This is a rather special little side project that I’ve been working on with fellow Hashi’s kid, Sophie, from A Squirrel in the Kitchen. We both guested on The Autoimmune Connection (the Youtube channel from fellow AIPer Christina at A Clean Plate) recently, and bonded over our mutual feelings of anxiety! Comparing my story with Sophie’s, I think they each offer a very different perspective, and I hope our stories are helpful in someway. I know we both found this experience a cathartic one. There will be an episode of The Autoimmune Connection on anxiety coming up soon, so, if you fancy it, check that out!
Sophie is an autoimmune warrior, foodie, and recipe developer. She blogs at A Squirrel in the Kitchen, where her mission is to demonstrate that you can eat gourmet meals on the autoimmune protocol (AIP)! Her French heritage shines through in her simple, yet creative cooking style and her recipes are doable even for beginning cooks. She lives in Colorado with her husband and their three teenage girls. Diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease in 2009, she experienced severe anxiety, insomnia, and panic attacks. She is sharing today her story of recovery. You can find her on Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram.
Kirstie (that’s me!) is an AIP newbie, fashion industry survivor and clinical nutritionist! Kirstie was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s in 2013 and after initially just taking her pills and still not feeling that great, she realized that there must be a reason why her body had started attacking itself. And so the journey began! Quitting sugar, cutting out gluten and a career change were the first steps for her journey back to good health. The siren call of the Autoimmune Protocol elimination diet soon beckoned, and her education in delicious and nutrient dense home cooking got started! Living in Sydney with her partner and son, Kirstie can usually be found at her local farmers market, in the kitchen, or geeking out on Pubmed!. Kirstie blogs at Kirstie Howard – Living Well and can also be found on Facebook and Instagram (usually stalking other AIPers!).
When and how did you experience anxiety and panic attacks for the first time? What was happening in your life at the time that you can identify as the initial trigger?
Sophie: My first experience with anxiety was rather sudden and brutal. Up until my first panic attack, stress and anxiety had never been a problem for me. My life was spent running left and right, full to the brim with a never ending to-do list, with little time for relaxation and exercise. I had an endless reserve of energy and no task was too big for me. I have to mention also that I was eating a standard american diet. My only concern was my constant battle with my weight! Does all this raises a red flag for you?
Then early 2009, after a minor outpatient surgery, I crashed. I woke up in the middle of the night fully alert, my heart racing in my chest. I was lying down and yet my head was spinning and I had tingling sensations in my limbs. My breathing was shallow, labored, and my throat was closing up. I thought I was having a heart attack and that it was the end of the road for me.
I just had my first panic attack. Of course, I was never able to go back to sleep that night!
When I reflect on those hard times, trying to figure out what went wrong, I realize that the stress of the surgery was only the final straw on the camel’s back. The storm had been brewing inside my body for years. Bad nutrition, lack of exercise, excess of weight, and unmanaged stress, raised the inflammation inside of me to the point where disease had become ineluctable.
Kirstie: I experienced my first panic attack in the flagship Topshop store. Anyone that has been there may not be surprised at this (it’s huge and packed full of people and clothes with loud music and bright lights) – but for me, Topshop was my spiritual home (!) and the panic attack came pretty much out of the blue. I started sweating, my skin became clammy, I was shaking, I felt light headed, my vision was blurred, my heart was beating fast and I just wanted to run away but I couldn’t, I felt like if I moved I would collapse.
At this time, I was at university in London and living away from my partner for most of the week. I had minimal money to spend on food, so I ate minimal food and regularly experienced low blood sugar and considered the cold sweats and trembling that this induced to be a sign that I needed to eat, rather than realising this was a sign I’d left it way too long between meals.
Like most students, alcohol was pretty much a constant (despite the limited budget!) and I’d definitely say I was a binge drinker at that time. My family was also going through a very emotional and stressful time during this period. I feel the combination of all these factors brought on my anxiety and panic attacks, and could well have been the trigger for Hashimoto’s, but at the time that wasn’t something I recognized or addressed.
Do you feel the anxiety and panic attacks are related to your autoimmune disease?
At the beginning, absolutely! Each time I experienced a flare up, antibodies would attack and destroy the thyroid tissue, thus releasing a large amount of thyroid hormones into the bloodstream. (Datis Kharrazian) This triggered a domino effect: the metabolism speeds up, causing the heart rate to increase, closely followed by anxiety and panic attacks. The bigger the flare, the more anxiety and panic I would experience.
This kept going on for weeks and months, until I was finally diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease and I started my treatment with a functional medicine practitioner. My antibody levels slowly diminished and the flares became less frequents and less intense. The panic attacks stopped happening, but I was left with a crippling anxiety.
Somehow the anxiety, initially triggered by Hashimoto’s disease, had developed a life of its own.
Now I can’t say for sure that every single person suffering from Hashimoto’s disease will have anxiety and panic attacks. The list of symptoms for Hashimoto’s is quite long and different people will experience it differently. It is a little bit like an “à la carte”menu where you don’t get to choose!
Looking back, I do feel that this was the start of the manifestation of Hashimoto’s for me. From what I understand, Hashi’s can often swing between hyper and hypo symptoms and, as Sophie mentioned, what I called “low blood sugar” could also have been “flare ups” causing my metabolism to speed up, resulting in the feelings I associated with panic attacks and anxiety – sweating, trembling, light-headedness and clammy skin, etc.
How did the anxiety affect your everyday life?
After the first episode of panic, I lived in a constant state of fear and anxiety, experiencing further panic attacks on a daily basis, especially during the night. My heart was racing constantly, sometimes erratically, and I was unable to relax enough to fall asleep. I developed severe insomnia (I was sleeping only 2-3 hours per night) and post traumatic stress disorder. I was utterly exhausted and yet unable to sleep.
I could no longer take care of my family and accomplish menial tasks like preparing meals, driving the kids to school, grocery shopping.
My intellectual capabilities were also greatly reduced not only due to sleep depravation, but also because of brain fog. It feels like I had lost my ability to focus and concentrate. Reading and understanding a simple text was arduous and I couldn’t make sense of it.
All the energy I had left was dedicated to seeing doctors, trying to understand what was happening to me and how to get better.
University tutorials and work meetings were a nightmare. I was in a position both at university and work where I should have been pushing myself forward and making contacts but the panic attacks and anxiety made this almost impossible. I either avoided social situations or felt very uncomfortable in them, or I drank alcohol to make myself feel more comfortable which, long term, probably made the situation worse.
I am lucky in that I still did well at university in an academic sense, and I was able to progress at work to some degree, but that whole period of time was very uncomfortable for me and without the anxiety it would have been a lot more fun!
Have you sought medical or professional help and has that helped?
Shortly after the onset of my anxiety disorder, I went several times to the emergency room because my panic attacks were so severe. I was finally prescribed anti-anxiety medication. While medication helped to get the panic attacks under control, the anxiety was still there and the insomnia persisted.
After seeing several conventional doctors whose only answer was to prescribe more and more medication, I finally started working with a functional medicine practitioner in town. We devised a “recovery plan”together and I decided to stop taking the anti-anxiety pills. I also started working with a behavioral therapist specialized in anxiety disorders and post traumatic stress disorders.
That was the turning point for me. Within a month, I started feeling better. I could feel my anxiety slowly going away and I started sleeping better. It took me months to be able to spend a good night sleep, but I was hopeful because I could see the end of the tunnel.
When all this first started, I was scared to get help. Mental illness runs in my family and I thought my panic attacks were a manifestation of that. I felt that if I went to a doctor that would in someway make the anxiety more of a permanent fixture in my life, as if acknowledging it made it more real.
I also thought the doctor would try to prescribe me drugs, which wasn’t a path I wanted to take. I was in my late teens / early twenties when all this was going on and the only way I could think to cope with it was to pretend it wasn’t happening.
As the years passed, my feelings of anxiety did very slowly decrease and panic attacks would be shorter and less intense but I felt that it was just part of me and something I had to live with. Hearing Sophie’s story, I wish I had asked for help at the time. Although my episodes weren’t as bad as Sophie’s they definitely affected my life.
Phew! Sharing such personal experiences really takes it out of you! That’s enough for one post. Sophie and I will be back next week to share what has helped us manage our anxiety and panic attacks. Our episode on anxiety for The Autoimmune Connection should be available around the end of March 2015. Before I say goodbye, I do want to say that the lesson I have learnt is not to suffer in silence. If you are reading this and you, like me, haven’t told anyone you are experiencing anxiety then please that step today to confide in someone you trust. I PROMISE you it will help 🙂 xx