My Journey to Emotional Fitness: Diet, Anxiety, and Finding Balance

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Does food affect your emotions?

A teacher of relaxation

In a previous blog, I wrote about how I discovered that food had an impact on my emotional state. In an attempt to improve my physical and emotional health, I cut out caffeine and alcohol, and I had a food sensitivity test done. When I discovered which foods I was sensitive to, I cut those out completely for about 6-8 weeks. Essentially, I cut back to a zero baseline, in a sense, and as a result, I felt better in some ways, but I also had to crash before I could come back into balance.

Eliminating Problematic Foods

I had previously been eating an extremely low-carb diet, but with the knowledge that eggs and dairy were two of my big food sensitivities, I knew I had to change how I ate somewhat. Grains, which I had thought might be a problem, were not, so hot breakfast cereal (Bob’s Red Mill rice, steel-cut oatmeal, and buckwheat are my favorites) became my norm, along with a handful of pecans and raisins or prunes. Basically, I went from eating one serving of carb per day to eating two or three servings. I wondered if I would gain weight.

Interestingly, I lost 10 pounds with no effort at all. It’s possible that the foods I was sensitive to were causing inflammatory issues that caused me to hold on to a little extra weight, but it’s hard to say for certain. Still, I considered this a positive result and felt better physically.

I still like to bake treats for the family, so I no longer worried about being gluten-free, and in fact, I couldn’t really cook that way since so many of my recipes called for almond meal, and almonds were now on the “do not eat” list. I began to bake vegan treats, so no eggs or dairy. In general, that’s not too hard to do. So I eat the occasional treat, and the absence of the dairy, in particular, seems to make a huge difference in how my body deals with those calories. I’m maintaining my weight pretty easily, as long as I don’t go overboard, of course.

Over time, I have discovered that the occasional egg here and there is not problematic, but I certainly do not make it a daily occurrence. As my naturopath pointed out, the problem really arises if you eat food #1, and then you eat some of foods #2 and #3, and pretty soon, you’ve overflowed what your body can handle in a given day.

Dairy is definitely a food that I try to avoid, although I will occasionally eat some cheese. However, I know that my body will react poorly, so dairy is something that I mostly do without, with one exception:  butter. Butter is not an issue at all, and I still cook with it where appropriate.

Anxiety and Panic Attacks

While I felt physically better, I began to feel somewhat emotionally stripped. I realized that the evening cocktail helped me relax at the end of the day in a good way, so I tried a wide variety of herbal teas that were known to be stress reducers:  chamomile, holy basil, kava kava—you name it, I tried it. I also missed my morning caffeine, but I appeared to be getting by, so I didn’t worry too much about it.

As the weeks went on, however, I found it increasingly difficult to relax. I woke up at 3 or 4 in the morning and could not get back to sleep. I just worried for an hour or more before I could fall asleep again for a short time before the alarm went off. I became more short-tempered, and I frequently felt overwhelmed. It was confusing, because I was doing all the “right” things:  I ate well, I exercised regularly, and I meditated. I did things that I love to do. I even took a hot bath with music and bath salts. But none of it was helping.

Eventually, I began to have prolonged panic attacks. For me, a panic attack meant that I felt so incredibly anxious that it felt like I could not catch my breath. I would basically hyperventilate and gasp for breath. My breaths did not seem to fill my lungs. It was as though I could not get enough air in to satisfy them, even though I was taking huge breaths. This could go on for hours at a time, or days. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason for when or how long they occurred.

One day, I was shopping, and I had to make many stops. Shopping days always make me feel somewhat anxious, but on that day, it was really hard to cope. I had to stop in stores and just collect myself. I even ran into a friend, and I don’t know how I managed to have a coherent conversation with him. It was terrible. At that point, I knew that I had to do something else. I called my doctor.

Celexa (Citalopram) To the Rescue

My doctor, bless her, put me on a low dose of antianxiety medication called Celexa (Citalopram is the generic name). Now, I’m definitely one of those people who would prefer to do things the all-natural way whenever possible, but I had already tried that route, and I was just feeling worse. By the time I got this prescription, I was desperate. I wanted to feel better. I needed to feel better.

After a week on Celexa, I was feeling better. After two weeks, I was feeling a lot better. At four weeks, we upped the dose a little, to take off the rest of the edge. My wife said to me, “I feel like the old person I know is back.” I now feel less stressed, and I can cope. I’m also a lot more fun to be around! I definitely needed the chemical boost.

Striking a Balance

I realized that perhaps, in part, my bottoming out might have been exacerbated by the removal of my other chemical crutches:  alcohol and caffeine. I understand myself now as a naturally anxious person, no doubt due in part to my inner child issues (which I’ve written about extensively), and without any chemical support at all, everything just came rushing to the surface.

Nowadays, I drink a little red wine in the evening. The hard alcohol is a bit too much, and beer (though I love it), doesn’t really agree with me, so I drink it sparingly, if at all. I find that the wine is comforting and rounds out the day.

Recently, I also had a cup of coffee in the morning again. Just the one cup. But I noticed that I was in a really good mood for the rest of the day, which was interesting. Too much caffeine is still a problem, but I’ve started to make weaker coffee and limit myself to one to one-and-a-half cups. I enjoy it.

A friend of mine said recently that I shouldn’t “need” stimulants in the morning or relaxers in the evening, and that may be true, but I did need a pharmaceutical chemical to get me through a terrible time, and what’s the harm in a little red wine and coffee in moderation if I enjoy it and it has a benefit? Yes, you can get too much of anything, but everyone has their little pleasures, whether it’s wine, chocolate, or a midnight cup of milk. Life is for living, and I keep striving to find the right balance for me. That balance will look different for everyone.

As of this writing, I’m 45 years old, and my body and my hormones are changing. What was right for me at 20 or even 30 is not necessarily right for me now. My primary goal has been to feel good physically, emotionally, and mentally. I know I’m on the right path, and I’m feeling great. My family appreciates that I’m taking good care of myself, too. Life is meant to be enjoyed, and if you need a little help to get there, then by all means, take the help!

Asha Hawkesworth

Asha is passionate about enjoying life and making the most of what she has. She is a writer and painter and enjoys being with her family. She has written children's books and a book about the inner child (www.imaginalovemedia.com), as well as other blogs at brighthill.net and ashahawkesworth.com.

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