I'm Finally Convinced That Inflammation Is At The Root Of My Anxiety. Here's What I'm Doing About It
I've had panic attacks since my early 20s, when a traumatic experience led me to experience PTSD—although I didn't label it as such at the time. All I knew was that often, I'd be walking around the streets of Berkeley and would be overcome with a wave of feeling so lightheaded and disoriented that I needed to sit down on the side of Bancroft Avenue, burying my head in my lap as confused students meandered past. I first saw the words "panic attack" on a pamphlet in my student health center. Nausea? Check. Sweaty palms? Check. My eyes scanned the list. Check, check, check.
Even before that, I had what my dad, a psychologist and person keen to poke fun at me, called "Woody Allen–type neurotic tendencies." When I was seven, I needed my stuffed animals lined up just so. I missed 42 days of school one year, sure I had strep throat, then pneumonia, then cancer. My chest was always a little bit tighter than those of my friends; I always had more "what ifs" and "whys" floating around my overactive mind.
It came to a head when I was living in London, and my general anxiety turned into agoraphobia. I had panic attacks whenever I left the house, and, at one point, decided I'd be OK if I spent the rest of my life in my room, in bed. I had my laptop, I reasoned. I had books. I'd be just fine.
Inflammation causes a form of biochemical stress that can lead to either depression or anxiety—or both.
I'd already developed a vague interest in wellness, after having spent much of the previous years traveling around the globe for writing jobs, where I learned about herbs from a Berber medicine man in Morocco and studied farm-fresh food in Italy. In my time in bed, though, with nothing but an aching desperation and endless hours to fill, I began to immerse myself in the art of healing in earnest. I started drinking green smoothies daily. I meditated for five minutes, and then for 10. And slowly, my anxiety began to dissipate.
My time in England laid the foundation for the wellness practices that anchor my hours to this day, but I've only recently begun to understand the why of it all. The answer lies in a single word: inflammation. Vincent Pedre, M.D., explains, "Inflammation causes oxidative stress (a form of biochemical stress), which leads to distress signals in the brain that can lead to either depression or anxiety—or both. On the flip side, we know that the brain will release cytokines (the same chemical messengers your immune system uses to communicate an alert) in response to mental stress. The cytokines regulate really important brain functions, including neurotransmitter metabolism as well as the connection and communication between nerve cells."
In the past year or so, I've largely focused on calming my inflammation as a way to calm my anxiety, and the shift has helped make my approach feel far more concrete. "The best way to end this vicious cycle is to incorporate an anti-inflammatory diet, while creating work/life/stress balance in your life through yoga, meditation, hobbies, dancing, laughing, and any activity that you can enjoy fully while forgetting about your worries," Pedre explains. For me, that's meant eating as many anti-inflammatory foods as possible (for a full run-down on what that looks like, check out this post). I meditate, without fail, for 20 minutes every single day, as meditation has been shown in a meta-review of studies to have a profound effect on dampening inflammation.
After trying a number of different apps and experiencing fits of false starts, I finally had success after taking an in-person Vedic meditation class (I went to Ben Turshen in NYC, and mbg also has a number of great classes if you're keen to learn). It was helpful to have all of my questions answered, yes, but it was also expensive, and that expense made me feel guilty whenever I began to slip away from my new habit. Having a friend you meditate with or a competition with yourself are also great ways to hold yourself accountable. I meditate in the morning before work or in the meditation room at my office, but you can do it anywhere: on the subway, in a taxi, in a quiet corner of a bookstore. Turshen used to find a church near his office and sit in the pews; Sarah Wilson, author of the best-selling anxiety memoir First, We Make the Beast Beautiful, recalls sitting in a closed bathroom stall at her office for her daily meditation. The bottom line? Don't be precious about—just do it. It works.
Telling ourselves that we're doing enough—that we're doing great—is one of the best things for anxiety and inflammation.
It feels ridiculous to say this, but I never really worked out consistently until my early 30s, when a bad bout of insomnia resulted in my colleagues dragging me to a yoga class (I had, honestly, been too anxious in my body to attend one before—what if something catastrophic happened in front of everyone?). My anxiety seems to be affected the most by a 20-minute workout first thing in the morning—typically, I wake up at a 4 or 5 on an anxiety scale of 1 to 10, and the workout brings it back down to a 1 or 2, a better place to start the day. Studies have shown that just 20 minutes of exercise is enough to have a huge impact on inflammation—I usually do a home workout because it's attainable, and it's enough. We spend a lot of time in wellness berating ourselves for not running that extra mile or avoiding every single gram of sugar in the world, and, while science might not yet back me on this, I think that telling ourselves that we're doing enough—that we're doing great—is one of the best things for anxiety and inflammation.
Speaking of treating myself a little nicer—I've started getting semi-regular massages. Massages have been found in numerous studies to decrease inflammation and reduce anxiety. I like to do in-home massages because, for me, all of the effects of a massage are diminished when I re-emerge onto New York's cacophonous streets, dodging bikers and pressing up against strangers on a crowded subway. There are tons of apps now that let you order same-day, reasonably priced massages to your home—I've been using Zeel, and I've been so impressed with the quality of the therapists and the ease of use—plus, being able to go straight from the massage table to bed really helps the effects linger. It's definitely one of the more expensive types of therapies I've practiced, but, when I get massages regularly (versus just a special-occasion splurge), I feel a noticeable difference in my baseline anxiety levels. My muscles are also looser, which helps mitigate the cycle of misattribution that can come from physical symptoms of anxiety (meaning: You feel things that often result from anxiety, like tight muscles or nausea, and your subconscious decides you must be anxious, making you feel anxious and thus tighten your muscles or become nauseous, and the cycle continues...) I also foam roll using the Lauren Roxburgh online classes.
To Pedre's point, an oft-overlooked element of treating inflammation and, particularly, its anxiety counterpart, is to enjoy life. I've fallen into patterns where I'm far too focused on my anti-inflammatory diet; I'll skip social plans because I didn't have time to meditate that day. While this can be a problem in wellness generally—wellness is, after all, a tool to have a happier life, not an end result in itself—for us anxious folk, it's more crucial to remember that balance. Anxiety is a disease of trying to control that which we really just can't, and the most important part of my anxiety- and inflammation-soothing practice is giving myself permission to mess it all up: to eat the chocolate, to skip the workout. When my brain protests—"what if, what if, what if"—I change the story. "So what?" I say back. "So what if the worst thing happens? Bring it on. I can handle it."