When hormones wreak havoc
Aubrey, 30, had few health complaints until she began having daily panic attacks, complete with heart palpitations, breathlessness, and trembling hands. She sought help from a psychiatrist, who prescribed medications, and a therapist—me. I chalked it up to family problems and introduced her to breathing techniques. She struggled on and off until, a year after the onset of symptoms, she was struck by debilitating fatigue.
Michael J. Formica is a board certified counselor, integral life coach, teacher and self-development expert who writes and lectures extensively on spirituality, psychology and related disciplines. He attended Columbia University's Teachers College, among others, and, in addition to three advanced degrees in psychology, has been awarded degrees in both theology and philosophy. Michael has had training in the Theraveda and Mahayana Buddhist traditions, and is an Initiate in the Shankya Yoga lineage of H.H. Sri Swami Rama and the Himalayan Masters.
Editor: Nadeem Noor
Aubrey lost interest in just about everything, from sex to her job, and began to struggle cognitively. "I would say, 'The thing, you know, the pink thing,'" she recalls. "I was talking about a hairbrush. I thought I was losing my mind."
I considered bipolar disorder, but the intensity of Aubrey's cognitive symptoms baffled me. Could it be a brain injury? Ergot poisoning? I grew perplexed—and a little afraid for Aubrey.
Months later, a colleague mentioned a bipolar patient whose mononucleosis sent him into depression. I remembered some cases I'd seen involving endocrineimbalance. One blood test later, I had a diagnosis: hyperthyroidism.
The condition occurs when the thyroid gland overproduces key hormones, ramping up metabolism and producing heart palpitations, irritability, fatigue, muscle weakness, or insomnia—symptoms that mimic those of mood disorders. The first symptoms are pseudo-psychiatric in up to 12 percent of cases.
"If you only treat the affective aspects of hyperthyroidism, you fail to make a diagnosis that has lots of physical ramifications," says physician Jeff Garber, former president of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists. The condition afflicts about 300,000 Americans annually, and women are 5 to 10 times more likely to be affected.
Aubrey's endocrinologist put her on Tapazole to slow the overactive gland. Her symptoms vanished, and she morphed back into the woman I'd seen in glimpses. "I felt human again," she says.
Hyperthyroidism typically occurs in those over the age of 60. But one risk factor in particular targets younger women: a recent pregnancy or birth. Thyroid hormones naturally increase during pregnancy; for most, the pseudo-hyperthyroid state corrects itself one to four months afterward, but for some, the result is an ongoing condition, often mistaken for postpartum depression.