I had my first anxiety attack at the age of 14. Over the next 12 years, we had what I would call an "on-again, off-again" relationship.
The point my anxiety took control again was when I least expected it: I was living what looked like a happy, successful life. I had a very lucrative career in the finance industry, was raising two amazing boys and living in a comfortable, two-bedroom apartment in the suburbs.
And yet, for four weeks straight, I was plagued with what I thought were the symptoms of a heart attack — chest pains, dizziness, tingling in my left arm, difficulty breathing, lightheadedness and nausea. I was so terrified, most of my nights were spent either in the emergency room or sleeping in my car in the parking lot of the emergency room.
After a month of continuous testing and countless doctor visits, I was finally diagnosed with generalized anxiety and panic disorder. Rather than beginning my recovery, the diagnosis led to two years of addiction to my prescription pills, alcohol abuse, and eventually an accidental overdose on anxiety pills and painkillers.
That's the moment I realized that if I was going to make it out of this, I needed to totally start over. Re-create my life from scratch. So I embarked on a journey that not only saved my life but ultimately redefined it.
I researched alternatives to medication, which led me directly to examining my own eating habits and behaviors. After studying my disorder and my triggers, I realized that I was nutrient deficient. I vowed to change my lifestyle, starting with my diet. It wasn't easy, but for me, it was the only way. I eliminated red meat, processed foods, refined sugars, dairy, and gluten.
Next, I addressed other lifestyle factors. I stopped smoking, adopted a daily yoga practice, and traded my six-packs of Blue Moon beer for 24-ounce green juices, and I stopped taking prescription pills. Instead, I meditate.
Even after all of those changes — even though I live what some people would consider to be the ideal healthy life — I still get anxious. Why?
It isn't because my strategies don't work. It isn't because something else is wrong. It's simply because anxiety is not something to be eradicated. It’s something to be managed.
It's important for anyone dealing with anxiety, whether chronic or occasional, to accept that it will never go away entirely. That said, our daily habits will either calm it or worsen it.
When we fight against anxiety, it inevitably fights back harder. When we try to avoid it, it appears with full force, and when we focus our attention on it, it seems more prevalent and more powerful. It tricks us into believing that discomfort is danger and that the only way to escape it is to run from it.
Anxiety lives in the future, so when we react to it, we are essentially reacting to a negative perception surrounding something that has not yet happened — something that doesn’t exist.
However, in dealing with anxiety and/or panic disorders, the goal is not to avoid, evade, react, or fight against it. Instead, our focus needs to be on simply allowing the sensation to pass through, and listening for the message it wants to convey.
Yes, anxiety is how our bodies tell us there is work that needs to be done. It’s up to us to investigate what that work is.
When I was first diagnosed with anxiety, I was under a mountain of stress and I didn't even realize it. I smoked and binge-drank to become numb to the world around me. I was working out five times a week and making an enviable living. I thought I was healthy, when in fact I was killing myself.
After one particularly bad anxiety attack, I wound up in the hospital, where I was diagnosed with walking pneumonia. My left lung was on the verge of collapse. At that point, I was smoking a pack and a half of cigarettes a day. That was the day I quit.
Thanks to the message I received from my anxiety, I am truly healthier now than I’ve ever been. But I deviate from my path, just like everyone else. And those moments are when anxiety pops up to nudge me back onto the right path.
When you suffer from anxiety, trust the process. Listen for the message. Believe in your ability to sustain a healthy, happy existence. We might not be able to predict the future, but we can make choices knowing that what we do in each moment defines the future we will live.