Mental Challenges

After His Dad Died, Zak Williams’s Anxiety Reached an All-Time High—Here’s What Helped

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Photo: Provided; Art: W+G Creative

Growing up, I had an aversion to wellness. The main reason was that my mom was really into it, so I, of course, thought it was  “uncool.” She was—and still is—an Iyengar yoga teacher, and was always suggesting natural remedies. When I was a kid, there was nothing that interested me less than all that holistic wellness stuff. (Want to see a 13-year-old’s eyes glaze over? Tell them about the miracles of kitchari.)

As a child, I had a lot of anxiety, and it was something that I continued to deal with throughout my 20s. I’m not sure where it stems from, but I struggled with anxiety and depressive episodes for decades. I attempted to deal with the anxiety in several different ways.

The main method was alcohol, which, instead of calming me, just made me feel worse. I also tried using cannabis to cope with anxiety. At the time, so many people I hung out with talked about how it relaxed them, but whenever I used it, I felt paranoid and on edge. And of course, I tried CBD for anxiety—who hasn’t? It helped a little, but not as much as I hoped it would. I even tried acupuncture to manage my anxiety, and that actually ended up helping some. I was so desperate for a solution that I had tiptoed into the wellness world I used to think was so uncool.

Eventually, I started taking prescription medication, but the drugs left me feeling unlike myself, so I went on a quest for something that would work without changing who I was. No matter what I tried—and it felt like I tried everything—my anxiety continued to follow me. It followed me to New York City, where I went to pursue a degree in linguistics at NYU, and then it followed me to Columbia Business School. It followed me to San Francisco, where I worked as the director of business development for Condé Nast. It followed me everywhere.

Then, when I was 31, I lost my dad to suicide, and things quickly went from bad to extremely bad.

My life became a dark place after my dad died. My anxiety reached an all-time high and I felt depressed and isolated. As a result, I started drinking even more, which of course didn’t make me feel any better. I started experiencing panic attacks when I drank and it often gave me bad insomnia—it made everything worse.

Eventually, I went to a therapist and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It was a really, really hard time. My symptoms were oppressive. My dad’s death had been beyond traumatizing, and I didn’t know how to pull myself out of it. With the help of my therapist, I realized that self-medicating with alcohol wasn’t working, and I managed to stop drinking. But my anxiety continued.

That’s when I decided to look more into food and herbs as medicine. (Happy, mom?)

Other than the one time I had gone vegetarian for a few years in my childhood, I never really cared much about what I ate. But after learning more about the science showing how your diet impacts the way you feel, I decided to change my eating habits. I started minimizing my sugar intake and eating more healthy fats and whole grains. That’s when, slowly, I started to feel better.

So, I decided to take the “food is medicine” approach to the next level and start taking adaptogens, herbs that are thought to help the body deal with stress when taken regularly. I noticed ashwagandha, holy basil, and lemon balm helped level my moods and lower my anxiety, and discovered they worked even better when I paired them with amino acid complexes, which my wife Olivia introduced me to. (Amino acids, the building blocks of protein, are important for many body functions, including the production of hormones and neurotransmitters, and three of them—L-theanine, GABA, and 5-HTP—are commonly used to manage stress and anxiety.)

Changing my diet and taking herbal supplements definitely started to make a difference, but it certainly wasn’t a magic fix. Therapy also transformed my life, as did working with organizations like Bring Change 2 Mind that help others manage their mental health struggles.

PYM
Photo: PYM; Art: W+G Creative

Once I started helping others with their depression and anxiety, I felt like I had found my true mission in life. So, I started my own company with the help of my wife, PYM (Prepare Your Mind), to do just that. My hope is that PYM becomes a resource for people who want to learn more about the latest mental-health research and improve their own mental health. Part of that will be with products—the first is the Original Mood Chew, a chewable supplement with L-theanine, GABA, and the adaptogenic herb Rhodiola—and the other part will be by educating others about therapeutic activities and resources that might work for them.

The company is in its early stages, but I’m excited about what it will become and the ways it will help others. What I’ve learned through my own personal journey is that human connection and giving back to others is what’s really important. By healing others, you can heal yourself. I’m living proof of that.

As told to Emily Laurence.

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