Terrified, I was rushed to the hospital when I was 24. My heart was beating impossibly fast, I was a trembling mess, my arms were numb, and I was freezing cold but sweating a lot. I was sure I was having a heart attack, but the doctor proclaimed it a “panic attack”. I didn’t know what that meant at the time and I spent several years doing everything I could to avoid having another one. My life became small. I avoided many social situations and deeply feared being alone, especially while driving or at home at night. My mind was preoccupied with the possibility of the next episode of panic. My body was responding and forming a habit of anxiety. If I wasn’t actively experiencing frightening symptoms, I was fearing them, which to the body is one and the same.
When I finally hit my “bottom” and could no longer live my life in fear, I spent some time in various medical offices, being assured that nothing was wrong with my heart. For me, ruling out physical conditions was important because a large aspect of my anxiousness was tied to an irrational belief that something was wrong with my body. When all tests had been exhausted, I embarked on a journey of healing that led me to the other side of disordered anxiety. I never would have believed it, but I’m now grateful for those 15 years of fear, because they forced me to gather information and tools that have empowered me in every area of my life.
When I learned what “anxiety” was, I felt comforted. When we’re worried, stressed or frightened, an aspect of our nervous system, the “sympathetic” nervous system releases chemicals into the body to prime it to escape imminent danger. They cause an increased heart beat and palpitations, trembling, numbness/cold in extremities and excess perspiration. For so long I’d been fearing my body, regarding it as a ticking time bomb ready to explode at any moment when it was just doing everything it needed to do to protect me. Because of my constant worry, catastrophizing and the particular lens I saw the world through that had me believing I wasn’t measuring up, my “fight, flight or freeze” response was always online. I was never relaxed. I was living life on the edge of my seat. My body was responding as though a wild animal was in constant pursuit while in reality I was worried about my job performance, the state of my relationships and my very sense of worth. I see now that my worries around something wrong in my body, really meant that I had created a habit in my mind that something was deeply “wrong” with me.
Because I’d heard that yoga was helpful for anxiety, I finally shored up the courage to attend a class. (a humble note to my fellow teachers and studio owners, even though health professionals are sending patients with anxiety to yoga, there is much about a yoga class that is confronting to those who are nervous. Unfamiliar music, close proximity to others and seemingly no easy way out can trigger the symptoms of anxiety, and, breath retention can also make us feel panicky.) Fortunately for me, my first class felt comfortable and safe and it just happened to pave the way for my life to change. I received first hand knowledge of how yoga can soothe the anxious mind and body.
When we’re experiencing anxiety, the body is mirroring the thoughts happening in the mind. For example, if your mind is fearing an upcoming confrontation with a co-worker, your body will wind up feeling sensations of fear, which in turn, creates more intense worry in the mind. If left unchecked, this cycle can escalate into a full-blown episode of panic. Our task is to interrupt this cycle, so we can begin to break the habit of fear.
Anything that can draw you out of repetitive, scary and negative thinking can disrupt a pattern of anxiety, whether its yoga or not. For me, the physical postures of yoga are helpful because they force the mind to focus intently on where the feet are planted, how the hips are aligned, what the shoulders are doing, etc. For me, spending 90 minutes focused on new and unfamiliar ways of moving my body caused my mind to focus on something rather than fear for the first time in years.
When yoga poses are matched with longer, deeper breathing, more magic occurs. In the midst of fearful thinking, the breath is quick and shallow, triggering more of a response from that “fight or flight” nervous system. Conscious, fuller breath brings the relaxation response online, the “rest and digest” system, signaling to the body that there is no threat in the immediate vicinity and its time to take a load off.
Because body and mind are so connected, as we continue to stretch and lengthen muscles so accustomed to tension and constriction due to fearful emotions, the mind also begins to feel more spacious and free. After my first yoga class, I was flooded with heartwarming emotions; getting out of my head and into my body allowed me to align back into my heart. As spiritual teacher Marianne Williamson wrote, I was unlearning fear and returning to love (even though I didn’t know it yet.)
I felt more empowered and alive than I had in years. I assumed that yoga was the cure for my dis-ease, not knowing then that it only provided the space to get out of my own way and reconnect with the part of me that isn’t afraid. Yoga teaches us that at our core, our true nature is pure goodness and peace. Rather than reach for something outside of ourselves to feel better, we can rewire the patterns of stressful thinking and negative emotions that we think define us and make space for our true nature to reveal itself. I went back to class day after day, month after month and year after year. The presence and breath required in yoga is transformational, but lasting change takes time. That’s why its called a “practice”.
Throughout my dedicated practice over the last decade I have become a teacher, but I am primarily an endlessly eager student. I have gained countless tools that I used and continue to use to calm my anxious mind. Through study, self-discovery, research, complimentary modalities and most importantly, lived experience, my yoga and meditation practice has offered me boundless gifts that not only benefit me, but the people in my life. There are still times when despite what I know, my thinking brings me down and I get lost in old stories and reidentify with small, scared parts of me. It’s not easy to break habits that have been forming for most of our lives.
Here are some of the techniques I use to shift away from fear and arrive back to the here and now, the only place where life exists. May we not miss any more of our precious lives due to this daunting epidemic we call “anxiety”. May you untangle yourself from labeling yourself as someone who has “anxiety”. May you know that your struggle with fear doesn’t make you bad or wrong. Beliefs about not being good enough or worthy enough have embedded themselves deep within most of us and it’s our journey as we mature emotionally to dig up the often-unconscious patterns that keep us trapped in shame, comparison and self-loathing and step into who we are meant to be.