Dealing With Anxiety Attacks

Anxiety attacks, also known as panic attacks, can be a major crippler. You feel short of breath, somewhat dizzy, and really afraid. You’re tense and anxious. You feel like you’re going to die. Even worse, you’re afraid you’re going crazy. There are natural strategies you can use to help you control and eventually eliminate anxiety attacks.

Originally published 2002

What You Can Do

I’ve dealt with such panic attacks. And I’ve found several things that have been a major help:

  1. Limit caffeine.
  2. DGL, and other natural ways to coat the stomach
  3. Travel.
  4. Martial arts.
  5. Cut carbs.
  6. Avoid High Fructose Corn Syrup.
  7. Avoid fast foods.
  8. Take coconut oil.
  9. Avoid gluten!
  10. Meditation / BioFeedback / NeuroFeedback

Here’s how they work…

Limit Caffeine

When I wrote my first book, I was working on it 10 hours a day, 4 days a week. The other 3 days, I was contracting for 10 hours a day. I drank massive amounts of coffee to get through the day. After a while, that took it’s toll.

In particular, when I lay down to go to sleep at night, I’d have massive attacks of dizziness. Dizziness is a lot of what an anxiety attack is all about.

Caffeine coupled with exercise can make you crazy, too. The other day I was teaching a martial arts class after having had coffee earlier in the day. I started getting lightheaded and having that “world going crazy feeling”. But it helped that I labeled it as lightheadedness. I started exercising along with the students I was instructing to get the blood pumping again, and that it cleared it right up. That helps to explain why I used to get that feeling while walking, and why it made me feel like running!

When I started cutting back on caffeine, I noticed that I started going to sleep earlier, too, (like midnight) instead of being up until 3 or 4 am like I had always done through college.

I found out that about half the caffeine you ingest is still in your bloodstream 12 hours earlier. So I made myself a rule that made a huge difference: No caffeine after 2pm. (Noon is even better.)

Another useful idea is to skip caffeine entirely on the weekend, or at least one day of it. You get a minor headache as you go through caffeine withdrawl, but it clears your system so that it takes much less caffeine to be effective the following week.

(When I’m working, I’m either writing or designing programs. The activity is so intensely mental that it seems I need *some* caffeine in order to function effectively.)

These days, I start the day with a large mug of green tea. A while ago, I read that greeen tea burns fat. (Apparently, it does a much better job of it than other kinds of tea.) That’s what got me started, and I find that it has just enough caffeine (remember, it’s a large mug), to get me through the day alertly.

When I find myself needing more than that, it’s time to either get more sleep or spend a day or two without caffeine, to “reset my system”.

DGL, and other natural ways to coat the stomach

A lot of that late night dizziness came from a gas build-up in the stomach. When laying down, it got especially acute.

Years earlier, in fact, I had noticed that I could relieve some of the symptoms of anxiety by burping. My girlfriend hated it when I did that, but it helped me get through. Unfortunately, the indigestion that causes the gas produces lots-o’-gas, so it takes a lot of burping to relieve the anxious feeling.

I read, too, that sleeping in a more upright position lets you release the gas more easily. Sure enough, propping myself on a few pillows, helped, but it got to the point where I was going to sleep sitting bolt upright!

I used to take antacids, too, even though I knew they weren’t good for you. By soaking up the stomach acid needed for ingestion, they make it harder for digestion to occur. And they make your body produce even more to get the job done. Used regularly, your body will start habitually generating more, which forces you to take more antacids. That’s great if you’re the one pushing the pills. But it’s not so great if you want to live a life free of such things.

Then I discovered DGL. DGL is de-glycerized licorice /Templates/health.dwt. Licorice has always been known as a fantastic assist for indigestion. It not only absorbs the gas, but it heals the stomach lining in the process. So it is an incredibly good natural cure. (The one drawback to licorice extract was always that it caused diarhea. But the de-glycerized form solves that problem!)

DGL helped start me on the road to recovery from attacks of indigestion, which easily escalated into a full-blown panic attack as a result of the self-reinforcing, fear-feedback loop that is a big part of the whole syndrome.

Notes:

  • One week, when the nightly stomach attacks were too acute for DGL, I found something stronger. It’s a natural product called Acid-Ease — a pill that contains gooey substances like marshmallow root that coat the stomach. It doesn’t promote healing like DGL, but it’s tremendous for complete, temporary relief. I also read that drinking milk at night also helps to prevent indigestion, so a late snack of cheese and crackers became part of my routine for a while. (It clogs my sinuses, though, so I have to balance things.)
  • There is an even better form of DGL that seems to work as well as Acid-Ease, but without gumming up the sinus clogging and the digestive tract — Pro-DGL. It’s a mixture of propolis and DGL. The label says that the propolis protects the honey in the hive. But it’s not clear whether it’s included to protect the DGL so it remains at full strength, or whether it has some action of its own in the digestive tract. Either way, I found that it produced near total, instant relief.
  • Coconut oil turns out to be a superb long-term remedy. It kills the bacteria that cause ulcers, gas, and digestive disturbances in the first place. It’s not immediately effective, but adding coconut oil to your diet can go along way towards making the problem disappear. For more information, see Coconut Oil: Miracle Medicine and Diet Pill.

Travel

One article I read pointed out that the fear-feedback loop is more important than the physical symptoms that start the process. That article mentioned that others who have the same symptoms, but who label them differently, don’t go into panic-mode when they occur.

For example, a person might say “I’m feeling dizzy”, or “I’m feeling light headed”. Recognizing the symptom tells them how to deal with it. (Sit down. Rest. Calm down.) More importantly, it helps the avoid the panic. (Those of us with panic-tendencies will tend to go, “Oh oh. I’m feeling that way again. I wonder if this is it? Is this the big one? Am I going to totally lose it, this time? Oh, God. What am I going to do? What if this is the big one? What then? How do I stop this?…”

Note:
For some of us, it can be even worse. “Is this a drug flashback? Is that mistake I made in my youth going to take away my mind now? Will it haunt me forever?” The existence of a bad drug experience can produce intense fear and anxiety that is always there, ready to strike at any time, for the rest of your life. It’s the number one reason in my book for telling kids to stay away from drugs.

The cycle goes on and on, continuing to escalate until the fear and anxiety become overwhelming to the point of being debilitating. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The simple act of sitting down, and calming down, can do a lot to help the nerves. But I found that travel helped a lot, too.

Travel helped because it made it easier to “relabel the experience”. At this point, I’ve been to Korea and Ireland. In each case, I was a world away in a different culture, with a major case of jet lag. You think a bit of anxiety popped up, on occasion? You bet. But now, when I get a minor case of anxiety, I look around and say, “I got through much worse than this in Ireland”.

It helps.

Martial Arts

Martial arts helps, too. In the martial arts, you train to press ahead, regardless of your fear. You train yourself so that fear doesn’t dominate in a tense situation, so you can act with calm and control your nervous energy, regardless of how you feel.

In my dojang (“doh jahng”) in particular, we are encouraged to focus on something we want to overcome, or something we want to achieve, with every block, every punch, every kick. It is remarkable how well it works in life!

In the dojang, you focus on some personal ambition when doing a physical movement — and that adds a lot of energy to each technique. Then, in life, when a situation occurs that raises that emotion, the same mental response of blocking away or punching through comes up. When that response comes up, you feel the way you did when you were doing the physical technique, and you respond. It’s a truly amazing thing to experience.

So, if you spend some time training in martial arts, and focus on conquering fear when you hit or block (or any other personal goal that is meaningful to you), you’ll find that your internal spirit is stronger, when the time comes.

Cut Carbs — Especially Wheat

Perhaps the most important principle of all, though, is to limit carbohydrate intake. I have been on different dietary programs a couple of times, and each one virtually eliminated anxiety as a problem. One was the food-combining diet that Harvey and Marilyn Diamond popularized in their book, Fit for Life. Another was the diet in Enter the Zone, by Barry Sears.

What these diets have in common is a lot more fruits and vegetables, and protein, and a lot less cake, cookies, or bread. The lack of insulin-producing carbohydrate in the form of sugar and refined flour had a profound effect on anxiety levels.

Recently, I read the clearest explanation yet of why that is so. The explanation comes from Rob Faigin’s book, Natural Hormonal Enhancement. (The book has a wealth of useful information. Unfortunately, it’s not that readable. Michael Colgan’s book, Hormonal Health, is a much better read — but it doesn’t cover this particular subject in as much detail.)

On page 101, Rob Faigin writes:

“insulin…blocks fat burning and directs the body to use sugar for energy instead. So insulin remains in circulation after its purpose, to lower blood sugar, has been accomplished; and all this time insulin limits access to fat stores. The other fuel source, glucose, is not readily available either, because insulin escorted it out of the blood stream. At this point, the sugar burner is likely to experience unpleasant symptoms including any combination of the following: anxiety, bad mood, light-headedness, poor concentration, cognitive impairment, or “tense tiredness”. Starving for sugar, the brain sends a resounding message to the body: EAT…”

Now, I think that partially hydrogenated oils play a role in the process, as well. (See What’s Wrong with Partially Hydrogenated Oils?) But this is a pretty thorough description of what’s going on! As someone who ate high-carb meals most all of my life, starting the day with cereal for breakfast and ending it with lots of bread at dinner, I can safely say that I was a “sugar burner” most all of the time, rather than a “fat burner”.

Insulin Spikes

It turns out that such carbohydrates produce a lightheaded feeling and dizziness when the insulin spike first starts, as well as when is finishes! [Faigin: p. 141] That helps account for the “crazy” feeling I used to get when I had a beer or two in a bar (when I was drinking). It would also help explain why I kept getting them in restaurants, after chowing down on the bread, without enough butter or olive oil dip to slow down digestion. (Now, if I have the bread, I use lots of butter.)

The sudden surges of noisy conversation and moments of stillness in a crowded restaurant still drive me to distraction. It’s better, though, with stable insulin levels. When insulin was haywire, the sudden shifts in volume would really drive me up a wall. I think that’s why I like music — it evens out the pandemonium and produces a greater sense of harmony in the sonic environment.

Of course, knowing that a crowded restaurant would cause those crazy feelings tended to make me a little fearful, which helped make the experience all the more intense. Learning to relax and breath helped a lot. But the real panic attacks tended to come several hours later.

Rob points out that relatively small amounts of fat can fuel your body for a long time, and that when you are a “fat burner” your energy levels stay constant. I’m learning about his program now. (It takes 18 chapters to explain it! I’m on chapter 15 now.)

Note:
He also postulates that, over time, a high carb diet can reduce your natural serotonin levels. [Faigin: p. 103] Since serotonin helps keep you calm and happy, a high-carb diet could have a lot to do with a general disposition to feeling tense and anxious.

The main part of the program, like most every other eating plan that has successfully reduced anxiety levels, is reduced carbohydrate intake. Rob’s is different in that he recommends having a carb-intensive meal every 3rd or 4th day, but most of the time it’s protein, vegetables, and fruit!

But even worse than carbs in general are carbs created from wheat, rye, or barley! Those grains contain gluten — a hard-to-break down protein that some immune systems react to, producing a condition known as gluten intolerance. Not everyone has that problem, but if you do, your entire adrenaline goes into high alert every time you eat a meal that contains gluten — and until you discover the problem, that is every meal you eat. So you find yourself “on edge” a lot of the time, for reasons you can’t quite explain. And recent decades, the problem has become even worse. In the 1950’s, a Nobel prize was awarded to the fellow who made a hybrid form of wheat that could withstand stronger pesticides. He did it by doubling the gluten molecule, making wheat twice as virulent for those who suffer from the problem. (Learn more: What’s Wrong with Wheat?)

It’s funny. As a kid I was a nervous, high-strung “sugar-burner” who could never gain weight. Then I became and older, wiser, calmer “sugar-burner” who started putting on more pounds with each passing year. Then, while training for my black belt, I combined a few diet modifications with weight training to lose 30 lbs, drop my waist from 40 to 36, and cut body fat from 18% to 12%. I even started writing a weight training book based on that experience, so I could share what I learned.

But I’m still working to become a “fat burner”. I’ve been there, for periods of time. It’s grand. No anxiety. No energy problems. No weight problems. But it’s darn hard to keep up. Those breads, in particular, are SO readily available. And it’s so much harder to keep fresh foods around. It’s a struggle. But I’m working on it.

The thing that really concerns me is whether or not I’ll be able to maintain mental activity as a “fat burner”. I know I’ll be able to stay awake all day. But will I be able to exercise my intellect in ways that produce the sugar-and-caffeine induced flashes of brilliance I depend on when writing and designing programs? Or do they interfere with the process, more than they help?

Time will tell….

Epilogue, Oct 2003: Avoid High Fructose Corn Syrup and Fast Foods

More than a year has passed, now. During periods of fat burning, I’ve found that mental activity and creative output have been at least as high, and even higher. I say “periods”, because it has been darn hard to stay in the fat-burning zone. There is so much sugar out there to sabotage any sensible eating plan!

Several things that have a made big difference however:

  • Avoid soft drinks that have High Fructose Corn Syrup on the label. It’s another cheap additive that does even more harm than simple sugar. (My thanks to the readers who have alerted me to it.)
  • Avoid fast food sandwich shops, and eat at oriental buffet restaurants, instead — it’s just as fast, you get many more vegetables, and you get rice instead of bread, which is lower in carbs and is guaranteed to be free of partially hydrogenated oils.

Epilogue, Jun 2004: Take Coconut Oil

Coconut oil turns out to have a semi-miraculous property — it kills the bacteria that cause indigestion. See Coconut Oil: Miracle Medicine and Diet Pill.

Epiloque, Jul 2007: Avoid Gluten!

My God. Gluten is destructive to the digestive system for possibly as much as 40% of the population, or even more! Who knew? I certainly didn’t, until I was informed of that important fact by the doctors at Health Now Medical. I am indebted to them for clearing up a lifetime of complaints, and for identifying the underlying cause.

Gluten is found in wheat, rye, and barley. For people who don’t have the genetic capacity to break it down in the digestive tract, it causes an immune response that erodes the lining of the small intestines, wreaking all kinds of havoc. And it is effectively addictive, which makes you crave the very things that cause you problems. That’s a major reason that the admonition to cut carbs was so effective — because it removed gluten from the diet!

But once you know that gluten is the culprit, there are all kinds of carbs you can take that give you no problems whatsoever. It’s like not eating your cake and eating it, too. For more, see What’s Wrong with Wheat?

Epilogue, Mar 2009: Dr. Hyman Writes the Definitive Book

I’m now reading a book by Dr. Mark Hyman called The UltraMind Solution. (Here’s the full review.) It’s brilliant. It looks at all of the bodily systems that have an effect on the mind, and effectively demonstrates that putting those systems in order is guaranteed to eliminate any and all problems “of the mind”.

In short, it is not in your head. It’s in your diet, your environment, your gut, and your lifestyle. The underlying causes can be identified, and the resulting problems can be cured.

Epilogue, Feb 2011: Mediation / BioFeedback / NeuroFeedback

It’s time to finally come clean. The “proximate” cause (closest immediate event) for the panic attacks I experienced for more than a decade was the drugs I took in college. (See Magical Moments/Drugs) A fear of abandonment was the deep water behind the dam. Drugs broke the dam, releasing a torrent of fear and tension — while also slowing time, so that the nightmarish hell seemed endless.

After that, every time I began to feel slightly tense — say in a social setting, or walking out in the open (especially after eating, with mild indigestion and light headedness), I would begin to worry that I was about to experience a relapse into that hell. The worry caused more tension, which caused more worry, until a full-blown panic attack was in progress.

Even just talking about it tends to bring the feelings back, which is why it has taken me so long to do so.

The trick, of course, is to relax. But how to do that? Eventually, I discovered a vitally important truth:

You can learn to relax your breathing, slow your heart rate, release muscle tension, achieve a calm state of mind, and experience a state of blissful consciousness, all day long, and any time at all.

Talk about a cure for anxiety! What follows is the story of how I came to learn these things.

After decades of wandering in the wilderness, I came across Ipsalu Tantra. That practice connected to me inner spirit and gave me an “active” form of meditation that I have been able to practice every day. (I’ve been exposed to Buddhist meditation, and know it’s good for me. I have just never been able to do it! Trying to still the mind is difficult at best, and totally boring when I am even partially successful! But Tantra Yoga works on a different principle — by keeping the mind engaged in a way which promotes relaxation!

So, paradoxically, I am become more relaxed with an active practice. More importantly, it’s a practice that is intrinsically rewarding, so not only am I able to meditate every day, I’m motivated to do it. And that’s a major help, all by itself.

During the seminar that introduced me to the practice, I was also introduced to Yoga Nidra — an ancient Yoga practice “recently uncovered” from reading the ancient Indian texts. (Note: It is somewhat remarkable that the Indian texts only made sense after the principles of Biofeedback were established by science. Until then, their meaning seems to have eluded most everyone.)

In Yoga Nidra, you learn to relax to the point of sleep, while remaining consciousness. In that state, you repeat a positive affirmation you have formulated, effectively reprogramming your subconscious. The practice works because, in that state you are at the “alpha/theta threshold”, also known as the “alpha/theta crossover state”–where alpha waves (calm awareness, “witness” consciousness) overlaps with theta waves (drowsing, dreaming, imagery). It happens right around 7.5 hz (give or take half a hertz). (Theta is 3-7 hz., alpha is 6-8 hz. The crossover state is in the 6-7 hz range. Interestingly, the frequency of the Earth’s Ionosphere, known as the Schuman Resonance, is 7.8 hz.)

During my introduction to Yoga Nidra, my affirmation was “I have found my love”. And boy, did I connect! I’m still looking for my life partner, but in the meantime I connected with universal love force energy! It was swell, I can tell you. Powerful connection to universal consciousness (Shiva), life force energy (Shakti), and devotional love (Bhakti). Ecstasy. Bliss. Expanded awareness. Acute insights. Great stuff.

I wanted to learn everything I could about the science, and find ways to reliably achieve that state.

It turns out that theta is the state in which childhood memories arrive. As they bubble to the surface, they are accompanied by energy blockages and tension in the body. (Tantra follows the body tension to help release the blocks.) By perceiving the memories and sensations in the alpha state (relaxed, witness consciousness) the blocks are released. Once released, energy flows more smoothly. The result is an orgasmic sensation.

At first it may be a trickle. But it feels gigantic to someone who has experienced little or nothing, for perhaps decades. As more blocks are released, the energy flow grows stronger. Each time, the new rush of energy feels like an orgasm. Eventually, with no blocks in the way, you simply allow the energy to flow, and feel a full-body orgasm.

So yeah, I was motivated to learn more. I checked out a number of books, and eventually came across one written in 1978: The Awakened Mind. Of all the books I have read so far, this one has been the best, because it most closely aligned with my purposes.

Biofeedback has been used successfully to treat ADD, ADHD, sleep walking, bed wetting, Reynaud’s (cold extremities), and many other ailments, but that’s not what I was looking for. I was looking for the inner growth/enlightenment. This book summarized what I need to know. Of course, the equipment it talks about is ancient, these days. But the principles are identical.

And, in particular, it describes what seems to be a particularly effective remedy for anxiety:

“The electroymyograph, or EMG, is a device which registers and detects the voltages associated with muscle tension.

“The range of uses for EMG feedback is wide. Subjects…suffering from insomnia are taught to relax by frontalis (forehead) muscle feedback. The same method may used in the treatment of tension headaches, because relaxation of the frontalis muscles is usually accompanied by relaxation of the neck and scalp muscles which, when tense, produce the headaches in the first place.

Anxiety symptoms are also relieved
by a combination of EMG feedback and deep muscle relaxation; in fact, it is seldom that anxiety can exist in such a state of relaxation.”

The Awakened Mind, pp. 14..15 (emphasis added)

Another excerpt from just those two pages:

“Successful training in increase of hand temperature and decrease of forehead temperature will often result in the control of migraine headaches.”
–p. 14

Interestingly. the Ipsalu Tantra formula for “presence” (present moment awareness) is to be aware of your hands and feet. (Awareness produces relaxation and increased blood flow, which raises temperature.)

And another excerpt:

“As a general tool for relaxation training, the EMG is of considerable importance in the development of self-awareness. Early emotional conflicts are often reflected in the body armor a person has built — permanently tense muscles intended as a body defense. The electromyograph facilitates specific therapy for these states, and the ability to exercise fine control over muscular tension may be one of the best indicators of the subject’s ability to relax at will, which is the gateway to meditation as well as to improved general health.”
–pp. 14..15

And one more:

“Bringing to our everyday life the ability to consciously avail ourselves of the right brain contents….confers the ability to decide how we (use our) inherent possibilities. This “we” and “deciding” come from an altogether higher level wihin us. C.C. Jung (Collected Works, 8) called this the Transcendent Function, and from his studies on brain damaged patients, decided that the seat of the “higher mind” is actually in the brain stem, an area of the brain more complex and with more interconnections than any other region.
–p. 7 (emphasis added)

Interestingly, in Tantra Yoga, the base of the skull is called “The Mouth of God”. It is the place at which Shiva consciousness enters the body. (Learning about it and feeling it open with an “inner smile”–accompanied by a big external one — was a big part of the amazing experiences I enjoyed then, and have been enjoying since. See Tantra Lessons.)

Summary

  • Sugar (especially High Fructose Corn Syrup), caffeine, a diet that is low in natural fiber, a lack of coconut oil, and gluten all contribute to the indigestion that can precipitate an anxiety attack.
  • Gas build-up causes pressure that creates a slight dizziness. You’re aware of the dizziness before you’re aware of the gas, which can produce a vicious chain-reaction of dread that spirals into an “anxiety attack”.
  • For a short-term fix, do a little self-induced burping and take a natural stomach buffer like DGL or Acid-Ease.
  • For a medium-term fix, use the suggestions contained in this article.
  • For a long-term solution, get a copy of The UltraMind Solution. Read it, study it, and apply it.
  • For a direct approach to the problem, use BioFeedback. Learn to relax your breathing, slow your heart rate, release muscle tension, and achieve a calm state of mind, at will.

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