15 Steps I took to Break Free From Anxiety
Dear Stranger with anxiety,
I understand exactly what you are going through. I have been struggling with anxiety for as long as I can remember.
I was born a “worry-wart,” even when I was very little people were pointing out that I was unusually stressed about life. The serious symptoms started when I was nine and developed OCD-like tendencies. In middle school I started having social anxiety so bad that it would make me physically ill. During high school I started having full blown panic attacks. The older I got, the worse my symptoms got, until finally I stopped leaving the house altogether. Even a trip to the grocery store was too overwhelming for me.
I’ve spent over a decade trying to find a solution. I started making small changes, one at a time, and eventually those changes added up to big results. I feel great right now, not 100% better (yet), but I feel like I’ve gotten my whole life back.
Because I spent so much time looking for answers, I have learned a lot about what causes anxiety. I wanted to share what I have learned just in case it helps you too. This post is a mixture of solutions that may fix the root cause of anxiety, and coping methods to use while still living with anxiety.
The post is a little long, so if some things don’t apply to you keep scrolling!
It covers prayer, diet, medication side effects, sleep, vitamin deficiencies, toxic chemicals, aromatherapy, de-cluttering, chiropractors, music, entertainment, tapping meridian points, breathing exercises and muscle relaxation, Biblical mediation, and positive thinking. I’m not a doctor, and none of my advice is intended to treat, diagnose, or cure. But I hope some of my experiences can help you, or point you towards the kinds of topics you could benefit from researching. If you need to talk or want someone to pray for you, feel free to reach out to me!
Before You Try Anything Else, Pray
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:6-7
There are a lot of things I have changed about my life in order to help deal with anxiety, but without a relationship with God all of those changes would amount to nothing. God made you and your emotions. He is the one that is ultimately in control of the situation, so it’s important to invite Him into the healing process. He is the only one who can give you a “peace that transcends all understanding.”
It’s also important to acknowledge that spiritual warfare is real, and that is why we are commanded to put on the full armor of God every single day. The devil wants you to believe that you have to be stuck in an emotional rut for the rest of your life, that it is impossible for you to feel whole. But God is the true source of hope and joy, so neither can be stolen from you, no matter what your circumstances are.
Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places. – Ephesians 6:11-12
Change Your Diet
“Diet and lifestyle have a profound role to play in determining the destiny of a person’s health, with respect to brain function.” – Physician David Perlmutter
Mental illness is complicated, and sometimes the root cause of it can be surprising. The problem may not be your brain at all, it could be how your gut is affecting your brain. Researching things like “leaky gut” (try reading this, this and this) and reading books like Grain Brain really opened my eyes to how much food can affect your mind. Turns out you really are what you eat!
So when trying to heal the mind by healing the gut, where do you start? We all know the basics of eating healthy. Lots of vegetables, less sugar, no processed foods, blah blah blah. But having a “normal” healthy diet didn’t quite cut it for me. I learned the hard way that every person’s dietary needs are a little different.
For years I tried different diets like clean eating, dairy free, gluten free, paleo, you name it. All of them made me feel a lot better, but I never felt well. It wasn’t until I got a blood test and figured out I couldn’t have eggs or almonds (which I had been eating every day *pulls out hair*) that I started to see some dramatic, long-lasting changes. Keep in mind that blood tests aren’t a perfect indicator of what your body can’t handle (I have eliminated a few other foods that were obviously hurting my gut, like gluten) but they are a very helpful part of solving the puzzle.
If you want to change your diet, but don’t know where to start, I recommend switching to clean eating and/or going dairy and gluten free for about six months and see what happens. If you’re ready to do something drastic, autoimmune paleo is a great option. You eliminate almost every food, and then slowly add them back in one at a time. This helps you pinpoint exactly which foods are affecting you negatively.
Also, don’t forget about bone broth! It’s important to add things to your diet to heal your gut, not just remove things that hurt it!
Double Check the Side Effects
About three years ago my dad asked if I was taking any medications that started with the letter “O.” He said that while he was praying, he kept having the thought pop into his head that I should stop taking it. I only happened to be taking one medication at the time, and it happened to start with the letter O. And after looking up the side effects, I found out that it also “happened” to cause severe mood changes and panic attacks. I had taken that medication for years without knowing, because I never thought an over the counter pill for acid reflux could have an effect on my brain. Finding an alternative to that medication changed everything. I used to lay awake at night, unable to sleep because my heart wouldn’t stop racing. I had frequent heart palpitations. Every day I would get huge surges of adrenaline that came out of nowhere. I thought all of these problems stemmed from anxiety, but after I stopped taking the pills they went away. It reminded me that I should always study the side effects of anything I put in my body. If you are in the same situation, it is so worth it to talk to your doctor about all of your choices!
You already know that sleep is important for mental health, but the question is are you actually doing it? I know I wasn’t for years, and I am so glad that I have finally made it a priority. I can tell that I am much more emotional and irrational when I don’t get enough sleep, but it makes sense when you read about how the body can only clear toxins from the brain while sleeping, and that many mental health problem are directly linked to lack of sleep.
The root cause of your anxiety might be as simple as a nutritional deficiency in something like Vitamin B or Magnesium. There’s a lot of research that suggests mental health problems can be linked directly to deficiencies in certain vitamins or minerals.
I haven’t done it myself, but if you want to eliminate the guesswork I know you can get a blood test to see what you are deficient in. My doctor had me start taking supplements for physical reasons, but I feel like it has also helped relieve some anxiety. I use these pills to fight inflammation (which is thought by many to contribute to mental health problems) and this powder that has all of the vitamins and minerals I could need in one day. I’ve been thinking about trying out this magnesium and calcium supplement because I’ve heard so many good things about it, if it works I will update this post and let you know! A lot of supplements can be thrown into a smoothie, which means you can dump everything you need for the day in one cup and feel like you are drinking a milkshake.
Probiotics are also a really good thing to look into if you are struggling with mental health problems. Since swallowing big things makes me nervous (and the goal is to feel less stressed, haha) I started by taking these “easy to swallow” kind with 5 billion cultures. But after taking a stool test (also very helpful and not as horrible as it sounds) my doctor recommended I started taking a higher dosage (225 billion, then transition to 100 billion) so the bad guys in my gut can be eradicated completely.
Talk to your doctor so you can make your own personalized plan, and do lots of research! Even if this doesn’t ease your anxiety, the worst case scenario is that you’ll feel a lot healthier, so you have nothing to lose!
Remove Toxic Chemicals
Although it’s not the solution most people think of first, there is plenty of evidence that your physical environment can affect your brain. The home cleaners and personal care products you are using every day may be stopping you from seeing results.
Synthetic fragrances are one of the biggest culprits. I gave them up years ago, and I can honestly say that I feel significantly more anxious when I have to come into contact with them. My nerves suddenly feel like they are on fire, I get super sweaty, I feel lightheaded, and my limbs feel weaker. I finally understood why this happens after reading this:
“Research confirms that many of the ingredients in fragrances are neurotoxins, meaning that they have poisonous effects on the brain and nervous system…Some fragrance ingredients disrupt our natural hormonal balance, causing any number of possible emotional concerns, including: anxiety, mood swings, and depression.” Source
The good news is that this is one of the most fun lifestyle changes to make, and it’s going to save you a ton of money. Sign up for Pinterest, search for DIY personal care products and home cleaners, and start replacing one product at a time. It took a couple years, but now I make my own deodorant, lotion, hairspray, etc, as well as home cleaners. You can also look into purchasing more natural products. My favorite makeup brands in order of cheapest to most expensive are Physicians Formula, Pacifica, and 100% Pure. My favorite lotions and perfumes come from Pacifica and Valentina’s Naturals. For cleaning the house I mostly just use vinegar, baking soda, Castile soap, and Thieves Household Cleaner.
When it comes to getting rid of the chemicals that are already in your system, epsom salt detox baths are very helpful. I try to take a couple of these a week, because no matter how healthy you make your home, you still will come into contact with toxic chemicals when you walk outside. The goal is to create less of a toxic burden on your body, not live in a bubble!
Have you ever caught a whiff of something familiar, and suddenly you are flooded with memories? You can’t help but experience the same emotions you felt the last time you smelled it. Scents have a huge impact on our emotions, and that’s why essential oils are a great tool to have on hand when dealing with occasional anxiety. If you haven’t heard of them, essential oils are the immune system of the plant. The plant produces a liquid that helps support the health of the plant, and when we use them on our own bodies it can support our health as well. You can either use them topically, aromatically, or internally (depending on the purity of the brand) to support different body systems (like the nervous system, immune system, digestive system, etc.)
When you smell essential oils, the molecules travel up your nose and stimulate your limbic system, the part of your brain directly linked to memories and emotions. I only use and recommend Young Living, because if you aren’t using therapeutic grade essential oils, you are just filling your body with more toxins (and we just talked about why that is no good.) Hands down my favorite is Lavender. If you only try one oil, try this one because it might be the only one you need.
If you want to branch out there are plenty of others, so many I can’t list them all here. I always say start with the cheapest oils and if they don’t work then try the more expensive ones. A few of the most cost effective oils are Lavender, Orange, Cedarwood, and Peace and Calming II. Some of the more expensive ones are Stress Away, Valor, Joy, or if you want a whole collection, the Feelings Kit (which has been very helpful to me.)
Essential Oils have been such a blessing to me that I share about them and give classes for a living. If you would like to give them a try, you can order some using this link, or send me a message with any questions you have.
My version of “cleaning” a room, is to just take all of the junk in the middle of the floor and shove it into the corners of the room like a pack rat. I’ve had this awful habit my whole life. All of the piles slowly get bigger which stresses me out, and because they stress me out I avoid them, which makes them get even bigger, which causes more stress….ahh!
I finally accepted that the only way anything was going to stay clean was if I started getting rid of all my extra stuff. Clearing out and organizing my physical life is therapeutic, because it has an effect on how cluttered my mind feels as well (and clean rooms help me sleep better.) I like to use the popular Marie Kondo method. Choose one thing at a time, like books. Go get every single book you have in the entire house and place them in a pile on the floor. Then pick up one at a time and ask yourself, “does this bring me joy?” If it does then keep it, and if it doesn’t, toss it! Does that necklace remind you of a nasty break up? Toss it! Does that keepsake remind you of something mean someone said to you? Toss it! Did you wear that shirt on the worst day of your life, and now you have flashbacks every time you wear it? Just throw it away. I believe that sometimes it’s not practical keep things, because it’s not useful anymore if it’s stealing your joy.
“Chiropractors work primarily with the back, the spine and the neck. The nervous system has its superhighway, the spinal cord, running down the spine and any interruption in its flow could have an effect on mood.” – Dr Matthew Taylor
I didn’t realize until recently how much chiropractic care could affect mental health. When looking for a solution it’s not the first thing that comes to mind, but it makes a lot of sense if you think about it. If your spine is misaligned, then your nervous system may not be working properly. And if your nervous system isn’t working properly, it can cause anxiety. It’s possible that too much pressure is being put on your nerves, and by alleviating that pressure you can reduce your anxiety.
I will say it’s a little tricky finding the right chiropractor for you. I’ve had my share of bad appointments, but it’s worth kissing a few frogs to find the good ones. If the chiropractor gives you a quick crack and then says move along, I would try a different one. If the chiropractor makes you feel like an individual, and shows interest in giving you personalized help in achieving your health goals, then they are worth seeing a second time.
By the way, if you happen to live near the Twin Cities, I can recommend to you specific chiropractors that have been very helpful to me!
This is a very healthy way to “escape” for a few minutes when dealing with a big emotion. It’s also helpful to have something familiar on hand when you are dealing with new or scary situations. Invest in some really nice noise cancelling headphones and compile a list of songs on your ipod or phone that make you feel calmer.
One song that has been helping me stay calm for years is Carry Me by Josh Wilson. The singer was inspired to write this song after he started having panic attacks himself.
Over time we can unconsciously train our brains to react negatively to circumstances. This is often how phobias can start. For example, it only took puking at the grocery store ONE TIME for me to be forever paranoid about it. Now the grocery store, although seemingly unrelated, is directly linked to my fear of getting sick in public. It’s kind of funny that every time I walk into the supermarket my brain thinks it needs to warn me about the “danger” and instantly goes into fight-or-flight mode, but I really don’t need to be warned. Because of situations like this, it’s often necessary to “retrain” the neurotransmitters in the brain that send messages. This video describes what tapping is (it’s basically acupuncture without needles.) This video describes how it was discovered, and the scientific reasons behind why it works. This video is a great place to get started if you want to try it. There are a lot of different people who can talk you through tapping, but as you can see I’m a little biased towards Brad Yates.
Pay Attention to What You Put in Your Mind
You can’t remove all stress from your life, but you can at least remove it from your alone time. If something “fun” doesn’t bring you joy, then why bother doing it at all? If Facebook stresses you out, stop looking at it. If the news makes you sad, stop watching it. If the books or magazines or TV shows or music you are filling your mind with leave you with negative or even neutral feelings, then why bother doing them at all? Give them up and start actively planning joy in your life. Swap activities with things you truly enjoy, ones that leave you filled up afterwards, not emptier. This has saved me from a lot of unnecessary grief!
Relax Your Breathing and Your Muscles
When I get stressed, it manifests itself physically.
Pay more attention to your breathing. I only went to one psychiatrist appointment (it just didn’t seem like the right treatment plan for me.) But the main thing I learned about was breathing exercises. Slowing down your breathing can help you stay calm, but it is especially helpful after a panic attack has already started.
You should also try to recognize where you carry stress in your body. A lot of people hold tension in their shoulders or back which causes sore muscles, but I find that my abdomen is my most affected area. No matter where you carry your stress, it is helpful to learn how to release it through a self massage. When your body feels tense, it can make your mind tense. And when your body feels relaxed, it helps your mind feel more relaxed as well.
Memorize and Meditate
Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful – Joshua 1:8
One of the best ways to get through a difficult emotion is to repeat God’s promises over and over. It’s important to have some Bible verses committed to memory so that when an unexpected emotion hits, you are ready. It’s also helpful to plan time to meditate on scripture every day. Keep in mind there are two different kinds of meditation: transcendental and biblical. If you want to learn more about why I use biblical meditation (Joshua 1:8, Psalm 1:2) to focus on the word of God, I think this is an awesome resource. And if you would like to give meditation a shot, I find this guided video very helpful!
No More Bullies
My least favorite piece of advice I get about anxiety is to “think positive” or “stop worrying.” The people that say that mean well, and I wish it was possible to just think your anxiety away, but it isn’t.
However, the idea of putting effort into your internal dialogue shouldn’t be discarded altogether. I didn’t realize how much I bullied myself until I started actively listening to my thoughts. It was a defining moment when I realized that if anyone else was saying these things to me, I would be absolutely horrified! It’s not always possible to control your feelings when you struggle with mental health problems, but for just one day try not to say anything negative to yourself, and see what happens! Better yet, spend all that free time thinking about how to make someone else’s day awesome!
Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise – Philippians 4:8
If you have discovered any techniques that have helped you find relief from anxiety, I would love to hear about them. If you need someone to talk to, don’t hesitate to contact me! Just remember that there is hope, and you are not alone!