Panic Attack Food Therapy

panic2The scene:  My apartment, last Thursday night.

I am sitting in my easy chair, watching a marathon of America’s Next Top Model Cycle Two.  I know what happens already; the blonde girl  will cry when they cut her hair into a ’60’s style pixie cut.  Nonetheless, it is silly and distracting as I have just come home from the gym and am cooling off.  Not a bad way to spend a slow Thursday night.  Suddenly, my left fingers start to tingle.  In hindsight, I was probably just sitting funny, but in the moment fear hits me:


I rush to take my sport bra off to see if it alleviates the tingling sensation.  The fear worsens as I realize that I am having trouble breathing.   Pacing back and forth across my living room, a scene plays out in my head.  They will find me here, days from now, dead at 30 from a heart attack.  I’m glad I hate cats right now.  I can’t breathe.  My pulse is racing.  All the blood has gone from my head and I feel like I am going to faint.  The only other time I have ever felt anything remotely close to this was on a ghost tour in Scotland, after a guide got too descriptive with the gory history of Edinburgh.  This is 1000 times worse.  It feels like hours have passed, and I realize I am still pacing manically around my apartment.  Call Mom.

“Mom, I can’t breathe.  I think I’m having a heart attack.  My left fingers were tingling.  My left shoulder is sore, like a bruise.  What do I do?  Do I call an ambulance?  What’s happening to me?  I’m scared!”  The words are quick and I can’t feel my body anymore.

She tells me to breathe.  “You aren’t having a heart attack.   You’re ok…you’re having a panic attack.”

I sit down and take deep breaths.   A panic attack?  I’ve never had a panic attack.  I wasn’t even doing anything, just watching Tyra smize.  What would I have to panic about?  My mom is still talking to me, but I can’t really hear her.  It’s comforting to have someone on the line.  Google “panic attack.”  Yeah…this is textbook.  I mentally tell my brain to stop it.  Stop freaking out.  You aren’t dying.  I gradually calm down internally, but my body is still on hyperdrive.  After hanging up the phone, I try to zone out.  Relax.  I chug some water.  It will be another 3 hours before I feel safe enough to go to sleep.

In the days since my panic attack, I still haven’t felt entirely normal.  Mostly, I am scared it will happen again.  The  feeling of being completely betrayed by my body was terrifying, more than I had ever thought a panic attack would be.  I realize I have been on edge recently.  It started in January when I watched a documentary about a woman named Joyce Carol Vincent.  She died of natural causes at 33 in her apartment, alone, and wasn’t found for three years.  It was the loneliest story I had ever heard, and even though our lives are not at all alike, I became fixated on it and convinced that this would happen to me, all the while realizing I was being silly.  And yet, as the movie sort of faded from the forefront of my thoughts, the fear simmered, finally boiling over Thursday evening.

I read that a lot of panic and anxiety sufferers, even occasional ones like myself, can get to the point where they are scared to go outside or go in social situations.  I have never felt that way, but I don’t want to go down that path.  So what do I do?  What changes can I make in my daily routine in an effort to prevent an anxiety ridden life?  Exercise is paramount;  I have upped mine to at least 60 minutes of cardio every day since.  It is more motivating to go to the gym to prevent a panic attack than going for weight loss has ever been, oddly enough.   So now, what can I change in terms of what I eat?  Obviously, a healthy diet is good for lots of things, but there are apparently certain foods that are great for helping with anxiety: whole grains, oats, veggies and fruits high in B and C vitamins, dairy, Omega 3, and lean proteins.  Sort of obvious “healthy” foods, though ones I may not get enough of if I don’t pay attention.

On that note, today’s recipe combines several of those foods together for a “panic attack special.”  One thing I love about food is that it can be incredibly therapeutic if used correctly.  Knowing that I have the ability to create something that can ultimately make me feel safer in my own body is a very powerful feeling.   Anyway, here’s my recipe.  Thanks for reading my story, and if you have any advice/thoughts on the topic, please share in the comments!


Turkey Burger with Whole Wheat Cous Cous, Spinach, and Sunny Side Up Egg

This recipe seems random at first, but all of the elements work together to provide both flavor and nutrition.  The sunny side up egg actually provides both protein and B vitamins, and only about 80 calories.

1 C whole wheat cous cous, prepared as per package instructions

1 lb ground lean turkey meat

2 tsp tomato paste

2 tsp dijon mustard

1 tsp low sodium soy sauce

fresh ground pepper

dash Tabasco

1 clove garlic, finely minced

1/4 C onion, minced

1 T fresh thyme, minced

6 C baby spinach

Olive Oil

4 Eggs

1 tomato, sliced

Salt and Pepper, as needed

In a large bowl, mix together turkey, tomato paste, soy sauce, tabasco, mustard, thyme, garlic, onion, and pepper, plus any other seasonings you desire (red pepper flakes, paprika, cumin, etc.)  Form the meat into 4 patties, taking care to press a little thumbprint in the center of each as they will puff during cooking.   Heat a grill pan or skillet and then place patties in the pan, letting cook about 7 minutes per side.  To ensure that they are done, use a meat thermometer and test for 160-165 F at the center of each patty.  When done, remove to a plate to rest.

In a nonstick skillet, pour a little olive oil.  Heat over medium high and then add spinach.  Let wilt until just softened but not completely shriveled.  Remove spinach to a plate or tray.  Crack a couple of eggs in the same pan, and let cook, untouched, for 3 minutes or until white is set but yolk is still runny.  Season egg with salt and pepper.

To build plate, pile some cous cous on the bottom, then the spinach, then a patty, several slices of tomato, and an egg.   The yolk should crack over the whole thing.  Yum.  Something about egg yolk is so glamorous to me, I don’t know.  If you don’t like eggs prepared this way, substitute any condiment you like.  Or some fresh sliced avocado!

Serves 4

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3 thoughts on “Panic Attack Food Therapy

  1. kretzloff March 25, 2013 at 7:19 PM Reply

    Great post! I hope this Catches some attention and helps bring hope to other sufferers

  2. Elizabeth R. March 25, 2013 at 8:35 PM Reply

    Hi Sweet Friend! Love your honesty – I think it will be helpful and comforting to people. In case helpful, wanted to share in response that I have learned I have what is called a “tyramine food sensitivity” (apparently almost as common as lactose intolerance?). So… what happens when I eat tyramine, which most of the population can digest normally? My body releases all its stored epinephrine and norepinephrine (fight and flight hormones), and my heart beats a million miles a minute, and sometimes my whole left arm tingles just like you’re describing. It’s fairly harmless, and it is about 1000x less scary now that I can just remind myself – oops, must have been some tyramine in that dinner. Tyramine is the natural decomposition of an amino acid called tyrosine, so anything that is high protein that is aged (even a little) can bring it on… no meat that has been out of the fridge for more than 2 hours, no meat that has been in the fridge for more than two days. Things that are fermented are also problematic, even aged avocados and overripe bananas are on the list. It is sort of like being the Princess and the Pea, for fresh foods! I’m not sure if tyramine food sensitivity is worse or better, for a chef, but give it a Google to rule it out. Sending some love and support your way! E

  3. Wanda Bramlett March 26, 2013 at 6:46 AM Reply

    Your Mom sounds great. When you realize you are having a panic attack, use deep breathing to calm yourself and know that a panic attack won’t kill you. It is important to rule out physical causes so it is a good idea to see your Doctor to help you sort through what may be causing them. I too have had panic attacks through the years, listen to your body, it is telling you things are out of balance right now and yes exercise is excellent.

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