When your body doesn’t work like everyone else’s it can take you to depths of despair that you didn’t quite know existed. I personally believe that this occurs because we feel disconnected from our friends, family, and even ourselves, when all we want most as humans is to feel kinship and love. Most of human interaction is based off of our innate drive to connect with others and create meaningful bonds that will perpetuate humanity. So, when it feels like you can’t do what you literally NEED to do, it can be disheartening at best and utterly depressing at worst.
This is how I describe what it feels like to have Adrenal Fatigue with Anxiety. As much as I’m not entirely sure how to put into words what I experienced during my journey back to health, I’ve been feeling the call lately to begin trying. You may have heard the term Adrenal Fatigue floating around, but just as easily not. It’s become sort of a buzz word in the health and fitness industry that’s often used in a flippant and incorrect manner. In fact, the idea that your adrenal glands are “fatigued” is a misnomer, but to make things easy, I refer to my experiencing as one with Adrenal Fatigue rather than the technical mouthful ‘Severe HPA-Axis dysregulation with Cortisol Resistance’.
Even now as I’m writing this post, I’m not entirely sure the face it will take. I just remember how hard it was two years ago to think that my life would EVER begin moving in the right direction and how it seemed that every time I took one step forward, I would get pushed back at least five more. Now I feel the need to share in case someone out there is feeling as hopeless as I was because I want you to know that it WILL get better.
Adrenal fatigue w/anxiety feels a lot like drowning – At least I imagine. It feels like you’ve been treading water for hours when someone comes by to tell you it’s only been minutes. It’s exhausting, both literally and figuratively and it’s not a joke. But what I truly believe to be the hardest part is that it’s a silent struggle. There is no cast on your arm or physical ailment that people can see. What you have is broken on the inside and no one, not even you, can see it. It’s not even as tangible as a cold with it’s runny nose and watery, feverish eyes. In America today, we call those with Adrenal Fatigue weak and lazy. Sleep is for losers and eating to take care of your body is self-indulgent, picky and often offensive. Pick yourself up and just. try. harder. Why can’t you just relax and take a chill pill? It’s no wonder then that those who struggle to meet the demands of a perfect life end up compounding the problem with self-defeating thoughts of inadequacy and worthlessness. I remember crying many, many days wondering why my body couldn’t just pull it together. And even now, as I write this feeling healthy and vibrant, there are days when I feel overwhelmed by the amount of work it takes to BE and feel those thoughts dusting themselves off to come out of hiding.
I believe that Adrenal Fatigue can take on many forms and we know, as practitioners, that it can definitely vary in degree. But what a lot of people won’t talk about it, is what it looks like in it’s worst moments. I wish I had kept a journal at that time, but for me personally, it was hard to talk about what was happening in that space without feeling major anxiety about my symptoms which would catapult me further down the rabbit hole. I will mention this caveat: I have had a lifelong struggle with anxiety and sporadic bouts depression. What I experienced was not simply a dysregulation caused by a hectic work schedule or overtraining in the gym. I do have a new relationship with them now, which I found through a mix of diet and meditation, but two years ago, it was a very different story and this is that story.
July of 2014, the straw finally broke the camel’s back and my body began to crumble in on itself. As a side note, I realize that everyone’s story might not look as intense, but often the kind of people who experience Adrenal Fatigue are also those who are considered “high strung/ perfectionist” type-people which colludes nicely with anxiety-type thinking, and therefore, intensity.
I remember standing in line one day at the mall waiting to purchase some clothes and all of a sudden was struck with dizziness, a racing heart and severe nausea. It was so intense that I broke out in a sweat instantly. I was no stranger to panic attacks at this point, but never had they come on so quickly with no warning at all. It was so strange that I didn’t actually stop to consider that it could have been a panic attack. I quickly put my clothes down and rushed out of the store. By the time I reached my car, I felt better but was still feeling apprehensive about what had just happened. There were a few more episodes similar to that, and from that day on I was perpetually dizzy. Not in the sort of way that makes you feel like the room in spinning but more in a way that just keeps you a little bit off balance all the time. As if you are on a boat rocking gently back and forth. It seemed that the more I worried about it, the worse it got. Naturally, when it didn’t subside, I began to worry that it might be something serious like a tumor or brain injury. I started off on my journey in a traditional manner and began to date doctors like the Bachelorette in search of The One who would give me my answers. Twelve specialists later and not one of them could tell me anything other than “it’s all in your head, everything looks fine.” I had tried blood tests, CT scans, balance therapy and neurological tests. I had seen ENT’s, family doctors and chiropractors. None of it helped. I was walking around feeling like I was in a dream, unable to communicate clearly what I was experiencing and beginning to drift farther and farther away from reality. A few months later, under the stress of it all, I began experiencing even more symptoms. I’d always had a hard time falling asleep, but now it would take upwards of an hour to wind down, sometimes laying in bed for several hours. I was tired in my bones but I just couldn’t sleep. It felt as though someone had a conversation playing in my brain at all times of the day that I couldn’t step away from. Regardless of how exhausted my body felt, my brain just wouldn’t give up. Assuming I did get to sleep, mornings were hell. I’ve never been an early riser, but those days made getting up feel nearly impossible. I was waking up several times during the night, sometimes because my body felt insanely starving and others because I was in the middle of a panic attack that would shake me out of sleep. If you’ve ever woken up shaking with a racing mind and heart, you’ll know that falling back to sleep is no easy task and the next morning can feel like your body is made of lead. I usually woke up to pretty nasty nausea and a sore jaw from clenching throughout the night and, a few hours into the day, felt as though I’d pulled an all-nighter in Vegas. At this point, mundane, everyday tasks began to feel overwhelming. I was teaching at the time, and remember crumpling on the floor in sheer panic at the thought of making it into work because two of the children in my class had become very difficult to manage lately. It was days like this where those around me just couldn’t understand why I didn’t just pour myself a cup of coffee and handle it, and I felt utterly alone in my experience. Months of this went on and I found that the best way for me to cope was to push everyone around me further and further away because the idea of socializing or trying to communicate my needs felt like it would kill me. It’s difficult to have stimulating and engaging conversations when you feel like all you want to do is curl up in a ball and sleep away the discomfort. When everyone around you is laughing, having a good time but you’re your body hurts and your brain is tired thoughts of self-despair are easy to give into. Hence, it made sense when my irritability was at an all time high and I snapped at everyone around me. I was wound up and busy trying to hold it together all day every day. Small interruptions in these mental gymnastics caught me off guard and instantly triggered my anger. Also noticeable was an inability to think clearly. It felt as though my memory was failing and I would find myself sitting, thinking of all the things I needed to get done, but unable to decide where to start and essentially frozen. Coupled with achy joints, sensitive skin and a nervous stomach ache, I often felt like I was coming down with the flu. Some days, even loud noises felt intolerable. Blenders? Forget it. Dropping the shampoo bottle in the shower? Total melt down. I had no appetite at this point either and was rapidly losing weight. The nerves and digestive discomforts I felt on a daily basis kept me from wanting to eat and I often felt lightheaded, weak and shaky. Put simply, I was a mess. Not even a hot one. Just a mess. My family worried about me but couldn’t get on my level. My boyfriend at the time was becoming more and more frustrated with me as the days went by but I felt unable to appease him and be the fun-loving, lighthearted girl he had fallen in love with. Our relationship was holding on by a thread and to make matters worse I couldn’t for the life of me muster up the drive to be intimate with him making an already tense situation exponentially worse. Finally, in December of 2014, I decided enough was enough. After essentially ruining our Christmas Day with a giant panic attack, I was fuming. There were only two choices – End it or fix it, and I don’t say that lightly. For reasons I still can’t entirely understand, I decided that my nutrition would be the place to start. It was a very intuitive decision and one that I will be forever grateful for. I knew enough about Nutrition and my body to know that I was experiencing bouts of low-blood sugar and I would need to cut out sugar and processed carbs to fix it. I also broke out my old Paleo books and began devouring the information listed in them. I mean, if diet could reverse things like Type II Diabetes and heart disease, was there any reason it couldn’t help my body too? After reading about the effects Gluten could have on the body, I decided that would go as well. Regardless of what I WANTED my life to look like, my body was telling me to slow down and it was time to listen. I made a deal with myself and decided I wouldn’t worry about the way my body looked as long as it felt good. This meant no restrictions on calories, no dieting for special occasions, no hitting the gym insane high intensity workouts. It also meant that I ate every time I felt hungry, even if it was directly after a meal. It meant that I ate real food and did lots of gentle movement like restorative yoga and walks in the desert with my dogs. Hear me when I say that this wasn’t an easy task at first. Previously I had been CrossFitting 5-6 days a week and fitting in extra accessory work after classes in hopes that if I just worked harder I would finally get stronger and have the body of my dreams. It worked for everyone else, clearly I was just too lazy to get what I wanted so more was always better. But as I began to treat my body kindly, something interesting started to happen. At first I noticed that I could go longer and longer between eating without feeling that gnawing pain in my gut that would stir up anxious feelings. I also noticed that my mornings weren’t quite so terrible. Around the same time in December, I began to see a therapist who specialized in hypnosis and meditation. He recorded several meditations for me to listen to that would help coax my body into relaxing. Let me tell you, at first they seemed like torture. I would find that as my body and mind began to relax during the meditation they would sort of panic and contract inward both physically and mentally. It was as if I was resisting the relaxation at a cellular level afraid that if I let go, even for a moment, the world would fall a part around me. Control freak much? I was determined to stick with it, however, and think today that more than anything, more than all the best, organic, nutrient-dense food in the world, learning to have a new relationship with the way that I viewed the world was what finally spoke to my heart and pulled me out of those soul-sucking trenches. At first it the changes were small. I would notice that for a few seconds I hadn’t thought a single thought. I had actually gotten a moment of peace and it was delicious. As the momentum built, I found myself thinking in new patterns and being able to rationally pull myself out of a melt down. I found too that my thinking was clearer and it seemed as though the foggy haze I had been living in was starting to lift like fog from the ocean. It was so beautiful that I wanted more and began my own guided meditation practice for 15-20 minutes a day using the Headspace app on my phone. During this time in my research, I had finally come up on the term Adrenal Fatigue and started learning all that I could about the condition. It sounded like everything was going through. Cutting out the gluten and switching my diet to all real-foods had unknowingly slashed my internal inflammation in half and as my inflammation decreased, so did my physical response to stress. Hitting the stress response from several different angles quite literally gave my body the rest it was craving. With a little bit of reserve building, it made it easier to continue my new habits and I made it my mission to be as kind and loving as I could to myself and to listen more deeply than I ever had to the signals my body was giving me. Also noteworthy was the fact that my dizziness had subsided significantly and the world around me was slowing down.
While there are probably a million more tiny nuances I could talk about, I think the reason I wanted to write this post today to highlight the fact that in my darkest moments I remember thinking things would never, ever change, yet two years later, here I am healthier and happier than I have ever been in my entire life. These days I find so much joy where once there was only pain. I find inspiration in my daily life and when I think of the things that used to keep me up at night, I can’t help but send my old self a little hug for mucking through the mud to get us here. HPA-Axis dysregulation is real. It doesn’t mean you’re weak and it certainly doesn’t mean that you are broken. These days, I like to think that my dance with Adrenal Fatigue was a lucky invitation that I am grateful I accepted. I could have probably continued to live my life unaware that my patterns with stress were killing me and plugged onward in the belief that “life if hard and then you die.” But something inside me didn’t accept that and I feel stronger for having answered the call. If taking care of my body and mind in a way that allows me to finally show up for myself and those around me in a peaceful, loving and attentive way makes me less then I don’t want to be more. Do I wish some days that I could drift through life a little bit easier? Hell yes. But, I also believe I was put on this earth for a reason and that reason is to to be the support I wished I’d had when I was struggling deeply. It is why I decided to become a Nutritional Therapist and help others who are wading in the mud find their way back to dry land again. I hope sincerely that if you are grappling with anxiety, adrenal fatigue or both that you reach out and ask for help. I am currently working with clients in a 12-week program designed to help recover adrenal health and address the five components of healing necessary to overcome burnout . There is no need to do it alone when so many of us are feeling the familiar weight of the world on our shoulders. It will get better. It will. Stay hopeful.
All my love,