• "My mum really helped to eat better. She had a sustainable garden at her house and planted extra vegetables. I was eating a lot of foods grown in her garden." (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
When Anna* was 30-years-old, the Sydney-based mum of European heritage developed panic attacks that she says were ‘unliveable’. Now, she looks back on the black dog and tells SBS how dietary changes helped her to manage depression and anxiety.
By
Anna*, Presented by
Yasmin Noone

10 Oct 2018 - 2:42 PM  UPDATED 10 Oct 2018 - 2:45 PM

Around 2005, I began experiencing debilitating panic attacks. By 'debilitating' I mean I went from having a job that saw me travel globally and then suddenly I couldn’t make it out of the house.

I was having around 10 full-blown panic attacks a day, even when I was sleeping.

It was horrific, life-changing and borderline unliveable. My nervous system was so shot I couldn’t even watch a traffic light change: there was a risk that the suspense of waiting might set off a panic attack.

At the time, I would have done anything to stop having them.

I also have depression, which started at the same time. [I was told that] the panic attacks are a form of depression, just showing itself in an extreme way.

It was horrific, life changing and borderline unliveable. My nervous system was so shot I couldn’t even watch a traffic light change: the suspense of waiting could set off a panic attack.

In the research that my family, psychologist and I did, diet kept coming up as a big factor that could influence my attacks. So I took medication, did cognitive behaviour therapy and drastically changed my lifestyle to include more sleep. I did exercise and changed my diet – big time.

Eliminating sugars and processed foods was the first step I took as they were spiking my blood sugar and mood. 

I also found that adopting a ‘clean’ diet really helped me. It wasn’t strictly a Mediterranean diet but a balanced diet with lots of whole foods and seasonal fruit and vegetables. My mum really helped to eat better. She had a sustainable garden at her house and planted extra vegetables, so I was eating a lot of foods grown in her garden. 

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The more I spoke to doctors and the more research I did, the more I took this message about diet and depression seriously. I became aware, very quickly that a dietary change needed to be an essential part of my overall depression management plan.

I realised that the effect of your diet and its ability to heal your mind, body and ongoing wellbeing can’t be underestimated. Improvements in the way you eat should always go hand-in-hand with exercise, therapy and in some cases, medication.

What diet should I follow to help with my depression?
If you want to prevent or better manage your depression, you have a few more dietary options than just following the Mediterranean diet.

The thing was, my diet was never especially bad before: I ate what I considered the average Australian would also eat. But in reality, my morning yoghurt and cereal, the processed breads and the sugar-loaded salad dressings were all filled with hidden chemicals. I now eat like an athlete. I became very serious about what I put into my body and it has helped me enormously.

My family and I were all surprised by how the role of diet in managing depression remains  relatively unacknowledged. But to-date, controlling my diet remains a massive component of my health management.

I am not sure you ever fully recover from severe depression or anxiety. Even now, I still am on the look out occasionally for signs, despite not having had an attack in 13 years. And if I burn the candle at both ends, and eat badly, I can feel those signs returning.

I am not sure you ever fully recover.

To other people who are struggling with managing their depression, I would say improve your diet now. 

I think it has not only helped my anxiety and depression but it’s made me a healthy adult.

I’m a lot fitter and eat better than others my age and it’s starting to show as others hit that middle-aged slump. You can make healthy eating a good tool for life, in general.

Put it this way: [doing only cognitive therapy] is like putting on shoes and forgetting the laces, while improving your diet ties everything together.

Cognitive behaviour therapy was the most important thing for my recovery on the whole, but it was aided enormously by exercise and improvements in my diet: not to elevate my mood (exercise does that for me), but to stabilise it and stop it swinging all over the place.

Put it this way: [doing only cognitive therapy] is like putting on shoes and forgetting the laces, while improving your diet ties everything together. 

Note: *Not her real name. The interviewee remains anonymous for privacy reasons. 


October 10 marks World Mental Health Day. To know more, visit 10/10 online. 

If this story has raised an issue for you or you are in need of support, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36, or go online to learn more about the Blackdog Institute

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