How Brain Surgery Cured my Anxiety

My whole adult life I struggled with anxiety. I experienced it here and there as a teenager, but it came into full force when I was in my early twenties. And once it announced its presence in my life, it didn’t seem to have any intention of leaving. Accompanying my anxiety, was the shadow of depression. But it was anxiety that crippled me.

In college I had moments of nausea during which I felt like I was on the verge of throwing up. They began seemingly out of the blue, completely untriggered. I went to see the doctor. She recommended I take antacids.

Then, one day, it just clicked. I was visiting friends in LA on my college winter break. One of the friends I was visiting was a boy I was interested in. I was staying at another friend’s house and had gone to hang out with this boy the night before I left.

When I got back to my friend’s house, I felt that nauseous feeling again. I tried to sleep but the feeling just kept coming back. I was nervous. I needed to lie on a bunch of pillows so that I was essentially sitting upright. I don’t think I slept at all that night — I was too worried that the nausea would come back and continue forever. That was when I realized that I was experiencing panic.

The next morning, I called my parents who called their psychiatrist friend, (we’re Jewish). Within days, I had an appointment with my lovely psychiatrist who, in retrospect, probably didn’t know what she was getting herself into. After some experimenting, she put me on Effexor, a commonly prescribed medication that raises the brain’s levels of serotonin and norepinephrine. Prescription filled, like millions of Americans, I began medicating my anxiety.

Embracing the Yogic Path

Soon after college, at my psychiatrist’s recommendation, I got into yoga. I found that it helped my anxiety and so I went consistently. I graduated college at the peak of the financial crisis which meant no jobs for this economics major. So, when the opportunity arose, I took a 200-hour yoga teacher training. I was really into yoga and meditation at that point, and it just seemed natural that I would stay on to work and teach at the yoga studio I had studied at.

Throughout my years of practicing and teaching, I still experienced occasional anxiety. But I was getting too big for my britches and I was convinced that I no longer needed the medication I had been prescribed. So I tried weaning off.

On my first attempt, I made it pretty far. I was completely off Effexor for about a month, when I went to visit my friends and family in Israel for the holidays. I had a good trip, although there were moments when I felt a little depressed. A day or two before I was due to leave, however, that by-now familiar queasy feeling reared its ugly head again.

Panic! What if I was about to go back into that crippled state?!

I somehow made it home with the aid of liters of ginger ale to quell the nausea and promptly slipped into a catatonic state. I was lying down, crying, with no ability to do anything. I called my psychiatrist. Without hesitating, she put me back on the Effexor. Within weeks I was back to my normal self.

Usually after about a year on medication, I would get confident again. I was certain that I didn’t need to be on medication. I would hear about all the terrible things that antidepressants are doing to us and how uncertain the psychiatric community remains about how, and why, they seem to work.

I listened to Helen Fisher’s TED talk and worried about the decrease in dopamine I was experiencing. Plus, I was a yoga teacher. Wasn’t it part of the creed that I be all natural?! (In retrospect, I find this funny. While I am vegetarian as per the yogic ethos, I am what I like to call ‘the world’s least healthy vegetarian’. I eat ice cream for breakfast. I drink soda like it’s my day job.) So, I felt it was time to try to get off these drugs again.

It never worked.

Each time I tried, I’d have to quit the taper soon and sooner. Like millions of other users, I concluded that I just needed to accept that I would have to be on my medication for the rest of my life. It wasn’t worth fighting it; I obviously needed the meds. And so I accepted it.

The Day That Changed Everything

Fast forward three years and I’m in intensive care recovering from emergency brain surgery.

I had been having unusual headaches and it turned out I had what everyone worries they have when they have a headache: a brain tumor so big I could have soon slipped into a coma. It was benign, but I’m told if I had gone into a coma, there’s no way to know if I would have survived.

My parents come and we call my trusty psychiatrist. She asked me how I was doing. I was in strangely good spirits, joking around as I tend to do during times of tension. But when my psychiatrist asked me that question, like an unstopped tap, all the tears suddenly came pouring out. It was almost as if the brain tumor that was blocking the flow of cerebral spinal fluid was blocking my emotions alongside it. And in those first moments after surgery, as the flow of spinal fluid returned to normal, so did the flow of my emotions.

I don’t think I realized it then, but my emotions had been blunted, if not altogether blocked, for years. Possibly since I started taking SSRIs, maybe since adulthood, and maybe even since that tumor started developing. (According to my doctors, there’s no way to know how long the tumor had been growing for.) I’m not sure when I lost touch with my emotions. But I know for sure that it happened at some point.

I remember along my journey, I got into the practice of meditation. In meditation, you’re taught to watch your thoughts and emotions as they come and go. I remember really taking to the idea of watching my thoughts, but emotions were another story. I didn’t really experience emotions. Occasionally, I was briefly irritated, saddened, or excited by a fleeting experience. But the feelings never lasted. If I sat in meditation, I was thinking, not feeling.

Embracing the New Me

My inner world changed suddenly after my surgery.

My perception of what was happening to me unfolded slowly. I’d be sitting down to do work and would suddenly think about something a family member had said that triggered me. The tears would just come flowing out. Sometimes, I would experience a sense of gratitude about the simplest things in life, like a pleasant sunset or a beautiful crisp morning. Occasionally, I would be moved to tears of joy.

It was like a new world of experience opened up to me, a stream of emotions. Wellsprings of energy and motivation had suddenly unblocked themselves within my brain.

I wanted to try new things, to live more, to travel to extreme places, to challenge myself, and see how it all felt. In the process of rediscovering myself, I put everything I had learned from meditation to work. Now that I was experiencing emotions, I was able to feel them in my body and watch them dissipate just as soundly as they appeared.

I soon realized that I had been given a wonderful opportunity to see my life for the temporary existence that it is — and to take advantage of every day that it offered.

Reflecting on mortality, as brain surgery forces you to do, can be difficult for many. If I had thought about whether such an experience would be traumatic for me, I would have jumped straight to the conclusion that I would never be able to keep myself together.

But this reflection, along with my reclaimed emotional experience, proved to be the catalyst for more personal growth than I could have ever possibly envisioned. It brought me in touch with my feelings and gave me a new sense of purpose. And with that, I realized, I could no longer be anxious.

When I realized my anxiety disappeared, I knew I was ready to get off my meds.

I started that process a little over a year ago. My psychiatrist wanted me to taper slowly and, with my history, I agreed. I’m now on one third of my initial dose. My recovery so far has been nothing but successful and I’m confident that I will be anxiety-free even once I’ve completed the taper.

I will have to be. I experience the world differently now. Instead of fearing a challenge, I embrace it. And anxiety is transformed when you embrace it.

Nina is an epidemiology student who writes about scientific heterodoxy. Her superpower is curiosity. Read her book Triumph by Trepanation

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