Health & Fitness

How I Overcame My Depression and Anxiety Disorder

February 23, 2018

I never thought I would write a post like this. When I first started blogging, I was planning on writing many posts about how to deal with depression and anxiety, what it was like struggling with it, and how to continue on with life despite having it. I hoped to be a resource to others who struggled with the same things, in the context of how you could live a normal live even while having depression or an anxiety disorder. I didn’t expect to ever actually overcome it, though.

Years ago, having generalized anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder had become a part of my identity in my eyes. It came on in middle school, and it was always there hovering over me throughout high school and college. Always anxious, always depressed. I felt like it was just part of my being. I knew I had to work through it so that I could live my daily life, but I had accepted the idea that it would always be a part of me. I had gotten used to it, and I saw no way out. I thought I had tried everything I could, but nothing was making me as happy as I knew I should have been. Why couldn’t I just shrug things off? Why couldn’t I be fully happy when good things happened? Why wasn’t laughing and smiling easy and natural? Why did I always feel emotionally heavy? Why did I focus on the negative? Why did I have panic attacks or cry on the floor for hours in response to things that other people didn’t think twice about? Why was I always overly emotional? Accepting that things would never be rainbows and sunshine was much easier for me than continuing to struggle against a monster I thought I could never beat.

Things ebbed and flowed over the years with my depression and anxiety, and I certainly had happy days. But happiness was never my being. The best analogy I can use, and the one I always come back to, is that my depression was like a dark cloud hanging over my head. Sometimes it moved to the side and the sun was able to shine through on a special occasion, but I always knew that the cloud was there, ready to bring the darkness again. Depression was my default, and happiness was a rare visitor. I truly saw the world in greyscale, and I got used to it.

With the anxiety, the only thing I knew to do was to avoid the things that made me the most anxious. I just had to finish school, avoid people who gave me panic attacks, and make up excuses for events I was supposed to attend or responsibilities I was supposed to take.

The main reason why I studied Psychology in college was to better understand myself. I learned a lot about the brain and mood disorders, and it made it easier for me to accept what I was going through. There was a chemical imbalance causing this. It wasn’t me. I wasn’t doing anything wrong. It was my brain. I wasn’t as hard on myself after I realized that there was an actual chemical reason. 

The options I learned about in school and offered by my family, friends, and the Internet were therapy and antidepressants. I tried both, many times. If anything, I felt like the harder I tried with therapy and pills, the more frustrated I became. I wanted them to work desperately. I just wanted to feel “normal.” They weren’t working, though, and it was making me even more anxious and depressed. I was tired of feeling like no mental health professional truly understood me or could help me, and I was exhausted from trying to explain myself over and over again. I was tired of trying pill after pill, suffering from debilitating side effects and feeling like a zombie. I wasn’t meant to live that way, either.

Halfway through college, I started addressing major digestive problems and eventually multiple eating disorders. This was also all tied up in my anxiety and depression. Over the years, I made a lot of overall lifestyle changes to work on my physical and mental health, and somehow I realized that I overcame much more than I ever sought out to.

It wasn’t until a few months ago that I fully realized that my underlying emotional being had changed. It was a change I noticed slowly over time, and then it finally hit me. My default was no longer depressed and anxious – it was happy and content. I noticed that my overall attitude and reactions to events and people in my life had shifted. Even when I had bad days, at the end of the day, I was still happy. I could be sad or frustrated in the moment, or longer, but I eventually actually moved on. Even if I cried over something or got angry, weirdly enough, I always smiled or laughed at the end of the night. My default was now the sunshine – now the cloud was the rare visitor, and it never stayed long. One misstep in my life no longer left me feeling like giving up on everything, like there was no hope for the future, or that things would never get better. I reached a point where I was finally actually generally content, happy, and excited to wake up in the morning.

I never thought I would get to this state. Like I mentioned, the depression and anxiety had become a part of my identity, but now I no longer feel like they are. I had gotten really comfortable in the victim mentality, and now I don’t want any part of that. I have no desire to go back to that place. Life will never be perfect, and frustrating things will always happen, but my reaction to them is completely different now. It doesn’t stunt me for too long or make me feel like the world is crashing down around me when something “bad” happens. I’m always excited for the future. I’m not constantly on edge, afraid a panic attack coming anymore. I know that my core is now the happiness, the positive. I can hardly believe I’m saying this, and every day I feel blessed that somehow it happened.

So, how did I get here? I’ve been thinking about it a lot. By a lot, I mean journaling hard every single day for almost a year about this and researching a million things related to it. The truth is that it took me a long time to get to this place – it certainly was not an overnight shift. It also wasn’t just one change that I made, but many added together. There is a lot of science behind why all of these changes helped, but in the interest of time (since this post is already incredibly long), I’m going to focus on my personal experience rather than the research. I’m happy to write more on this topic and explain more of the science behind each of these things, if you’d like, at a later time. In the meantime, though, let’s just get down to the meat of things.

  1. Addressing my gut health is what I believe made the biggest difference in overcoming my depression and anxiety. This was a long, long road, because I’ve struggled with gut issues for a long time, and it’s taken a lot to do all of the healing that I have so far. Addressing my Candida overgrowth, SIBO, and other bacterial overgrowths were key to this. I realized this very much as it was happening. After I got rid of my Candida overgrowth the first time a few years ago, I felt a major shift in my mood. A few months later, I noticed my depression and anxiety started to come back. That was a sign to me that I had another issue with my gut. Sure enough, test results showed I had a few other bacterial overgrowths pop up. For me, the mood and anxiety were much clearer indicators of my gut than even the bloating or digestive problems were, but it took hindsight to realize that.
    Besides simply addressing those overgrowths, it was incredibly important for me to repopulate my gut with good bacteria, as well. Fixing my leaky gut and incorporating probiotic and prebiotic foods have made a huge difference.The majority of serotonin is found in our guts, and serotonin is the neurotransmitter that regulates our mood (amongst many other things) and improves our mood. Low serotonin is linked to depression. When the gut is in bad shape, this has a direct impact on our serotonin levels and our brains in general. The gut is referred to as the second brain for a reason! Gut health has a clear impact on mental health, mood, and brain function, which is why focusing on gut health is so incredibly important and something I am very passionate about.
  2. Related to improving my gut health, changing my diet in general had a huge impact on my anxiety and depression. There are many aspects to this, and the connection between food and mental health is something I have been researching deeply recently and find incredibly fascinating. In terms of healing my gut in order to address my mental health, I eliminated inflammatory foods from my diet like inflammatory oils, gluten, dairy, grains, legumes, sugar, and poorly-sourced food in general. Taking a paleo approach made an enormous difference for me.
    Beyond that, removing foods that I am specifically sensitive to or intolerant to has been key. Gluten and sugar are my two biggest triggers. Chocolate, garlic, and caffeine also have a huge impact on me. It took me awhile to be as in tune with my body as I am now and to realize these things. I know that caffeine really increases my anxiety. I can handle garlic here and there, but if it’s above my “dose,” my anxiety and depression return. Chocolate in any amount greater than about two tablespoons puts me into a pretty deep depression and also gives me great anxiety. Sugar, including natural sugars, do this to me as well. Gluten is by far my biggest trigger, but I never consume that so it’s never an issue. The chocolate and the sugar are more relevant, though, and that’s a big reason why those will never be “regulars” in my diet again. I realized this only after reaching a place where I was truly happy and wasn’t struggling with my depression anymore. Then, when I had the sugar and chocolate, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I don’t usually say this to people because I know it freaks them out, and that’s not my intent, but after I eat sugar and chocolate in larger quantities I often get suicidal thoughts, which is extremely out of the norm for me now. That might seem extreme, but it’s my personal experience. In smaller quantities, sugar and chocolate usually leave me with depression and anxiety for at least 3-4 days. Sugar in general has a  number of harmful effects on the body besides just affecting my mood, so I really don’t have a problem giving it up most of the time anyway. When it comes to sugar and chocolate, I choose wisely. I have them on rare, special occasions, and I know what I should expect to feel like for the next few days. I take responsibility for it.
    Insulin resistance is linked to depression, and I think that addressing my insulin resistance and balancing my blood sugar was a huge piece to this. That meant eliminating sugar, but also leaning towards a diet lower in carbs in general. In terms of macronutrients, I focus on fat and protein to feel my best. Following a high fat diet has been life-changing.  It is incredibly important to get enough protein and fat in our diets so our bodies have the materials necessary to create hormones and neurotransmitters. Amino acids are precursors to neurotransmitters, so it’s important to provide our bodies with those necessary building blocks. I notice a clear difference in my mood when I increase my fat and protein intake. On days when I’m not getting enough of one or both, I feel a bit more irritable and “down.” Focusing on nutrient density in general has also been key. Getting plenty of omega-3s in my diet, organ meats, and sea veggies is crucial, as well as including plenty of vegetables to support my gut microbiome. Food quality is incredibly important to me, as well. When it comes to animal products, I always am sure to get wild-caught fish, pastured eggs, and grass-fed meat, everything organic. I know this is controversial, but I believe that when we eat unhealthy, sick animals, that affects our mood and cognition as well.
  3. We all know exercise gives us endorphins. Exercise is very important to my mental health. For me, the key was finding the right amount. Not too much, and not too little. Too much exercise makes me an anxious and angry person, and too little makes me depressed and unhappy. Movement really helps me manage my stress, and I think it’s a big reason why I no longer struggle with depression.
  4. Speaking of exercise and movement, walking more, specifically, has been really helpful for me. Everyone knows me for my #addictedtolovelywalks, but these are really important in my life for exactly this reason. Calming walks have been shown to reduce cortisol, and I noticed a huge improvement in my mood when I started making daily walks a non-negotiable in my life. I have to walk and move my body regularly in order to feel my best.
  5. Getting outside more is another must for me. Vitamin D boosts serotonin levels. I used to be the kind of person who hated going outside. Now, I love it, because I know how big a difference it makes on my mood. If I spend even one day completely inside, I become a debbie downer. Even if I can only make it outside for 5 minutes, that’s better than nothing. Fresh air and exposure to the sun makes all the difference in the world, and it’s FREE. Once I got in the habit of going outside every day, I realized how important it really is for my mental health.
  6. Utilizing essential oils were really what made the final turning point for me in my journey. I know people think oils are woo-woo, but I don’t care. I can’t explain to you how much these have helped me and how powerful they are. It would be too long for me to go in depth about everything I’ve used in terms of essential oils, but in brief – I utilize Lavender, Serenity, and Frankincense the most when I need to feel calmer, comforted, and at peace. I use citrus oils like Wild Orange, Citrus Bliss, and Lemon to uplift my mood during the day. Oils like Rose and Balance also help ground me and calm me down. I generally diffuse these oils or apply them to my pulse points. They are like my instant, natural “antidepressants.”
  7. I would not have made it this far without seeing a therapist regularly and working through my deep issues. This was key. Never be afraid to ask for help. I believe that everyone should see a therapist or a health coach to help them talk things out and work through deep-rooted issues. It can take time to find someone you click with, someone who really gets you, but when you do – it makes all the difference in the world. It took me years to find someone who was the right fit, but I’m so glad I did. That being said, making the rest of my lifestyle adjustments are what allowed me to be open and present enough in my sessions to do that deep emotional work and make the breakthroughs I needed. I am a huge advocate for therapy and coaching. So much of my depression and anxiety was rooted in things I hadn’t addressed or come to peace with from my past, and having someone help me work through those things was incredibly valuable. Even at times when I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere, I was. This only works, though, if you’re completely honest and open in sessions. It can take time and commitment, but it’s worth it. I went twice a week for a year, and moved to once a week, but would go to therapy much more if I could! It’s freeing.
  8. Journaling has been a huge help to me because it allows me to really get in tune with myself, my thoughts, and my emotions. Writing down my thoughts allows me to see on paper what I’m really thinking and feeling, and it’s a completely judgment-free zone. No one else is ever going to see it, so I can really lay it all out on the table. There are a lot of things I write that I don’t even realize I’m thinking before I start. It really just helps me to talk things out. In moments when I’m anxious or sad, seeing the words on paper puts things into perspective. I also gain a new outlook on my life in general, what I want, and what I don’t. It’s like talking to a friend, but the friend is me.
  9. Meditation and deep breathing are two more very important tools in my toolbox. Even if I’m not full-out meditating, taking a minute to breathe deeply truly calms me down and allows me to get in touch with myself. I can clear my brainspace, take a step back, and put myself in a parasympathetic state.
  10. Getting more sleep has also been really important. I spent most of my life running on 2-6 hours of sleep, and that was definitely not enough. I’m always striving to find more sleeping time, but once I started to finally get 7 hours consistently, I noticed a huge difference in my mood during the day. Now, I know that I definitely will feel down if I get less than that – 7 is a bare minimum. I’m now at a place where I always get at least 7.5, but usually 8, hours a night, and I notice that the more I get, the better I feel.
  11. Eliminating things and people that were negatively impacting my life was crucial. This is hard, and it was one of the final steps because of that. I had to free myself of relationships that were not serving me and commitments I didn’t actually want to have in order to free myself of my anxiety and depression. Learning to say no is hard. I am still working on this. Learning to listen to your heart is hard, but doing things that felt like the biggest risk turned out to be the greatest reward. I ended relationships with friends and family that were one-sided, ones that were just out of convenience or feelings of obligation, and ones that had any drama at all. I also got rid of responsibilities that I thought I had to take, but I didn’t really want. As they say… Say “no” to shit that you hate. This all was only possible after I finally became much more in tune with myself and what I want and need in my life, and how people around me affect me. I am a highly sensitive person, and I take on the emotions of those around me. Once I came to better understand myself, I was ready to take the steps necessary to relieve myself of shit I hated. All of the factors listed before this are what allowed me to become in tune with myself in that way.
  12. I learned to love myself. That in itself was a long journey, but it was the most important part. I can’t love others or be there for them if I don’t love myself. I can’t truly see the good in the world or the positive parts of any situation if I don’t love myself and trust myself. I realized that when I was insecure and didn’t like who I was, it was much easier to just hate the world around me. So I got to know myself, learned to love what made me different, learned to stop comparing myself to other people, and decided that my relationship with myself was the most important one of all.

I know this post was long, but I really wanted to share all of the things that personally helped me overcome my anxiety and depression. This is not to say that I never feel sad or anxious – that’s life! But I move on quickly from things that upset me, and sadness is now longer my core being. At the end of the day, I feel happy. I don’t identify as the girl with depression anymore. It’s important to me to keep up with these lifestyle changes so that I maintain my mental health. If you’re struggling, never be afraid to reach out for help, and never give up hope. If I can make it through, so can you. It doesn’t define you. If you’d like me to address anything in this post in more detail, please let me know, and I am happy to share more.

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