Diet, Exercise and Panic
I have been dealing with frequent panic attacks for a while and I don’t know how to stop them. One friend told me to try a gluten-free diet. My brother believes that daily exercise is the only cure. My mother wants me to cut out sugar and white flour. My doctor has been on me forever to change my eating habits and exercise more. Will any of these really work? Does lack of exercise cause panic? I cannot keep going through this because I am a mess.
It sounds like you may come from one of our families, who also believe that almost anything can be fixed with exercise and a low sugar diet! In fact, we both used to think that we probably developed panic attacks because of our higher-than-ideal weight and/or lack of dedication to the gym. But this is simply untrue.
Anxiety and panic are brain disorders caused by a faulty amygdala that sends screwy signals. And, while eating nutritious foods and exercise can certainly improve the quality of one’s overall health, plenty of healthy eaters and movers suffer from both anxiety and panic disorder. We know lots of vegan Anxiety Sisters who run miles every day and still suffer from severe panic!
First of all, kudos to you for understanding that you have panic attacks. We both went to many doctors (not to mention a few emergency room visits) before we each understood that we had a brain illness. You have already accepted that you are dealing with panic attacks, and that is a major step in being able to manage them.
If you were dealing with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) or mild to moderate anxiety or depression, we would agree that dietary changes (such as limiting sugar and caffeine) and cardiovascular exercise are great first steps. Some folks can rely solely on lifestyle changes to manage the less acute symptoms of brain illness. But panic and other severe forms of anxiety are a different animal altogether.
When you are in the midst of a panic attack (we prefer to use the less anxiety-provoking term “Spinning”), your sympathetic nervous system has been activated which means that your body is preparing to fight or flee. (Recall our early ancestors running away from a very big animal with lots of teeth.)
Physiologically, this is why you may feel your heart pounding, shortness of breath, dizziness, and/or sick to your stomach, among many other symptoms. Even though you may not be moving much, your body is doing a lot of work! Exercising while spinning can often exacerbate these symptoms—after all, isn’t the goal of cardio to get your heart rate up and your body all flushed and sweaty? In fact, doing anything that heats up your body during a panic attack will usually make it worse. Of course, a casual stroll can be soothing (especially in cool weather), and breathing in fresh air can also help a lot, so we aren’t opposed to any movement. Just the kind that makes you pant.
Likewise, when we are in a state of panic or acute depression, most of us can barely eat–sometimes for days at a time. Following the FDA food pyramid while spinning may simply not be an option. Our recommendation for a panic diet: anything you can get and keep down. Feel free to experiment with different food choices when you are not spinning.
If you are at the point where you are having trouble getting out of bed, it is really important to get some help. Many of us find we need to take medication, at least in the short term, in order to lessen the panic. Medication along with targeted therapy has been shown to be the most effective treatment for Panic Disorder. When you are feeling more stable (and are able to leave the house comfortably), you may no longer need the medication and can then focus on lifestyle changes.
Study after study has shown that “exercise” (we prefer the term “movement” because it includes more activities and is less reminiscent of personal trainers and gym machinery) is essential in keeping us healthy both physically and mentally. If you are too panicky to move quickly, then move slowly. The benefits of easy-paced walking are enormous—especially out in nature. You do not have to jog or stairclimb or Crossfit to be healthy!
We have not read a study that has shown gluten-free diets to be effective in managing anxiety (Abs had plenty of anxiety while she was gluten free for almost three years), but we have heard some anecdotal evidence that many people have felt that it has helped. There is much more solid evidence to support keeping blood sugar levels stable, staying well-hydrated, and sleeping as anxiety management techniques. Although, once again, it is generally impossible to focus on these issues when one is experiencing acute anxiety or depression.
Please let us know how you are doing. You are not alone and we know that you can get better (we did).