So many Hypothyroid Mom readers write to me about anxiety and panic attacks, yet doctors have never considered taking a closer look at their thyroid, adrenal, and gut health. Shocking really. Jen Wittman, creator of Thyroid Loving Care, shares her personal experience along with 10 tips to relieve stress, anxiety, and panic.
Written by Jen Wittman, Founder of Thyroid Loving Care
I remember lying on the bed wanting to crawl out of my skin. As I stared up at the ceiling, waves of panic overtook me…but I wasn’t sure why. Prior to becoming hypothyroid, I could handle any stress…every stress really. Whatever came my way, I was able to deflect, like Wonder Woman with her magic bracelets. Really, stress was no problem. I actually thrived on it. I piled it on, never really feeling it…or so I thought.
Then I had my baby. After that, everything changed. My moods were like a tsunami crashing the shore. At first you’re sitting on the beach, enjoying a peaceful sea and in the next moment a tidal wave of anger, sadness, panic would topple me destroying everything in its path. I thought this was just hormones and the intense sleep deprivation of new motherhood but eventually, I learned it was my thyroid – powerful and completely out-of-whack.
Why am I so much more anxious since becoming hypothyroid?
This question has a tricky answer. As we now know, the adrenals, thyroid and your gut are inextricably linked. The adrenal glands, part of the sympathetic nervous system, secrete hormones including cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine. These hormones are important as they regulate the stress response and our ability to handle stress. The problem is that the adrenal glands are the glands most negatively affected when we are stressed.
So it’s a chicken and egg scenario as to whether a malfunctioning thyroid affects your adrenals or if your adrenals are taxed and that affects your thyroid. What we know is that stress greatly affects the adrenal glands, and that is directly related to the health of your thyroid. When it comes to your thyroid, the ways in which our adrenal glands respond has far reaching consequences.
What affects the adrenal glands?
Well, it’s more than you think. Beyond the obvious daily stressors in our lives, the adrenal glands pump out more stress hormones when your blood sugar isn’t regulated, your gut is leaky, you have food sensitivities (such as gluten), toxins and infections are present, or you are inflamed and under an autoimmune attack. All of these factors can affect your adrenal glands which is why it is important to take a holistic approach to healing. You can’t look at one without the other and adrenal stress could possibly be the most important component.
Why this is important
Adrenal stress creates a host of symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, insomnia, mood swings, sugar and caffeine cravings, irritability and dizziness. It also affects how your hormones are used by your cells, reduces the conversion of T4 to T3, weakens immune barriers, causes hormonal imbalances, promotes the autoimmune response and disrupts the interactions between the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands. This affects how you react to stress or trauma, your temperature, digestion, immune system, mood, libido and energy.
How does this play into your anxiety and panic attacks?
Adrenal stress feeds into your sympathetic nervous system which mobilizes your fight-or-flight response. So, something simple like sitting in traffic, standing in line somewhere, getting the kids out the door, or completing a general task will suddenly put you in survival mode and manifest itself as an anxiety attack. What’s happening is that stress gets triggered and that stresses your adrenals which signals your sympathetic nervous system that it’s “high alert” time and that spirals into your personal freak out. Stress begets stress – this is why even when you’re trying to be a “normal” person, you may have trouble managing your emotions and reactions to situations. When your thyroid and adrenals are out-of-whack, it creates a recipe for panic soup – and that’s not tasty.
Tips for relieving stress, anxiety and panic when it rears its ugly head
You knew this one would be first! But it’s true, you’ve got to stop yourself and start breathing. If you do one thing, it’s this…take a moment to breathe. Panic attacks can be accompanied by hyperventilation. Before I was diagnosed, I had what I now know was a panic attack. I started hyperventilating which I’d never done before and soon enough, I was seeing white light and yelling out to my husband to call an ambulance. I thought I was dying…for real. I’m not one for hospitals or ambulances but was begging for help not knowing if I was taking my last breaths. Experiencing something so unfamiliar was terrifying.
As I started to reverse my Hashimoto’s, I learned that the moment I felt anxiety or stress, I should become very present and focus on my breath. I love Dr. Weil’s Breathing Technique. I use it whenever I can remember to but if I don’t remember, I always go to my standby – taking a deep breath for 5 counts, holding for 3 counts and exhaling for as long as I can. Then I repeat. Deep breathing changes things on a physiological level.
If you can’t slow your breathing down, it’s time to get the ol’ paper bag out to slow your breathing. Hold it over your mouth and progressively start slowing your breath so you can begin deep breathing. You’ll want to do this for several minutes until you notice yourself calming down and coming back to earth.
2. Support your adrenals with food
There are many things you can do to support your adrenals through diet.
a. Stabilize your blood sugar:
i. eat starchy vegetables instead of grains and glutinous foods like pasta and breads
ii. eat a spoonful of coconut oil, coconut butter or a handful of nuts (that have been soaked) to keep blood sugar level
iii. minimize your sugar intake to fruits and starchy vegetables and eliminate sodas, processed snacks, high-fructose corn syrup, refined sugars and sugar substitutes
b. Avoid stimulants such as coffee and chocolate (I know, not fun but I promise it will help!)
c. Avoid alcohol (again, not a super fun suggestion but alcohol can actually put additional stress on the adrenals and affect your mood – not in the fun, party kind of way!)
d. Add eggs, soaked nuts, seeds, dark leafy greens and organ meats to your diet (if these foods are well tolerated). Note – dark leafy greens such as spinach, kale, chard, and collards are ok but they have goitrogenic properties especially when eaten raw so take care not to eat them in large amounts. Cooking and steaming reduces the goitrogenic effect.
I was introduced to eating organ meats while I lived in Italy and honestly, they can be delicious! – here’s a dish I ate regularly in Italy. It’s a great snack for you and supports your adrenals. You can spread this on homemade crackers, celery or when I do it, I bend my grain-free policy and eat it on a piece of Udi’s Gluten Free toast.
3. Flex your muscles
A wonderful technique for easing yourself during a high-stress time or panic attack is to use progressive muscle relaxation. This not only helps you concentrate so you can slow your breathing, it diverts your attention from the trigger and helps your muscles relax. What you do is go from head to toe, starting with the muscles in your face, then on to your arms, hands, stomach, yo’ booty, thighs, calves and feet. You’ll tense each muscle group for 10 seconds and then release.
4. Smile, laugh and have fun
If you’re at home when you start freaking out, I highly recommend throwing on your favorite funny movie. The act of cueing up the movie will require focus that will help you calm down. The laughter that comes from it will release happy hormones to help you get out of your head and back in your smile. If that doesn’t work, call your inappropriate friend or colleague and have them dish out something funny – you know they will.
5. Try Holy Basil
Holy Basil or Tulsi as it is also known is a plant used in Ayurvedic medicine as an adaptogen to modulate the stress response and support the adrenals. You can find tinctures of Holy Basil at health food stores, homeopathic pharmacies and some grocery stores including Whole Foods. Holy Basil is a potent herb so you’ll want to try a few drops in a small glass of water first to see how it goes and use up to the maximum amount suggested on the bottle if it is well tolerated. I use it for stress and as a sleep aid when necessary.
Panax ginseng, Siberian ginseng and Ashwagandha can be used as well but should be taken only under the supervision of an experienced herbalist or trained practitioner.
6. Write it out!
One of the best things I ever did to help reverse this disease is to learn how to write. One of the best things suggested by my darling osteopath was to use journaling to get out of my head. I NEVER considered writing in a journal for anything really. I never liked to write and wasn’t particularly good at it. I gave him my best raised eyebrow and bewildered look and told him that I didn’t know where to start. That’s when he pointed me to Write To Be You. This course changed my life and is the reason I am even able to be writing you today.
When anxiety creeps in, start writing. You can grab any ol’ piece of paper, keep a “panic diary” or use your journal. Acknowledge your anxiety and write out how you are feeling, what you are afraid of, what you believe is triggering the stress. If nothing comes to mind, check out Rory’s Write To Be You blog archives which are full of simple writing prompts. I go through them whenever something stressful is living in my body which needs to get out. So grab your pen – you’re going to thank me for this.
7. Push the “panic button” on your stereo
Turn that bad boy on – it’s time to sing and dance out the crazy talk in your head! Now this can go two ways – you can put on your favorite relaxation play list or you can put on those songs that make you wanna belt it out and shake your booty. Either way, you’ll be doing yourself a great favor. Music has been shown time and time again to positively affect moods and reduce stress. You’ll know when the mood is ripe to choose this option to chill.
8. Use aromatherapy
Fragrances can have a physiological effect on our moods. Burning incense, lighting a candle or using calming essential oils like lavender or chamomile or grounding essential oils that are spicy and earthy can calm our bodies (slowing heart rate, lowering blood pressure and relaxing muscles). You can mix some lavender drops (or other essential oils) and water and spray on a handkerchief. Lie down and place the handkerchief over your eyes as you rest and focus on your breath. It’s a winning combination.
9. Calgon, take me away! (us old folks remember that)
This is my go-to get over it panic attack remedy. Pour 2 cups of Epsom Salts in a warm bath and get in. This will raise magnesium levels in your body and will have a calming effect on your mind by relaxing the nervous system, lowering cortisol levels and reducing the excitability of the brain. It works EVERY time! And hey, throw a little of that lavender oil in there for some extra relax in your remedy.
10. Take a virtual vacation.
Using guided imagery can be extremely effective in putting the kibosh on panic. Just think of a place or situation in which you feel completely at peace and relaxed. Close your eyes and imagine this place in detail. What does it look like? Who’s with you (if anyone?) What are the sights, sounds and scents surrounding you? Paint a vivid picture in your mind and focus on it. When you notice your breathing and your body relaxing, you can open your eyes.
I have used this technique to great success not only for panic but for anytime I may feel uncomfortable and need to relax. For instance, I had to get an MRI this year and I’m not good with tight spaces. Talk about panic! Anyway, I closed my eyes and pulled out my happy place as they began the MRI. …”I’m walking along the cobblestoned streets of Italy; having left my favorite breakfast bar where I just enjoyed a pastry and a coffee (hey, this is MY dream!) and I hear the man on the corner playing the accordion while I look at the striking Renaissance architecture surrounding me. The beautiful detail in the stone and wood. A smile creeps across my face as I head out on my day’s journey. The sun is shining and…” Oh wait, I drifted away for a second. Now, it’s your turn. Imagine your favorite memory or create a happy scene that you can keep in your back pocket for those challenging days.
Stressing about not stressing?
So now that you know why you’re being challenged by stress and anxiety and why it’s important to mitigate it, you may start to stress about not stressing. This used to happen to me! I was so committed to reversing my Hashimoto’s that I put a ban on stress in my life. Except that life doesn’t work like that. Stress comes and goes but the moment I would perceive it, I’d tried to get a handle on it and control it and then I’d start stressing that I felt stress and that created more stress. Ai ai ai… don’t do this! Don’t let your desire to reduce stress actually create more stress to you and your nervous system. The best thing you can do is to relax about it all. Be aware but be relaxed. You have your tools now. When stress arises, talk to it, give it a little wave and let it pass you by.
About Jen Wittman
Health coach Jen Wittman, CHHC, AADP provides one-of-a-kind, long-lasting health overhauls through Thyroid Loving Care. Jen brings extra helpings of joy and humor to the table and has degrees in culinary arts, psychology, transformational coaching, nutrition, and Italian. She’s worked with everyone – from Emmy-award winning celebrities to power professionals to CEOs of the home (aka “Moms”). Jen spent a year honing her cooking skills in Italy and is passionate about food, family, friends, laughter and helping people live the life of their dreams.