My Top Tips for Managing Anxiety

Sandra Barnhart
Sandra is an author and artist living and creating in the GTA.

Feb 20,2018

For most of my life I had anxiety and panic attacks. At the time of my diagnosis in the 90’s I was in elementary school in a tiny town in Southern Ontario. I had never met anyone with panic attacks and it seemed no one else I knew had either. Because of this, no one knew what to do with me when my anxiety came up except to tell me to calm down and there was nothing to be nervous about. To most, it seemed I just had a bad case of the nerves but I felt like my entire life and world was dictated by whether or not I was going to have a panic attack that day.

Most of my symptoms showed up like a sudden onset of a stomach bug. To prevent myself from feeling sick I took Gravol and Pepto Bismol daily trying to manage my symptoms. There were some weeks I’d be okay and felt like a regular kid and other weeks it was a challenge to get out of bed. There didn’t seem to be any specific triggers and the unpredictability seemed to make it worse.

I went to therapy both in Ontario and British Columbia to get control over my disorder. The first time I went in the 8th grade I was determined to get better before I went to high school – as if it was as simple as talking to someone a few times and it would permanently vanish. It turned out that it wasn’t quite so easy. Through therapy I learned many coping skills but found that once I started to experience the symptoms of an attack (nausea, feeling light headed, cold, shaky and sweaty) it was like a freight train going off the rails. Though I was able to finish high school, find work and started a career the rest of my life seemed to nose dive until I could barely leave my house. I spent countless hours researching ways to reduce anxiety. I tried meditation, listening to binaural beats, hypnosis videos and meditations, exercise, drinking only water and even tried more metaphysical things like crystals, energy work and sound healing. All of these offered temporary relief but never seemed to do the trick until I found three things that made the most difference. I’ve been panic attack free for five years now, so what finally worked?

Here’s what I learned:

  • ·        Deep breathing. I know, I know, we’re always told to “just breathe,” but what does that really mean? Our breath is our life and if we can use it correctly we can put ourselves into a state of calm. I was skeptical but tried it. First, I was instructed to take a deep breath and fill my lungs as much as I possibly could and then to hold it for a slow count of four. Then I’d let all the air rush out, making a whoosh sound and all. I’d push all the air out of my lungs until there was nothing left and held that for the same slow count of four. I’d then repeat the process a few times until my heart rate slowed and my body felt relaxed. It was explained to me that this type of breathing forces your body into a state of calm and while your body is physically calm, anxiety cannot enter it. Our minds may try to cause the anxiety to build up and create an attack, but if we focus on this method of breathing it will slow it down and promote relaxation.  This technique was my first line of defense. The second I felt any anxious thought or sensation come up I immediately employed the breathing technique knowing in my mind that if I could bring calm to my body through my breath that my anxiety would not elevate. I even did it when I wasn’t in an anxious state because it just feels good to breathe!
  • ·        Food and the Brain-Gut connection. Before I learned about this, I thought I knew what healthy eating was and followed the Canada Food Guide. What I didn’t know was that any spike in my blood sugar and the subsequent spike of insulin could actually trick my body into a panic response. I have always been sensitive to sugar and caffeine but didn’t connect my body’s response to it with anxiety. A therapist I was seeing gave me a booklet about eating for anxiety and depression. From there I went online and learned about the glycemic index, foods that had the potential to cause inflammation and foods with hidden sugars and other elements that could put the body into a state of dis-ease. I was once the pickiest eater I knew but transformed my diet completely to eat only fresh vegetables, adequate protein and healthy fats. I eliminated processed foods, grains and most dairy. The change in my anxiety was nearly immediate and within a few months I was able to leave my home for the first time without panic! Years later an allergy test revealed the foods I had eliminated actually caused a strong inflammatory response in my body and was likely the primary contributor to my mental health issues. The brain-gut connection is real!  
  • ·        Self-Expression and Authenticity. Oftentimes lack of expression can be a contributing factor to our mental and emotional health. I spent many years simply trying to cope through my life and was unable to thrive. I felt like my anxiety was a burden to others and if it came up while I was out, it would ruin everyone else’s time.  Assuming how other people would react to my panic attacks often would contribute to the catastrophic thinking pattern that was panicking about panicking. When I finally decided to start telling people up front that I was anxious people were very understanding and accommodating. What a relief! This way I could go out in the world and then I could do what I needed to do when the time came. How liberating!     

If you’re struggling with your mental health I urge you to continue to seek mental health professionals that you jive with as it can make a world of difference. Don’t be afraid to research different methodologies and strategies to cope. I was told by doctors and therapists that I’d likely have anxiety for the rest of my life but I was determined to find a way to prove them wrong. I had to go through multiple therapists to find one that supported my decision to find a holistic approach to becoming anxiety free, after all.  

Most importantly, don’t give up. I struggled with my mental through my childhood and most of my 20’s trying to find answers. There were many days I felt I’d never conquer it. We all have our own battles to fight but it takes determination and often a very open mind to get there. 

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