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).
Thank you so much for this article! I am so tired of hearing about diet and exercise as a cure for anxiety and panic attacks that I could scream. Everything you say is so true and helpful.
We’re so glad you have found our work helpful. We too are tired of hearing about a healthy lifestyle as a cure for panic. It makes us feel like our anxiety is somehow our fault, which we know is not true.
Abs & Mags
I agree! My brother insists that i must exercise and go low carb and no sugar! Thank you for this post!
The only food i felt would be a trigger for increased anxiety was sugar. If i over did it n had a heavy sugar day would feel very nervous n extremely anxious so stay away n get it only naturally with fruits in moderation. Sometimes a piece of chocolate but do not do a binge with cakes drinks candy etc. otherwise No other food Is a cause. Oh wait sometimes NSg in chinese food can be an irritant creating a sense of nervousness or discomfort
I am so glad I’ve found you! I have a friend who thinks that the reason I have anxiety is that I have food allergies. Sigh. People who don’t have anxiety and spinning problems (and thank you, too, for that word–words matter!) seem to think it’s something we can stop with will power. If only!
My Doctor always says lose weight, exercise and your anxiety will be less. I am tired of hearing it. I am doing a challenge at a small gym with a personal trainer but they are no better than the Doctor. The food they recommend is gross. I am hoping to complete everything in 6 weeks. Our weather in Ohio sucks. Too cold to walk outside right now. When the weather gets better I plan to walk outside. My anxiety and my medication are making me feel crazy. The Doctor’s suck around here. It is sad our Mental Health services are so scarce. I basically feel like I am on my own sometimes.
I’m so relieved to have come across this group. All your Articles are very helpful!
I workout Anywhere from 3-5 days at gym. I have greatly reduced sugar intake n limit coffee to 1- 1/2 cups a day. I still Experience anxiety attacks some days ok some harder. Pandemic has over exacerbated Fears worries n overwhelming feelings. Try to practice One day at a time. Some days easier to do. Have 7 Dr f/u appts between jan n Feb n is freaking me out as fear Dr visits n envision anticipatory scenarios. Meds help n bring me to rational thoughts n no panic attacks. Really allow me to function as normal during each day. But have to admit days are challenging n struggle. My outside appearance does not match what I feel inside or struggle with We all can relate
All of these comments are so helpful. I am Freaking Out here.
It’s sugar sugar caffeine n I personally find MSG in chinese food a trigger. Dark chocolate mood elevation n heard cantelope fresh cherries grapes n bluebrries strwberries help to decrease anxiety. I eat all of them but on the fence as to whether it works or how much. Depends how high anxiety level is I guess. Don’t do alcohol or white flour carbs or keep limited