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.

1- Cultivate a Gentle Presence with Your Body

When we jump onto a negative train of thought or react to a sensation in the body with more fearful thinking, it’s important to find a way to ground yourself into what is real and solid around you. I like to feel my body’s connection to the earth. If I’m feeling self-conscious around a group of people, I will bring my awareness to my feet firmly planting into the ground. It’s all about stepping into the role of the observer; notice your seat in the chair, the way your arms rest on a table, the air on your skin, the fabric of your clothing on your chest. Move your awareness to the sensations in your fingertips and hands and focus on feeling both hands at the same time. Let go of story-telling and judgements and simply watch body sensations with curiosity. If a sensation in the body promotes a fearful thought, respond to that area of your body with understanding. Remember that physical sensations begin, stay for awhile and then abate. Communicate that you appreciate all the ways your body supports you.
Scan through your senses to connect further into what is real. Focus intently on what you hear around you for a few moments. Let your gaze steady and settle on a colour or a texture and observe it as if seeing that colour or shape for the first time.
*a quick body technique that really works for me*
Place your thumb in the centre of the palm of your hand and lightly wrap your fingers around it in a soft fist. This is a mudra called “adhi mudra”, a gesture we make with our hands that can change our state of mind/body. This mudra is all about calming anxiety and restoring ourselves mentally and physically.

2- Soften and Breathe

As you become adept at moving awareness from your thoughts into your body’s connection to solid ground, begin to pair this shift with a softening in your body. Relax your belly, your shoulders and jaw and deepen your breath. Count to a 4 or 5 as you inhale and see if you can lengthen your exhales to a 6 or a 7. Receive at least 6 deep breaths to bring the relaxation response online. Focus on the count of your breath rate to keep your mind tethered to the breath. Practice “watching” your breath. Allow your belly to expand as wide as possible as you inhale. Imagine the breath originating in the low belly and being drawn up toward the heart, soothing the heart.
I like to link qualities to my breath. For example, as I inhale, I might imagine drawing in safety and belonging and as I exhale, I could connect that to a release of tension and self-doubt.

3- What am I Thinking?

In his important book, “Mindful Loving”, author Henry Grayson suggests “Thought Monitoring”, which is enormously helpful. You know now that when you have a thought, your body releases chemicals that create a feeling that matches this thought. How we feel creates the actions we take (or don’t take) and as Ghandi is quoted as saying “our actions create our destiny”. To break the cycle of feeling badly, acting unskillfully in response to those feelings proving our initial negative thought, we have to interrupt our wiring. All day long, I remind myself to check in with what I’m thinking. We have thousands of thoughts a day, and because of our negativity bias (which helps keep us safe, but also keeps us stressed, worried and afraid) most of those ruminations are negative and habitual. To help us stop thinking the same thoughts and having the same lives, constantly inquire into what’s happening up there. Name the category of thought you’re entertaining. It might be a replay of a conflict where you feel victimized. File that one under “grievance”. Thinking about how to control your circumstances, or the reaction of another? Label it “control”, or “plan”, or “complaint” or “memory”, then, deliberately ask yourself, “What’s the more loving thought?” I’m not asking you to simply think positively, I’m suggesting that there is a thought that feels very true that is based on kindness to yourself rather than judgment. How would you speak to a beloved or a child in your care? Commit to looking for the love to promote more expansive feelings. From new thoughts and feelings come new possibilities and perspectives and new powerful actions.

4- What’s Going Right?

Our brains are programmed to scan our surroundings for potential threats. That’s great if we’re hiking through the wilderness, but that tendency keeps us in fear even when there is no real danger in sight. From the first moment we open our eyes in the morning to the last thought before sleep takes us, we might be engaged in a stream of lack. “I didn’t get enough sleep”, “I don’t have enough time”, “I don’t have enough money” are all habitual thoughts familiar to us. When you notice the next inner complaint, ask “what’s going right?” Find as many reasons for appreciation as you can.

5- Nurture the Child Within

Author and Speaker Danielle Laporte has advised us to “remember who we were before the world told us who we had to be”. This inspired me to add a picture of myself as a 5-year-old and place it in a sacred place I have created in my home for my practices and self-discovery. When I become hard on myself, when I hear the inner judge admonish me with “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts”. Example: “I shouldn’t have been so loud”, “I shouldn’t have eaten that”, “I should be farther along by now”, I picture that shiny, audacious part of myself who didn’t worry about being too big or too loud, she was just so deliciously comfortable with being herself. When I think of her, I become much kinder to myself, because she’s still there, and she deserves to be happy and feel free.

6- Connect with Your Inner “Wise One”

At a training with one of my teachers, Ashley Turner, we were invited to commune with our inner elder to receive the wisdom and insight we already possess. It was a beautiful experience to visualize myself later in my life, free of worries and ripe with experience and perspective. Ask what this aspect of you wants you to know. More than likely, your inner wise one will advise you to release guilt and shame and allow yourself to relax and enjoy more of your life.

7- Set the One Boundary That Really Counts

A “boundary” is a flexible yet firm resolve containing and encouraging you to take care of yourself while allowing others to take care of themselves. Much of the anxiety we experience is based on worry about how we are perceived by those around us. We’re wired to people please. Once upon a time if we didn’t tow the acceptable line we could be exiled from our tribes and left for death, so the emotions of guilt and shame are in our programming to keep our connection strong with those that can help us survive. But, shame harms us more than it helps. While guilt may guide us toward righting a wrong, shame has us believing we ARE wrong, all wrong. The fear of making a mistake, speaking out of turn, being disliked, is really a fear of having our deepest wounds exposed. All of us have places where we don’t feel “enough”, but for some of us, this is the central theme of an unending dialogue taking place inside our minds. Forever under fire from this harsh inner judge, how can we ever really relax? Without relaxation, we live inside a continuous stress response, bound for a breakdown.
Boundaries to the rescue. A boundary is a truth, and the deepest truth of all is that we are innately worthy. We’re all worthy of love, safety, contentment and a life of ease. Deep down, many of us don’t think we deserve all of that; not without earning it or proving ourselves. Setting a boundary of self-worth means we create a baseline of being “enough’, just as we are. Safe inside the truth of worthiness, we can practice making choices based on our birthright of deservability. If you believed you were worthy of love, how would you allow yourself to be treated? How would you treat yourself? Within a boundary of self-worth, we have nothing to hide and nothing to prove.
If it would be helpful, visualize that you’re surrounded by a protective layer of light. When you notice yourself mind-reading, shape-shifting to meet the supposed expectations of others, or when you feel a flash of anger, you may have crossed your boundary and left yourself. Picture yourself inside your personalized boundary and reflect on what you’re thinking. More than likely, your thoughts contradict the truth of your worth. What can you say to yourself to remind yourself of your essential goodness; of who you really are?

8- Forgive Yourself

When the critical voices within tell you how awful you are, how stupid you are, how wrong you are, forgive yourself. Forgive yourself for not measuring up to the impossible to reach, idealized version of who you learned you had to be to get love. We’re all walking memory banks of the words and actions we received. We all internalized that in some way, we’re bad. We’ve had generations of these programs passed down to us. It can be a long, painful process to reveal the sources of the beliefs we have and heal them. I carry a rhyme in my head that was shared with me once:
I’m learning, I’m growing, I’m ok with not knowing.

9- You’re More than the Label

Language is powerful. The more you tell yourself and others that you have anxiety, the tighter the box you’ve put yourself in can get. You’re having an experience in a body that is functioning in the way it feels it must to protect you. Give yourself room to be much more than a diagnosis. One of the best ways I know to feel more expansive is to explore meditation and mindfulness. The “goal” of meditation is to experience the power of the present moment. In anxiousness, your thoughts are based on what’s gone wrong in the past and what can go wrong in the future. In the here and now, things are rarely as negative as our thoughts.

10-Connect

As opposed to the chemicals released during the stress response, safe and loving physical touch produces “feel good” chemicals in the body, creating more positive emotions and a sense of well-being. Hug a loved one or dear friend for more than 20 seconds, hold hands or cuddle. Breathe deep as you remind yourself that your body is just as capable of feelings of peace as it is of fear and, you are stronger than you think.

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