I can remember the feeling so well.
It hit me while sitting in a lecture theatre at university, trying to pay attention to what my professor was saying.
I could be riding the bus home from university, thinking about my day and what I have to do when I get home.
Or I could be in the middle of a movie cinema with my friends, watching an action blockbuster.
Then there was the one time when I was walking down the stairs in my house, just a normal day with nothing much happening at all.
What’s common about all these situations is that I am perfectly safe. There is no imminent threat to my physical well-being.
Despite this, every one of these scenarios is locked in my memory for a reason — I experienced a panic attack that seemed to come out of nowhere.
The feeling would slowly rise, a sensation in my body that something is wrong. My mind would immediately pay attention to this feeling, wonder what is going on, and the fear would fuel the feeling of terror rising.
As is often the case, the fear of getting a panic attack feeds the panic emotion. It doesn’t take long for your heart rate to speed up, your palms get sweaty, your blood rushes, catching your breath becomes difficult and the world feels too intense.
The ‘panic attack’ lasts less than a minute, but by the end your nerves are on edge, your legs feel like jelly and you just want to be alone, yet you’re also afraid of being alone because you don’t trust your own mind and body.
When Did San Francisco Get So Scary?
I touched down at San Francisco airport. I was tired and my nerves felt ‘fried’.
For the past two months, I traveled from Australia, through Hong Kong, Tokyo, Vancouver, San Diego and then San Francisco, my home for the next two months.
I don’t love flying, especially the bumpy parts. Turbulence triggers anxiety, which used to be crippling and kept me away from traveling. As I grew older the more I flew the better I got at handling the fear. I didn’t want fear of flying to stop me from seeing the world.
While I was in San Diego I felt a lot more ‘on edge’ than normal. I thought it was just because of the hot weather, which I don’t enjoy and is a big reason why I left Australia.
That first night in San Francisco, despite it being a lot cooler in temperature than San Diego, I couldn’t sleep. My heart was pounding and I felt very anxious.
The next day I still felt on edge, like I was in a perpetual state of heightened fear, even though there was no reason to be. Life was good, I was in a new city, had plenty of money, didn’t need to do anything other than what I wanted to do, yet I wasn’t in a good state.
Over the next few weeks, I continued to experience what I came to call heightened ‘nerves’. This was a different feeling to panic attacks. Panic is more like a sudden rush of intensity, these nerves were not as intense but much more long-lasting. I felt on edge for hours at a time.
I also noticed that I triggered anxiety in response to what I put in my body. If I had dark chocolate combined with even just mild caffeine in something like green tea, the nerves would hit me shortly after.
I began to wonder if something was off in my body — a chemical imbalance perhaps?
I had to get to the bottom of this. Living with daily anxiety made it difficult to enjoy life.
Why It Took Me So Long To Write This
I’ve wanted to write an in-depth article about my panic and anxiety for many years so I could help my fellow sufferers recover, to reach a place where they feel in control and calm, just as I do today (most of the time).
However, it’s been difficult to sit down and write about this because I still know that the seeds of panic and anxiety are within me. Focusing my energy there is not comfortable.
I learned a long time ago that spending all your time thinking about your fears tends to make them worse. This, as you will see, was the root cause of what eventually erupted into panic attacks for me. Even today going back and reviewing this part of my life and personality is something I have procrastinated.
Despite this, I know I can help a lot of people who currently suffer from anxiety and panic by explaining what worked for me to gain some semblance of control and eventual stability, a platform of calm from which you can grow.
There is a good chance, like myself, you are or aspire to be an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs, more than most have to deal with challenging situations, self-doubt, and motivate themselves every day to take action. It’s one of the most ‘alone’ jobs you can do, so if you’re not physically and emotionally all there, your business is not going to work.
Even if you’re not an entrepreneur, I know for certain you are a creative person on some level. Writers, musicians, painters, designers, performers, teachers, and other people with above average sensitivity are more prone to suffer from conditions like anxiety. It’s the ‘curse’ of creativity, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
I know from my own experience when you don’t feel great you don’t work or be creative. I’ve also seen this in people I have coached over the years, as many of them have suffered from anxiety, depression, and panic attacks, which have curtailed their business growth.
My hope is by sharing the following steps I can help you to help yourself, just as I did. These techniques worked for me to reach a point where I feel cured of panic attacks (I haven’t had one in over ten years) and impacted far, far less by anxiety.
I still feel fear of course, and I have some irrational anxieties like turbulence on airplanes (the more I fly, the less this fear is there), but for the most part I would call myself a recovered anxious person.
It’s all thanks to the following 10 steps, which I believe if you implement, will significantly reduce your anxiety and panic attacks even to the point of curing them completely.
There are no guarantees of course, but if you focus on these steps and be patient with yourself as you implement them, I know you will notice improvement.
Before we look at the steps, let’s get one thing out of the way first…
What Exactly Is A Panic Attack? What Is Anxiety?
If you ‘think’ you have had a panic attack, you probably haven’t. Someone who has experienced one will know what it is. They make a lasting impression.
A panic attack is not to be confused with ‘normal’ levels of anxiety and stress from life. We all face challenges, we all feel on edge, angry, pressured and nervous at times. These emotions are not fun, but they don’t stop us from functioning as human beings and tend to go away once the cause of stress is resolved.
Anxiety that perpetuates over long periods of time, even when there is no clear reason to feel anxious, and stops you from living a fulfilling life, is often termed (and diagnosed as) ‘General Anxiety’.
From my point of view the labels or diagnosis don’t matter as much as whether you want those feelings to be there or not.
I went through a period of regular intense panic attacks, I’ve had bouts of ongoing ‘fear for no reason’ type anxiety, and I have had anxiety triggered by specific events, like turbulence on a plane and a heart condition inherited from my father.
All of these things were unpleasant enough that I had to do something about them because the quality of my life was deteriorating.
Through research to help cure my panic attacks (more on this coming up next), I learned that panic attacks are the result of a part of your brain — the reptilian ‘lizard’ brain — firing up the fight or flight response.
This response is ancient and meant to protect you from danger. It triggers the release of all kinds of chemicals into your body so you are stimulated to either physically fight off an attacker, or run away to find safety. It’s a super adrenaline boost designed to protect you from that bear or dinosaur that wants to eat you.
However, since there is no real danger, your body is firing up for no reason. You have basically tricked yourself into believing your life is at risk.
I look at panic attacks as the fear dial turned up to 10 quickly, then turned off just as quickly, leaving you a quivering mess. More general anxiety is like flicking the fear dial up to a four, and then leaving it there for hours a time. It’s not nearly as intense, but it’s pervasive and makes life hard to enjoy.
As you are going to learn in the following steps, there are potentially many contributing factors that cause both panic and anxiety. From poor thoughts, to your upbringing and people you surround yourself with, lack of sleep and what you eat, to mineral deficits — all of these things can contribute to or be the direct cause of your panic and anxiety.
Now, let’s begin, starting of course, with step one…
Step 1: Take Responsibility For Changing Yourself
For some years I felt that my panic attacks controlled me. I didn’t know why I experienced them and most of the time I tried to ignore the fact that I had them.
It was as if I was unconscious to my own condition, yet clearly, I didn’t want to experience panic.
It wasn’t until I concluded that yes I was having panic attacks and I had to do something to help myself, that I finally began the work to get better.
More recently, with my ‘fried nerves’ anxiety while traveling in the USA, I once again had to accept that something was off, and commit to finding and applying a solution.
Once I made the choice to do the work to understand the cause of my condition and make the changes necessary to help myself, things finally started to get better. Not instantly of course, but the journey begins with your first step.
Acceptance of your condition and assuming responsibility for it, even if you believe someone else is making you feel or live in a certain way, is the only way to begin your path to recovery.
It’s amazing how long you can suffer from a problem purely because you don’t want to face it, accept it, and take responsibility for helping yourself. Ignoring something won’t make it go away if you continue the behaviors that trigger the problem.
This is especially true for conditions deeply rooted in fear. The act of accepting your fears is an act of facing them, which in itself is scary. It might feel safer to ignore and run away from these fears, but like everything in life, what you resist, persists.
One of the incredible things I noticed about my own panic attacks is that they seemed to grow if I tried to ‘fight’ them. When I riled against the emotions, they grew stronger. Yet, if I decided to turn towards the fear and let the emotion express itself — to feel the feelings without fighting them — they always became weaker.
The awareness to not fight and run, and instead acknowledge and attempt to let the emotions pass through me, was a powerful mindset shift for dealing with panic. As I got better at this I began to dissipate potential panic attacks before they could happen because I didn’t fight them.
Your first job is to accept what you are going through, take responsibility for being the source of your own cure (no one else can), and not fight or ignore the uncomfortable feelings, but instead give them permission to exist and pass on.
Step 2: Manage Your Body
If you’re an anxious person I’m sure you agree with me when I say that you feel a lot worse when you haven’t slept well, you’re hungry or thirsty, or you haven’t done exercise for a while.
I remember many of my friends in university would sacrifice sleep and eat poorly because they wanted to party and have fun, or had to stay up late to finish writing a paper just before a deadline.
I couldn’t fathom this because, without sleep and food, I wouldn’t have much fun, no matter what I was doing. My ability to focus on researching and writing papers would also drop significantly on poor sleep and nutrition, making the process even harder than it already was!
Everyone has a different physical constitution, but we all need sleep, food, water, and exercise to keep our bodies performing. Even if you think you can ‘go without’ and still perform well, that’s not a pattern you can continue for long.
As a person who is suffering anxiety or panic attacks (or possibly both), managing your body is even more important. Your brain requires sleep to keep all your physiological functions operating correctly. You need good nutrition so your body has access to all the minerals it needs to operate.
I believe a lot of anxiety and panic attacks are caused by, or at least impacted significantly by, poor nutrition, lack of regular sleep and mineral deficiencies. In fact, as you will see coming up, one of the biggest causes of my anxiety was lack of a key mineral in my body, something I would never have even considered a problem when I was younger.
For some people, managing your body and starting up new positive habits like eating more vegetables, getting eight hours of sleep a night, and exercising on a daily basis, will lead to significant improvement. You may even cure your anxiety and panic just with these steps.
There may be more you have to do to recover, as was the case for me, but making sure you are managing your physical state is a powerful positive step forward, giving you a platform for full recovery, not to mention much better health overall.
This is a BASIC step. If you ignore it, much of the rest of my advice will be hindered simply by your poor physiological condition. It’s like trying to win a race by tying your legs together.
Thankfully, this is a basic step, which means I know you can do it. It will take some discipline to make better choices about what you eat, in particular saying no to foods like sugar, dairy, wheat, alcohol and pretty much everything processed, but I’d argue, what’s more important to you — drinking a coke or never having anxiety and panic again?
Regarding Sleep: I realize for anxious people sleep can be tricky. It feels like a catch-22 sometimes when you are told to get enough sleep, that in itself makes you anxious about sleeping, and then you can’t!
I’ve been there.
I still have trouble sleeping when something is bothering me or I’ve mistreated my mind or body with poor thoughts or nutrition. This is why exercise and good food and lots of water is so important, it makes sleeping easier, which completes the picture of looking after your body.
I’ll write more about some supplements I sometimes take for aiding sleep in an upcoming step, and we’re about to deal with ‘unhelpful thinking’ next.
What I can suggest now is that Chamomile tea will help you fall asleep and caffeine will have the opposite effect. Swap your coffee for this tea and you will sleep better.
For some people, this step will be one of the hardest. Making the choice to change your eating, drinking and sleeping habits, especially if you are addicted to certain foods and drinks (which most of us are!), will be like trying to get off a drug.
I recommend you try one of two paths –
- Cold Turkey: Completely change everything for 30 days minimum. Get clear on what you should cut and add to your diet and make all the changes at once. For some, this ‘all-in’ method works and is certainly the quickest path to get better. After 30 days you can reintroduce some of your old favorites occasionally, but you may find you won’t want to anymore.
- Incremental Elimination: If the Cold Turkey method is too much to change at once, make one change at a time for 30 days. Don’t drink alcohol for a month, cut all dairy from your diet for a month, get at least 8 hours of sleep a night for a month, etc. At the end of 30 days you should find it much easier to keep up the change, so you can begin another 30 day challenge, slowly altering your diet one month at a time. This is easier and far less overwhelming, but obviously a much slower path.
If you struggle or fail to change your diet and sleeping habits, don’t give up. This is a lifestyle change that will completely revolutionize your life — forever! Hence you owe it to yourself to keep working on it for as long as it takes.
Step 3: Monitor Conversations With Yourself
While taking responsibility for your recovery and managing your body are vital first steps towards curing your anxiety and panic, I can say that in terms of impact on my life, this third step has had a more profound change than anything else.
This goes way beyond just helping with my panic attacks and anxiety. I believe working on my thoughts is responsible for how much money I have made, romantic encounters, my physical health and all around happiness than anything else.
Looking back now, I see my experience with panic attacks as a push towards evolving my way of thinking and perceiving the world, to reconstruct my ‘lens’ on life to create the outcomes I desire.
Of course, before any of this happened, the first thing I had to deal with was panic attacks.
It all began with the help of two books and a person…
- Living With It: A Survivor’s Guide To Panic Attacks by Bev Aisbett
- Learned Optimism by Dr. Martin Seligman
- My Mother
Bev Aisbett’s book was most helpful while I was very much in the middle of regular panic attacks. The book is not a miracle cure, but I really enjoyed the illustrations and the core idea I took away from it gave me an important step towards recovery.
To put it simply, Bev taught me not to fight the panic, but to see it as a cartoon monster following me around. She offers a gentle starting point to help you realize how much of your fear comes from your own negative and often irrational thoughts about life situations.
This was the doorway to studying my own interpretation of the world. It helped me feel that panic attacks were not something that was out of my control. Quite the contrary, I was very much in control because I was the one who created all these vicious circles of negativity that led to panic attacks in the first place.
For me, the big step forward here was empowerment. I felt responsible for what was happening, which meant I could change it. It wasn’t going to be easy, but at least it was in my hands!
Learned Optimism from Psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman took this idea of choosing how to interpret the world to a whole new level.
Dr. Seligman is the founder of a methodology called ‘Positive Psychology‘. What I enjoyed about his book was how he used experiments to show that mental models drive our reactions to life and very much dictate our happiness.
Here are some of the ideas I took away from his book that helped me deal with panic attacks:
- Optimists live longer, make more money and have happier relationships than pessimists.
- You are born with a natural predisposition to be somewhere on a scale between highly optimistic and highly pessimistic. Your environment, in particular your parents demonstrating optimism or pessimism, will also impact what your default view of the world is.
- Optimists see negative events in their life as one-offs, non-permanent, and likely to get better in the future. Pessimists see negative events as a reflection of permanent conditions they cannot change, so things will always be the same.
- Optimists are actually fooling themselves. They are actively making decisions to interpret reality in a way that benefits them. Pessimists are more rational when it comes to how things really are, but that often leads to poor outcomes despite how ‘accurate’ it might be (would you rather be accurate or happy?).
My big takeaway from all of these ideas is that I had the power to choose how I see the world, and there was clearly a better choice.
The last piece of the puzzle came from my mother. She gave me the practical steps I needed to begin implementing change, starting with most important activity:
Monitor your thoughts.
She helped me to switch on my self-awareness, in particular, to begin the practice of monitoring how I ‘spoke to myself’ in my head.
It was difficult at first to switch on this awareness as I was often more lost in my thoughts, letting them run wild.
After day one of my mindfulness practice, I came to a huge realization: I was a pessimist.
I spent most of the day inside my head picking apart things I didn’t like about myself, or reacting badly to what someone said or did or did not do. It was unbelievable how negative I was in my mind and what I chose to focus so much of my energy on.
Your task for this step is to activate your awareness. Monitor your thoughts for a day and become mindful of how you interpret the world. You may be surprised to learn you’re not the most cheerful person inside your head, but that’s okay, we’re going to change that next.
Step 4: Change The Conversation With Yourself
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, my mother was applying Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) to help me deal with panic attacks. CBT is a psychotherapy in which negative patterns of thought about yourself and the world are challenged in order to alter unwanted conditions.
If you look hard enough, you will find CBT has its roots in Stoic Philosophy, first practiced in ancient Greece.
The stoics apply a simple idea to life:
Be indifferent to the vicissitudes of fortune and to pleasure and pain.
In other words, don’t react to the good or the bad, as they are both fleeting, just as life itself is.
Stoicism provides a fantastic base to build from. When you gain the power to NOT react, you give yourself the space — the awareness — to choose how you want to react.
CBT teaches you to first monitor your thoughts and then, as Martin Seligman clearly demonstrated to be beneficial through his research, choose a positive response.
Thanks to my mother and book studies, the path to recovery was clear to me. I had to monitor my thoughts, discard the negative by realizing that I was choosing to see things this way, and then make a choice to see things in a positive way.
In Neuro Linguistic Programming, this is called Reframing — altering your perception so reality takes on a different meaning.
As easy as it is for me to explain all this to you now, coming to this realization took many months and it took many more months to practice it.
At the time I experienced panic attacks, I felt pretty down about life in general. The thought of proactively practicing reframing my thoughts made me feel tired. I just wanted to give up.
The one ‘benefit’ of panic attacks, is that they are so intense they push you to make changes to stop them. This was definitely the case for me. Although I felt tired and down on life, there was no way I was going to continue to live with panic attacks – they were horrible!
And so I did begin to change my thoughts… very slowly.
I recall sitting in one of my lecture theaters near the back of the room before the class started. It was micro or macro economics — I can’t recall — not my favorite subjects, but at least the class was full of pretty girls.
I looked up to my left and locked eyes with a girl I had seen in many of my classes. She instantly looked down, breaking eye contact.
My immediate thought — she doesn’t like me.
Then more thoughts…
She finds me unattractive and doesn’t want to give me any indication that she likes me. My clothes are terrible. I’m too skinny, no girl will ever like me. I’ll be single and alone my entire life. This is the reaction I always get when I look at a girl… how will I ever get the confidence to even talk to one!?
As you can see, not exactly a shining example of positivity.
This negative thought response to a simple event in my life would carry forward throughout my day. I’d criticize myself, feel like nothing will ever change and create negative stories around how people reacted to me.
One day, something different happened.
After spending hours and hours in negative thought spirals, I stopped myself.
I forced myself to see my thoughts as made up stories — which they were! — and instead to make up better stories.
I didn’t really believe my new stories at first, but at least I wasn’t focusing on the negative thought patterns.
For example, rather than see a girl looking away in response to our eyes locking as an indication of disinterest, I reframed the story. I told myself that she looked down because she was shy. She actually liked me, and that was why she was looking at me in the first place.
I told myself that she looked down because she was shy. She actually liked me, and that was why she was looking at me in the first place.
Any story could be true, so why not choose the empowering option?
I also reframed stories about my future. No longer would anything negative be an indication of what will happen forever. Instead, I decided to see it as a once off. If I kept trying, surely I would get a different result, especially if I learned and improved over time.
This was the daily practice I slowly introduced into my life. It wasn’t easy because I was going against years and years of habitual thought patterns. However, by first becoming aware of the conversation in my head, then proactively working to change it, I began to make progress.
Now it’s your turn. You’ve already done the previous step and spent time monitoring your thoughts. Next, it’s time to begin altering them to represent what you want from your life.
Step 5: Reduce Your Reframe Time
Being mindful is a practice.
If you have never tried it before, which was the case for me, you will find yourself defaulting to your habits over and over again.
At first, I found it empowering just to realize I had thought-habits. Prior to this, I lived within the habits, the negative thought patterns. Now I could step outside them and see them for what they were.
As I began to proactively work to change my thought-response, it became clear like all skills, practice was required.
Initially, I’d spend hours lost in bad thoughts, reacting negatively to events, then finally I’d stop myself and reframe my perceptions to create new, more empowering meaning.
Day-by-day, week-by-week, and month-by-month, I improved my thought-change response time. What previously took me hours, would require only an hour, then thirty minutes, then ten minutes, to stop my thoughts and reframe them.
Then one day something magical happened.
I had a negative thought and instantly stopped and changed it.
It all happened in a split second. I interpreted something that just happened to me, for example, a customer asking for a refund from my business, and instead of using that as fuel for a negative thought train, I instantly reframed.
“Customer refunds are rare, I’ll get more customers in the future, everything is going great. Let’s get back to work!” …is what I told myself.
It seems crazy-simple. This cognitive switch is just a matter of changing your mind, which can happen in an instant, yet for so many years I didn’t do it.
I had to literally practice this for months, every day reminding myself that thinking right was the pathway to feeling right.
I became so focused on mastering and re-engineering my thoughts, I didn’t realize that my panic attacks were starting to go away.
The attacks didn’t completely disappear immediately. There were still times of weakness, especially when I was physically less than optimal because I had not slept enough or missed a meal.
However, because I gained power over my thoughts, I was able to use that power when I felt a panic attack coming along. I could tell myself not to resist the panic, to remind myself that the feeling of panic will go away.
Eventually I got so powerful in my mind, on the rare occasion I felt panic rising, I could simply make the choice — “I am not going to have a panic attack” — and my body would instantly respond, like a soldier being told what to do by a superior, and the panic feeling would evaporate.
The mind-muscle I developed, this power over irrational fear, gave me a sense of confidence I had never felt before.
My ability to reframe my interpretations and thoughts, while at first used to cure panic attacks, turned into a tool I used to go after things I wanted in my life. This article is not the place to review how I set and achieve goals, but it’s important you understand that the skillset you are learning here is applicable to your entire life.
I promise you, if you practice mindfulness and positive reframing, and do so wholeheartedly as a daily ongoing activity, not only will your panic attacks start to go away, you may find your entire life changing in amazing ways.
Step 6: Change Your Beliefs To Master Emotion
When I first began the process of monitoring my thoughts and reframing them into positive interpretations of life events, I often felt like I was trying to fool myself.
My emotions were telling me the opposite of what I was trying to convince myself to think. I felt bad and no amount of better storytelling in my mind seemed to help.
This led to an important question…
Were my thoughts controlling my emotions, or were my emotions controlling my thoughts?
This question has led to scientific experiments, caused books to be written, and countless discussions to occur.
The answer seems to lie somewhere in the middle. Both your thoughts and emotions interact and influence each other. However, our experience of emotion is much stronger than our experience of thought, so we tend to react much more to how we feel than how we think.
I initially struggled to implement thought reframing because I was trying to change the words in my head to positive when my feelings were negative.
This is when things got interesting…
There was one other ingredient I had not considered yet:
It turns out that our feelings are really controlled by our beliefs. What we believe about our life is what we tend to feel.
In particular, what we believe about our future tends to dictate our happiness. If we believe our future is full of good things, we are happy in the present working towards them. If we don’t believe there are good things coming, then we are sad, depressed, angry and frustrated.
The truly powerful insight is this…
Our beliefs are once again choices we have made about how to interpret things.
If I believe a girl looking at me then looking away is because I am ugly and no girl will ever find me attractive, then I am sad because I believe my future will be lonely.
If on the other hand, I believe a girl looking at me and then looking away is because she finds me attractive, then I believe my future may include a romantic encounter with this girl, I am happy in the present.
Once again, the power lies in our interpretation, our perception of events.
Not only do you have to change how you think, you also have to change what you believe, if you are to attain emotional congruency (emotions supporting the changes you want).
…And therein lies the true secret, the true power to overcome your panic attacks, your anxiety and attaining anything in life you desire…
You must align your thoughts, feelings and beliefs so you experience complete congruency about what you want.
Experiencing true belief is a challenge if you have not had the experience to reinforce that belief.
This is why belief, at its core, is faith. To believe means to have faith that something will change even if you have never experienced that change before.
In the case of curing my panic attacks, my faith came from one idea: My rational conclusion that what the books taught me and my mother said, made sense.
I believed that the process of changing my thoughts through mindfulness and reframing (CBT/NLP/STOICISM) would make my panic attacks go away because there were countless examples of it working for other people. It seemed logical to me, especially after I discovered how pessimistic my thoughts were up to that point.
In later years, as I continued to practice reframing, I came to realize for some changes I wanted to make in my life, to truly believe, to have faith, required a spiritual component.
In this article, we’re not going to dive into the spiritual component. All you really need is belief in the process, the science and the results others have experienced, to believe the steps I am sharing with you work.
Trust your rational mind and put into action what I am teaching you here, and I’m confident you can overcome any negative feelings because you believe that it works. If you have to believe in me as the source of this information, by all means, go for it, but I’d rather you believe in the power of the ideas than any one individual.
Remember that the best source of belief comes from practical results. If you implement my advice here in this article and you notice your panic attacks becoming less frequent, that’s going to give you the belief you need. It won’t be long before you are cured.
Step 7: Vitamins And Minerals
When anxiety hit me in recent years, I wasn’t sure what to make of it initially.
I’d just been through a tough period in my life. My mother spent two years in hospital after having a stroke. I was bedside with her most days before she passed on. After this, I moved to Melbourne and lived there for a year, before traveling overseas.
As I mentioned earlier, I don’t like flying so much, but the desire to travel is stronger than my fear. I managed a few uncomfortable hours on planes so I could see Hong Kong, Tokyo, Vancouver, San Diego and then live in San Francisco.
My anxiety during this period seemed to escape from the plane trips and came with me as I explored these new cities.
At first, it wasn’t too bad, but as I continued to travel, the worse it became. I wasn’t having panic attacks, but I felt a strong sense of nerves, of consistent anxiety that would last for hours at a time.
I came close to a couple of panic attacks, but using my mind-training I was able to stop them. What I couldn’t figure out though, was why the anxiety was so persistent.
I still felt strong in the mind, so I didn’t think the cause was the same as fifteen years ago when I had panic attacks.
During a terrible night in San Francisco with heart palpitations that kept me awake all night, I received help from an unexpected source.
I was dating a girl in Australia before I left. While I was in the USA I talked to her online explaining my problems with anxiety. She did something I should have done weeks before, but I was so caught up in the anxiety I never did (I hadn’t fully accepted I had a problem)…
She went online and did research.
Her conclusion was that I probably had a mineral deficiency, in particular, I was likely lacking in magnesium.
I read the articles she shared with me and did my own research. The science was compelling.
Because of modern farming practices, our soil is depleted of vital minerals. Even if you eat a healthy diet full of vegetables, which I do, you can still be deficient in many minerals, including magnesium.
I am a voracious consumer of dark chocolate, with high cocoa content. In Australia, I also frequently drank raw cocoa in my smoothies. Cocoa is high in magnesium, so I was surprised this could be a problem.
After that terrible night in San Francisco, I was about as on edge as possible. I hadn’t slept, I had put my body through anxiety all night, so about all I could do that day was a very slow walk to the nearest Whole Foods Market to buy myself some magnesium supplements.
Magnesium helps keep blood pressure normal, bones strong, and the heart rhythm steady. I was impressed to read stories from doctors who immediately put people who had irregular heart beats on intravenous magnesium. Given the heart palpitations I had the previous night, that sounded good to me!
If you’re interested in more of the medical science, here’s a small excerpt from the National Institutes Of Health in the USA –
Magnesium is a cofactor in more than 300 enzyme systems that regulate diverse biochemical reactions in the body, including protein synthesis, muscle and nerve function, blood glucose control, and blood pressure regulation. Magnesium is required for energy production, oxidative phosphorylation, and glycolysis. It contributes to the structural development of bone and is required for the synthesis of DNA, RNA, and the antioxidant glutathione. Magnesium also plays a role in the active transport of calcium and potassium ions across cell membranes, a process that is important to nerve impulse conduction, muscle contraction, and normal heart rhythm.
You can read more here: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Magnesium-HealthProfessional/#en3
My research suggested a glycinate magnesium was best because it was more easily absorbed by the body and less likely to cause a laxative effect when taken in high dosages.
I found magnesium in the Noe Valley Whole Foods in San Francisco, and immediately gave myself a big dosage – about 1,000mg, although I was told I could push that up to 2,000 if I wanted to short term.
I felt the impact immediately.
The best way I can describe the change was a sense of relaxation coming over me within 30 minutes, sometimes instantly, of taking magnesium.
Since that day back in San Francisco, I take 200mg to 1,000mg of magnesium per day. No other supplement has made such an obvious difference to my life before.
The magnesium supplement was enough to ‘take me away from the edge’ in terms of anxiety and nerves. I was able to sleep again and slowly started to feel normal.
However, I wasn’t quite there yet. I would still get bouts of excessive nerves that lasted hours, frequently in response to eating dark chocolate with green tea (possibly the caffeine in the tea or theobromine in the chocolate was too stimulating – or the combination). I was pretty upset that my good friend dark chocolate could cause this, so I realized I needed more help.
I was also having indigestion problems (gas, bloating, cramps), so I figured the smart thing to do was head to a nutritionist doctor, who could get all my food sensitivities tested and also look into the anxiety.
The doctor sent me off to donate about 12 vials of blood, a cup of urine and send some saliva in the mail, to get a comprehensive look at the following…
- Full bloodwork for the things like Cholesterol, Sodium, Potassium, Calcium, and all the usual elements that are found in our bodies to see if anything was out of normal range
- Thyroid test to make sure my hormone levels are in range since they can impact anxiety
- White and red blood cells, iron, and a whole bunch of related blood indicators to again see if they are in normal range
- Vitamin D, D2 and D3 since they can impact mood
- Cortisol levels in the morning, noon, evening and night to see if adrenals are out of whack (this is what the saliva test you send in the mail is for)
- Neurohormones like Serotonin, Dopamine, Glutamate, Epinephrine, and Gaba to check on brain health (if you’re low or high in these it can be responsible for anxiety, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, and just not being happy!)
- Plus a large ranging food sensitivities test to see what foods trigger an immune response in my body
I’d never done such a comprehensive test before, so I was curious what the results would be.
My best guess was that the constant anxiety with all the travels had drained my adrenal glands.
The theory behind adrenal fatigue is that your adrenal glands can’t keep up with the demands of perpetual fight-or-flight arousal caused by stress. As a result, they struggle to produce enough of the hormones you need to feel good.
I don’t have the space to review all my test results here (I have over 10 pages of printouts!), but the short answer is that nearly everything was in range.
My cortisol levels and brain hormones levels were a bit low, but not as bad as the doctor expected. This did, however, give us a direction for treatment.
My food sensitivities were another matter. I was shocked at what was going on with my digestive system. Again, I don’t have the space to review the diet changes I eventually went on here in this article, but I will no doubt cover them in a future article.
The doctor recommended a supplement regime geared to help with anxiety and nerves. Here is a summary, along with notes on how much impact each supplement had (obviously seek advice from a medical professional before you take anything as your body is different to mine, I especially recommend you get the appropriate tests done first).
L-Theanine (Dosage: 1 capsule twice a day with meals, then as needed in times of stress)
This by far helped me the most with anxiety and also sleeping. I noticed the impact straight away after initially using it daily to deal with the ongoing nerves and the on edge feeling. After about a week of daily dosage, I switched to taking it ‘as needed’. More recently I have taken it only as a sleep aid very rarely.
Relora Plus: A mix of B vitamins (1 capsule twice a day with meals, then as needed in times of stress)
This one helps balance cortisol and DHEA levels and supports a positive mood by helping to reduce anxiety. I didn’t notice quite the same immediate impact as L-Theanine had, however, a year later I had another blood test and I was still a little low on B vitamins, so I still take B supplements today.
Melatonin (1 capsule a day in new time zones when traveling)
My dad has long been a proponent of Melatonin for jetlag. I never tried it, but after speaking to this particular naturopathic doctor, I started to use it for jetlag and occasionally help with sleep if Magnesium and L-Theanine don’t get me there.
5 HTP (1 capsule as required for headaches or poor mood)
My friend Olena Beley from PopThePimple.com got me on to this one. 5-Hydroxytryptophan, also known as oxitriptan, is a naturally occurring amino acid and chemical precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin – that all important happiness brain chemical, which I was low on in my tests.
I take this rarely, usually if I feel a headache coming on, but it sure is effective. It also has the added benefit of making you just feel better, which obviously helps with anxiety or feelings of depression. I wouldn’t want to take this as a daily supplement though, it feels like something you could become a little dependent on.
I began taking Vitamin D3 (especially when I was in Canada where the sun isn’t high enough during the colder months to give us the Vitamin D we need) and Vitamin C for all around immune support.
I also started taking a range of other supplements related to digestion and immune support, which I will cover in a future article.
One word of warning: After the doctor prescribed my supplement regime, I found myself suddenly taking over 20 pills a day! (this was just my initial short-term treatment). At first, it was great at helping with the anxiety, but within a week I had some pretty epic diarrhoea, which was not fun!
When I went back to the doctor for my follow up appointment and told her what was going on, she immediately dropped my dosages to mostly on an ‘as needed’ basis, which is how I use the anxiety supplements today.
I still take Magnesium, Vitamin D and C daily, Vitamin B12 regularly and a few other digestion and immune related supplements.
One important thing to consider here is that all of the supplements I have mentioned are over the counter, non-prescription vitamins (except melatonin, which can be a prescription medication in some countries). That’s as far as I know anyway, it might be different in your country.
I’ve been able to buy them all in pharmacies and grocery stores in America, Canada, and Europe during my travels.
I’m not a medical professional so take my advice here as you will… but I have to say I like vitamin supplements a whole lot more than the ‘strong’ drugs you might get prescribed from everyday doctors, like antidepressants and beta-blockers, which can be addictive, don’t treat the cause, only the symptoms… and then create a whole new set of symptoms!
That’s why I went to a Naturopathic Doctor, someone who has a holistic view of treatment and focuses on helping the body to heal itself. In particular, I was looking for advice on food and mineral supplementation, so I needed a doctor who values that kind of treatment.
I believe a combination of mindset training, nutrition management (you are what you eat and drink) and vitamin supplementation are the best cure and also the best PREVENTION to problems, and anxiety is no different.
Of course, there is a time for medical intervention too, you should access all the resources you can to get better, just make sure you don’t skip the obvious – your body is a machine that requires good fuel to function properly!
I should also mention before I wrap up this section that part of my diet changes included a reduction or elimination of things like sugars, gluten, dairy, and processed foods. I never drink coffee or alcohol or do recreational drugs, which has been the case my whole life.
I eat vegetables, some lean meat and fish, nuts, lots of dark chocolate (my one vice when it comes to sugar), and drink plenty of water. I do break the eating rules from time to time, especially because I travel so much and there are so many good things to try, but overall I am pretty strict with what I put into my body.
Normally these sorts of diet changes are not considered a treatment for anxiety, but they really are. As I mentioned earlier, your anxiety and/or panic attacks could disappear simply because you give your body proper nutrition, so why not at least try making these changes and see what happens?
You can’t get around the nutrition issue. Take action and change what you put in your body if you truly want to cure your anxiety and panic, not to mention most other problems (depression, fatigue, lack of focus, lack of motivation, skin conditions, weight gain…and the list goes on!).
Step 8: Do Work That Gives You Meaning
Have you ever done something you enjoy so much that time just disappears?
It might be something creative, like painting or writing or knitting, or a physical activity like playing tennis, or rock climbing, or even having sex. It could be driving a car, designing a building, cooking a meal or delivering a lecture.
This experience of lost time is commonly called being in ‘flow’ or ‘flow state’. You’ve probably heard the phrase she is in the flow when for example, a dancer is performing on stage or a baseball pitcher is striking everyone out.
We are all capable of being in this state. I’m confident you have already experienced it at some point in your life.
I came to an interesting realization when I began looking at what activities lead to flow state for me…
I never experience anxiety while in flow.
I realized that quite frequently anxiety in my life was linked to things the opposite of flow.
I’d get anxious when I forced myself to do things I didn’t want to do. I’d get anxious thinking about my future and not being sure what I was ‘meant to do with my life’. I’d get anxious thinking I was falling behind my friends because they seemed to be so sure of their direction and I was not.
As I began to look deeper into when I was most happy in my life, I realized it all came down to one thing…
When I had a purpose, the work I did towards my goal gave me meaning. This in turn led to more flow states, better creative output, and thus more overall happiness.
Whenever these things were absent, I was more likely to feel depressed or anxious.
It’s easy for me to write this now because I know very clearly what my purpose is and what creative tasks give me joy. I’ve constructed a lifestyle designed specifically to support my purpose, so I am rewarded for following it, both intrinsically and financially.
However, go back 15 years and I was lost, really lost.
I didn’t know what my purpose was, I wasn’t sure what I was good at or meant to do, and up to that point, I had spent a lot of time doing things I didn’t enjoy, like studying subjects at school and university I didn’t care about.
On top of this, I had no money, no girlfriend, and no potential career path. I was a ship lost at sea!
Unfortunately, there was no instant breakthrough for me. I didn’t just wake up one day with clarity about my purpose.
If, as you read this, you feel I could be describing your life too, I have some good news, there is an answer.
For many of us, figuring out your purpose is a process. It’s not a moment in time, it’s an ongoing experience. Experience is the tool we use to figure out our purpose.
And here is one of the most powerful mindset reframes to help you find your purpose when you feel lost…
Make discovering your purpose your purpose.
This won’t be your purpose forever of course, but if you treat the search, the process of experiencing various things, conducting ‘life experiments’ like a scientist to help you discover your purpose, you will find the meaning you are looking for.
It’s important you have patience and don’t compare yourself to others. Some people know what they are meant to do from a young age, others spend their entire life exploring different purposes.
If on the other hand, right now you are very clear what your purpose is, you know what activities give you meaning and flow, then you owe it to yourself to devote your energy to constructing a life designed to support this purpose.
Don’t put off your purpose because you feel you have to be responsible to other people or pressures that society is placing on you. You always have the power to make choices. Some choices lead towards your purpose, others take you away.
I’m not talking about dropping everything in your life to suddenly become a musician, or artist, or entrepreneur (unless that’s what you want to do!). If you have family members that need looking after, debts that need to be paid, or health matters that must be addressed, these things must factor into your choices too.
However, there are always choices you can make that will create opportunities to explore your purpose more frequently.
- You can choose to work a part time job so you have time to work on your music or business
- You can choose instead of watching Netflix for a couple of hours each night, to work on writing your novel
- You can choose to move to a country where the cost of living is lower, so you can quit the job you don’t like and focus on your blog or podcast
- You can choose to get up an hour or two earlier, so you can practice your dance routine
There are always options. It’s your fear that stops you from making decisions that might ultimately make you happier in the long run.
Do You Have To Make Money From Your Purpose?
Not every person has a purpose that directly translates into income.
If the potential is there for you to profit from your creativity, then you have the opportunity to live what many people consider a dream – getting paid to do what you love.
However, you shouldn’t feel that your purpose must somehow result in making money. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t.
If you see opportunities and you like the idea of earning money from something you love, then open the doors that lead to that outcome.
What is most important, especially when it comes to your happiness (and thus helping with anxiety and depression), is figuring out what leads to flow state for you, and then making changes to your life that allow you to enter flow state more frequently.
As Joseph Cambell famously wrote, “Follow your bliss“.
BILL MOYERS: Do you ever have the sense of… being helped by hidden hands?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: All the time. It is miraculous. I even have a superstition that has grown on me as a result of invisible hands coming all the time – namely, that if you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in your field of bliss, and they open doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.
Step 9: Get Off The Rollercoaster
You lose a job, your boyfriend dumps you, you get into a car accident, your product launch fails, your pet dies, you break a nail…
Life has a habit of throwing a range of experiences at you that you don’t see coming.
The ancient stoics had an interesting way of interpreting what we would call ‘bad events’. Rather than instantly label them as bad and letting your thoughts and feelings turn negative, instead look at these events as tools for growth.
The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.
— Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor
Once again, perception is key. Events happen, you decide how you react. A bad thing is only bad if you decide it is.
Marcus Aurelius, famous founding father of Stoic Philosophy, reveals a dichotomy in life that at first can be very hard to see.
The seeds of your greatest growth opportunities, come from your greatest challenges.
As modern day author Ryan Holiday aptly titled his book on Stoicism, The Obstacle Is The Way.
As an anxious person who may be experiencing panic attacks, who defaults to negative frameworks, adopting this philosophy is a challenge. However, that challenge shows you the pathway to change.
During a very dark period for me when I was experiencing panic attacks and feeling very depressed, I went online looking for the answer to a big question…
What is the meaning of life?
To find the answer, I typed the question into Google.
The search results lead me to a series of philosophic articles that helped shape what would become my default way of seeing the world.
To put it simply, I decided to get off the rollercoaster.
Life can easily feel like a rollercoaster of events. You a get a new job, then you break up with your girlfriend. Your bicycle gets stolen, then you book an overseas holiday. You get the flu, then you recover from the flu!
These ups and downs continue throughout your entire life. No one escapes.
I made the decision to simply see events as events, and then decide how best to respond to them, based on what I wanted for my life. I knew that both the good and the bad would pass, and I decided what was good and bad.
I am also careful to work within the conditions I face in any given moment.
When I am less than optimal, missing sleep, unwell, hungry, going through challenging periods, I make the choice to be gentle with myself.
I focus on the basics, get good sleep, eat healthy, and do my best to see the positive. I temporarily reduce my expectations and work in maintenance mode until I feel things improve.
When I feel strong, when events turn in a direction I desire, when anxiety and panic left, I reached for more. I challenge myself to do what I fear, I set bigger goals, I take risks, do things I previously was afraid to do.
There’s a time to treat yourself with kindness, and there is a time to push yourself forward because you have a strong base to jump from.
Life can feel out of control if you instantly react to whatever is happening without any conscious thought to how you want to respond. The power comes from the space between the event and your reaction. Find that space and you will find peace.
Step 10: The Destination Is Guaranteed, So Relax
When I was very young, under five years old, I remember waking up in the mornings contemplating my own death.
That time just after waking up was strange for me because I wasn’t sure where I had just been. It was like I didn’t exist anymore while sleeping, then I woke up and I did. This made me think about dying and what it was like to ‘not exist’ on a potentially permanent basis.
This thought as a young boy was at first terrifying, but also incomprehensible. I couldn’t use what I had — my mind and body — to understand what it was like when these things are gone.
As I grew older, I came to a set of beliefs about death, which I will no doubt share with you in another article.
Death is the only thing in life that is guaranteed to occur. Everyone gets a turn.
You might not know when, or how, but you know for sure you will get to experience this aspect of life transforming.
Accepting my death became one of the core tenets of how I overcame anxiety and panic.
Whilst in the middle of panic attacks, I began thinking a mantra to myself over and over again…
“This too will pass.”
This mantra is a powerful one that people often use for anything in life that is uncomfortable, undesirable or unpleasant.
After you have a few panic attacks, you really do understand through experience that they will actually pass, but I took the ethos of this mantra further.
Knowing that I was going to die became the ultimate “this too will pass” because it will, I will pass on. There is nothing I experience while alive that will continue forever.
I feel I should mention at this point that I was not having suicidal thoughts. I’m also not suggesting you should contemplate killing yourself as a means to stop anxiety and panic, regardless of how horrible they can be at times. My desire for you is to do what I did and use the steps in this article to recover.
Once I fully embraced my own impending departure from life as we know it, I came to a very powerful conclusion:
If nothing in life is permanent, why on earth was I spending so much time making my present so unpleasant!?
To put it simply, death made me relax.
I realized I was giving so much value and energy to so many thoughts about things and people that didn’t deserve that kind of attention. I owed it to myself to use what time I had in a more productive manner.
It’s a unique mindset, but truly accepting the ultimate destination, makes you appreciate the journey that much more.
You Chose This Experience For A Reason
The ten steps I have just outlined to you will change your life. Living through them certainly changed mine.
I’d like to leave you with one powerful idea as I wrap up this guide:
What you are currently experiencing with panic or anxiety or depression or whatever challenge you face today, is something you chose for a reason.
I know this can be hard to hear. The idea that you self-selected to go through pain, fear, sadness, or any negative experience, whilst in the middle of experiencing it, is difficult to accept.
If someone said this to me while in the middle of a panic attack, I think I would have felt like punching them in the face.
I certainly did NOT want to experience what I was experiencing.
Despite this, there was a part of me that knew what I was going through was happening for a greater purpose. The knowing of it only grew the longer I experienced and then worked to eliminate anxiety and panic attacks from my life.
Much of the success in life I have enjoyed was on some level born from the mindset changes I went through and outlined in this article.
If I didn’t study positive psychology, if I didn’t practice mindfulness, if I didn’t learn how to reframe my perceptions and ‘get off the rollercoaster’, I doubt I would have been able to build a million dollar business, or travel the world for years at a time, or meet the people and have all the wonderful experiences I have enjoyed.
However, what is most important to me, is the fact that this guide you are reading now couldn’t exist if I didn’t live through what I lived through with anxiety and panic.
I would not be able to help you and potentially millions of other people through the internet to overcome anxiety and panic attacks, if I didn’t myself have the experience of them.
The joy and value I get knowing that this article will lead to some relief in your life, that it will help you to help yourself gain control and a pathway forward to emerge from your own fears and negative thoughts and eventually recover from anxiety and panic, is the greatest reward.
Beyond this, I believe that the skills I am teaching you here will help you improve other aspects of your life. You may start your own business, become a leader in your field, meet the love of your life, or simply be happier because you learn to see the positive instead of the negative. These ripple effects go well beyond my possible comprehension, and I love that.
You in turn may go on to teach others, sharing your story of recovery, and further spreading messages that will ultimately make the world a better place.
Helping each other is what we are here to do. Although this may be hard to believe now, if you can see your own suffering today merely as a step towards something incredibly positive — a chance to eventually help others — you are on the way to recovery.
This is truly what Marcus Aurelius was talking about. What blocks your path today, lights the way for millions more tomorrow.
I don’t believe in coincidences. I don’t believe you discovered this article by accident, in fact I believe I wrote it specifically for you.
Now it’s your turn, it’s time to make positive changes.