around a month without sugar-no honey, no spoons in tea/coffee, no dried fruit or concentrated fruit juice, just naturally occurring sugars in whole fruits and vegetables.
When I haven’t had sugar for a while, I notice I have more energy, I lose the weight I put on when satisfying daily cravings and above all, I feel more in balance. Low blood sugar crashes can imitate feelings of panic, so if you are experiencing anxiety, taking control of your diet could help.
You don’t need a special eating plan, just know the basics and fit them into your daily routine. Eating every couple of hours will keep your sugar levels steady and everything else in balance. For an idea of when and how often, it roughly works out as breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, dinner (leaving no more than 3 hours between any of these). Make sure you have good sources of protein at the same time as complex carbohydrates and have a look at low GL recipes for examples of balanced meals.
Where do I stand with sugar right now? I eliminated sugar completely for six months back then to cut down anxiety. Afterwards, I introduced it bit by bit and then it became a standard part of my diet again – and since then I’ve been all or nothing when it comes to sugar. Now I want to role model healthy eating choices (and good mental health!) for my daughter, as well as lose the “toddler weight” and get back into some old clothes. I’m rethinking the need to eat biscuits when what I actually need is a nap and also looking at more healthy and creative ways of having treats.
If you’re living in Amsterdam and looking for other sweet alternatives, try lunchroom Sugarless. You can also check out the produce at the Biomarkt on Weteringschans or Ekoplaza on van Woustraat or visit the monthly Puremarkt from March onwards.
Where is my mind?
So we know what we can do to empower ourselves, but what about external life events that are beyond our control? Bereavement, abandonment, life transitions such as becoming a parent, moving home, being promoted or made redundant can also affect our ability to deal with stress and can become overwhelming. As well as talking to friends and family, talking to a trained counsellor or a professional who specialises in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy could work for you.
Our mindset is influenced from the start by genetics and our environment, it’s then enhanced by the people we surround ourselves with. Our self-belief, thought patterns and values are so deeply ingrained it can take years for us to see that they might not be serving us too well in our adult years. Speaking to an objective person can help to put your feelings into context.
Witness the fitness
The old faithful….exercise! Yeah I know, I struggle with this, I tend to go in cycles of all or nothing-something for another blog post. Exercise helps to manage anxiety by releasing the excess adrenalin that we store up as we prepare to fight our dragons. It builds up our self-esteem, encouraging a more positive belief system, helping us to manage our stress better and improve our cardiovascular system. It also helps us take control of our breathing – a helpful skill to have when hyperventilating!
Exercise doesn’t have to be all sweaty and competitive, yoga is great for calming the mind, controlling breathing and helping us to block outside triggers and negative anticipation, by concentrating our minds on the present.
Tip! I bought a crosstrainer last year which was collecting dust in the spare room, whilst I was vegetating on the couch in front of the TV. Now I’ve put my favourite series on my laptop, which I now watch in the spare room while I do 45 mins on the crosstrainer – so far so good – I’ll let you know if I end up leaning on the crosstrainer instead.