Anxiety and Me
Hello my lovelies! So much has happened around here since last Thursday that I feel I’ve been away forever and it’s only been a week. As you probably know by now, our brand new course The Roadmap is going live in just three days (three days! Eeek!). What’s even more shocking than that, and why Carlos and I keep pinching each other, is the fact that our early bird students and members are already enjoying the course and loving it! It’s no longer our little baby safely tucked away in our little home anymore. Now it’s out there, for almost everyone and soon to be everyone to see and be a part of. It seems crazy to me that for over a year we’ve been at this non-stop, and now a whole new chapter in Brownble begins.
This journey has been amazing, exhiliarating, fun, eye-opening and full of lessons, and I can’t thank you enough because without you it wouldn’t be possible! To top things off, we’re getting ready for a big kitchen remodel around here, which you’ll all get to see in action of course, and that has meant filming round the clock so that all our content can continue to come out in spite of our house looking like the Hulk came to visit and suddenly got really angry. Add to that the normal and sometimes challenging things of daily life, and situations that have had to be resolved as they pop up, and we honestly feel like a whole new stage of life is ahead. It feels just like when you finish something really big, and now comes the calm and a new adventure we can feel coming, but can’t quite tell what it is yet. The roadmap in and of itself was a huge breakthrough for me in particular. I went to places I hadn’t been to when it comes to the way I share content and my personal views, not to mention the fact that it challenged everything I thought I could and couldn’t do.
Nothing though, was as cool as seeing my journey come full circle while I shared my experiences with you in that course. I saw my entire journey with food and veganism in a completely new way, taking in all the good, and all the challenging bits too. So when I was feeling all of this, and saw that it kind of coincided with mental health awareness week, I knew that it was exactly the right time to share a part of my story (which I’ve mentioned many times but had yet to get into), and that is, anxiety and me.
It’s also perfect timing because Brownble’s birthday is tomorrow! That’s right, our little baby engine that could turns 3, and we couldn’t be prouder of how far it’s come. How far we’ve come! I think it’s no coincidence that all of these changes are happening at this moment, and it totally explains the “turning a new leaf” vibes we’ve been mysteriously feeling around here. Nothing is more perfect to cover on our birthday episode, than some of the emotional struggles many of us go through, how these relate to food and our relationship with food, and especially, how resiliency always helps us pull through, even in the face of big changes and challenges.
In this post and podcast episode we’re going to have a chat about mental health, particularly when it comes to suffering from anxiety, a little shadow that has been following me around since I was a kid, and which thankfully I’ve now grown to notice, acknowledge and even accept. I’ll be sharing a bit of what that journey was like, and especially, the different tools that have helped me through the years, and why now I’ve grown to understand it a lot better. What they don’t tell you about anxiety is that it’s like your very own little alarm system, and although most of the time it doesn’t feel like it, it can be of great help, once you get to know it, and once you can learn to manage it. We’ll also discuss why and how anxiety affected my relationship with food and eating, and so much more.
Please keep in mind as we move forward that I’m not a therapist, doctor or counsellor. Anything I share here is meant as a sharing of my own personal journey, in the hope that it inspires you to seek your own professional help or get support when needed, and because as part of mental health awareness week, it can be the start of something great, when we simply notice that others go through difficult moments too.
Ring the alarm
I mentioned that anxiety was like a little alarm system. I love this analogy because for those of us who suffer from anxiety, it can be a huge help to learn what that alarm sounds like, because the problem is that for some of us it purrs, for others it vibrates, for others it bangs, for others it sounds like the familiar symptoms of some other physical ailment, for many it begins with a soft ringing, almost too soft to hear, until it quickly turns to deafening.
It took me many years to know that the things I was struggling with were actually called anxiety, and it took me about the same amount of time to fully accept that this was a part of how my brain worked, then it took me quite a while to learn how to tune into its frequency, and hear it before it got too loud, because when that ringing turns deafening it becomes much harder to function and come back down to neutral.
How it began
If you’ve read my personal story, you probably know that I grew up having a slightly odd childhood. One that was magical and wonderful because I was raised by an incredible single mom, but one that was all about the calm before the storm, with storms arriving more and more frequently as I got older. These storms had to do with medical emergencies, surgeries, and illness because of my mother’s condition, and although these had plenty of happy moments in between, the tough ones were enough in number and in duration to make my brain learn a pretty tough pattern from a very early age. This pattern went something like this: always be on alert, move and act at the first sign of trouble, don’t let your guard down, it’s your responsibility, calm doesn’t stay calm for long, better be safe than sorry, better make sure you don’t make any mistakes, better not cause trouble of any kind, and be in charge and in control.
Nowadays I have so much compassion for that little girl I once was. I can see and understand how she did the best that she could. How she believed she was stronger than she actually was, and could take on more than she should, simply because on many occasions she was the only one there and it worked. Emergencies and life threatening problems were solved when this little girl was on high alert and was trained in what to do. This pattern though, created a life long battle with anxiety, and because a child is really not equipped to cope with many of the things that happened to us while I was growing up, there were no true coping skills on hand, other than letting my mind run the show, which is essentially how anxiety begins.
What it felt like: A whirlwind of a mind, a body reacting to it and ringing all its bells
Throughout my childhood, teenage years, and with its highest and most difficult moment as an adult, I was suffering from pretty bad anxiety without knowing it. This anxiety began as an endless loop of thought, of going over and over possible outcomes, solutions, going into all the grim details of millions of worst case scenarios, just to be prepared. It meant I was constantly coming up with a plan a, b, c, and d, and when a difficult life circumstance is out of your control, as with my mother’s illness, the only coping tool you have is to try to control and manage everything else, every other possible source of danger or problems so that you feel you’re standing on firm ground and that the rug won’t be pulled out from under you.
This however didn’t help, it was like building a house on top of two rickety poles that have water damage, when in fact it would have been safer to stay near the ground, even without trying to build the house at all. If you listened to our episode on mindfulness, you’ve heard me say - and here comes a huge spoiler before we get to the tools part of this post-, the antidote to an anxious mind, and anxious thoughts, is presence. Even presence during what is hard or challenging.
This is the trap of anxiety. It makes you believe that the harder you think something through, the harder you try to anticipate, verify, ask questions, ask the same questions again, plan out what you’ll do with every outcome, or think about it to the point of feeling unwell, the more we can avoid difficulties. It took me years to understand that difficulties are sometimes unavoidable, and that full presence and vulnerability during them was the only way out.
This didn’t mean anxiety was entirely bad. In my case it was the only coping tool I found as a child when I had no other, and when no one spoke of these things. The idea is that after understanding how anxiety works within us, how and when it comes up, we can use it as that little alarm system and get the help we need, to find the coping tools that will actually help soothe us.
Understanding what that alarm system was like in me was a big step forward, and of course the symptoms of anxiety have changed for me throughout the years and are different for everyone. On an emotional level, anxiety feels like what I just mentioned, an endless loop of thoughts, often times black and white thinking, often times negative and even catastrophic. It’s your mind trying to find some firm ground to stand on and bring relief, but the endless thinking and hashing out of problems and trying to see where the road will take you and how to avoid pain, only brings about more anxiety and more pain. On the physical side of things, for me it was immediately feeling like I couldn’t breathe deeply but felt a desperate need to. This shortness of breath is one of my first signs that something needs to be tweaked because I’m feeling anxious. It sometimes included lots of attempts to breathe in deeply and even frequent yawning. It also meant stress and tension on my shoulders and neck. It meant asthma-like symptoms which were incredibly uncomfortable (and which I now know might have turned into full on panic attacks had I not really looked into healing my anxiety). It also meant having migraines and tension headaches, on some occasions it got so bad as to turn into night sweats, difficulty sleeping and once into stress-induced vertigo. On two occasions of my life, anxiety brought depression with it. Both of these moments included such high levels of anxiety, that even those negative thoughts that aren’t based on reality feel as if they are completely true and part of your experience already. Of course, when this is sustained through time, depression is very common for many people, and as you can probably imagine, not a comfortable place to be in, nor easy to overcome.
There is so much stigma when it comes to having a mental or emotional condition or illness. We’ve somehow learned culturally that any emotional difficulties should be hidden away, as opposed to the well accepted practice of going to the doctor when you have an ear infection. Here’s the thing though, mind and body are one, and anxiety is one little creature that really loves to show you this lesson clearly, and thank goodness for all the signs and symptoms, again, it’s that little alarm that we can now learn to recognize. This was part of how my healing began.
Understanding I had a problem
Anxiety is a tricky devil. It’s very hard when you’re deep in its thralls to tell yourself that that big mountain of problems you have rolling around in your head is feeling so overwhelming in part because that’s what anxiety does, and not because it isn’t reality. Anxiety convinces us that we need to control and think about it more, call again to re-check, ask again to prevent mistakes, be on high alert so we can react appropriately, think it over and then think it over some more no matter how much pain it causes. Although anxiety has been mostly an annoying sidekick for most of my life (picture the chatty neighbour in Home Alone you can’t quiet down and send back to where he came from), when it got serious, the anxious thoughts became so strong that it felt like what I was trying so hard to keep at a distance was already happening. It makes you analyse what people say in different ways, it makes you react much more emotionally to everyday things. It makes your heart race and it provides very little in the form of rest and being in the present moment. When I was in the thralls of it though, all this was very hard to see, and when I was going through very strong physical manifestations of my anxious mind, like waking up in the middle of the night feeling like I couldn’t breathe, I kept looking for medical reasons for the symptoms, trying 500 different inhalers, when the key lied in my mind. The first step to healing was realizing that indeed I was struggling emotionally, and that that had a name.
Finding the tools to cope
There were so many things that helped me cope with my anxiety, and each worked at different moments and stages of my life. In a way my anxiety got really bad because I didn’t seek help sooner, and it took me a while to really understand and accept that I needed help. This help finally came in many different ways:
I was fortunate enough to be able to go to therapy, particularly EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) and cognitive behavioral therapy, which is still the best money I have ever spent. This type of therapy, and my wonderful therapist, saved my life. Part of the reason I could not let go of anxiety on my own during the time in which it was at its worst, was because anxiety had always been my coping mechanism to deal with trauma. To heal my anxious mind meant I had to heal the traumatic moments of my past that had created it. This is something that should always be done with a professional, whether through EMDR or traditional therapy. There is no shame in seeking help, and the relief that comes through knowing yourself and understanding your triggers and building new coping tools is priceless.
During the darkest times of my anxiety, in which therapy was helping with the day to day but I was unable to go back to the past and heal, medication was immeasurably helpful. This should always be done with the close supervision of your doctor or a psychiatrist, and in my experience, in combination with therapy when possible. Although I was able to come off the medication with time, it gave me the space and breathing room during my day to day life and especially during therapy, so we could heal and find the source of the problem. For some people medication is not necessary, for some it’s necessary for some time, for others for life, and if and when we need it, it’s important that we get the medical care we need and always under supervision.
Second only to the therapy I did, practicing mindfulness has been the biggest life saver when it comes to my anxiety and finding soothing and healing. Of course, the perfect pill for an anxious non-stop mind is “the presence pill”. Trying to get the mind to come back to stillness, to the present moment, knowing that the world will not collapse if we’re not in this endless loop trying to solve everything. That in fact the best solutions come from presence and peace of mind. We have a whole episode on mindfulness, how I practice, and how it has changed my life here.
Engaging in physical exercise I love, letting my body do the talking as to what type of movement I would enjoy on any given day, and learning how not to go overboard with exercise has also been incredibly helpful. For me, softer and more fun forms of exercise work best when I’m going through a period of anxiety, things like a walk or hike in nature, a slow jog in the forest trails, and yoga have been perfect.
Developing proper sleep habits has also helped tremendously. Not sleeping well is like kindle to the fires of anxiety. It’s a must, and practicing meditation and relaxation techniques can help a lot with stress and aid in better sleep.
A love of books has been a quite unusual but very big help in soothing my anxiety believe it or not. Reading gives you a break from the anxious mind and it’s the perfect excuse and reminder to slow down and relax for a little bit every day. It’s one of my favorite forms of self-care.
A love of animals has also been a huge aid in healing. My dogs, spending mindful time with them and looking after them, has given me so much joy. Animals can teach us so much about presence, and they’re always a great reminder of feeling unconditional love and compassion for yourself, just like they do.
A love of nature has also been huge for me. Spending time outside was very important in my healing journey. I think it has to do with breathing the fresh air deeply, and digging into the relaxation that always comes when we’re surrounded by nature and at peace there.
Finding coping tools other than food, reducing stress around meals and around the way I feed myself (i.e. practicing intuitive eating and mindful eating, saying goodbye to restriction and the dieting mindset), has been a must. Many times the first side effect of anxiety is eating mindlessly, with no awareness and almost compulsively. At least this is what it was like for me. I had few coping tools, so food gave me this instant yet momentary release of anxiety. By looking into healing the anxiety itself, I suddenly started to learn how to open up space for awareness instead of automatic reacting. I started learning about how my body felt before, during and after meals. I started recognizing the difference between hunger and anxiety or nervousness. Healing anxiety is wonderful not only because it helps us improve our relationship with food and eating, but because once we practice stepping out of that anxious space, and we don’t turn to food as the only way to self soothe, we can start learning our own language. We can start listening to what our bodies and minds truly need, and this in turn can create great healing. Sometimes what we need is companionship, sometimes what we need is to express ourselves, to meet needs that aren’t being met, to ask for help, to release anger, to heal trauma, etc., and when we go straight to the real source, food goes back to being simple, a source of pleasure and nourishment, instead of something to numb or distract. It’s a two way street, with both sides helping each other.
Flexing my self compassion muscle has also been a tool of self care that I rarely get to mention, and just last night I heard a woman on her 60th birthday talking about life lessons, saying that self compassion is far more important than self esteem, because it begets self esteem. Kindness and self compassion means we don’t judge our minds or our bodies for being wired the way they are, we learn to live with this and to find help, we learn about patience and we take notes for the next time anxiety arrives, and slowly but surely we get started on a journey to healing.
Having some very important me-time has also been essential, and this usually includes journaling, time with Carlos, watching movies from my childhood, letting myself go to the rough spots and memories of my childhood when I miss the people I love, and then letting these memories move to the side until next time. It can include bubble baths, getting a massage, and many of the other tools I’ve been mentioning so far.
Saying no is very hard for people who struggle with anxiety, because all the possible repercussions for saying no are always in the mind of someone with anxiety. It can be very difficult to maintain your own boundaries when you’re also afraid of whether others will get angry, upset, or how they will react. Saying no however, is usually a life changer once we get comfortable with it, because it means we’re looking after ourselves and our stress levels. This is a big change, since stress is so much more heightened in someone who struggles with anxiety, and it can feel overpowering and develop into many of the strong physical symptoms I’ve mentioned today. This is why knowing our limits, enforcing them and protecting them, is very important.
Listening to the alarm, and reminding myself where these signals can go when ignored is the last and very important tool I want to share with you today. Long ago I made a promise to myself that these alarms required immediate attention and care, and were more important than anything else. All else could wait and my mental health comes first.
I hope this post and episode inspired you to seek some help and support if you’re struggling with anxiety or any other mental health issues. There are so many tools, and there is so much help at our disposal. We never have to suffer in silence while anxiety sets up house in our minds. There are so many things that can help manage it and we can learn from it. Always thanking it for what it did once upon a time when we truly needed it, and now being able to let it go and find a new way.