Living and Learning with Anxiety
I can remember to the second the first time I experienced anxiety. I was 12 years old, in 6th grade Geography Class. We were giving presentations on rivers and this was my day to speak to the whole class about the Danube River. I was prepared and even calm about the idea of presenting. Then, the boy who went before me fainted, leaving me feeling rattled and nervous that the same thing would happen to me. I asked to go to the nurse before it was my turn and didn't return to school for 10 days, waking up each morning feeling anxious and scared about the presentation.
Not only was I becoming mentally anxious about public speaking, but my body was reacting with physical symptoms. I had an upset stomach every morning, I felt physically sick, shakey, sweaty, and generally horrible. Eventually, I went back to school, did my presentation, and did not faint. I did however have an overwhelming fear of public speaking for the next few years which in turn became a fear of going to school that continued through high school. I was even late for my high school graduation practice because I was crippled with fear that my nervous stomach would strike during the ceremony.
When I went off to college, my stomach was still unreliable but I hadn’t made the connection between my physical and mental state. My first week of college, I fainted or almost fainted 4 times. I would be standing in line waiting for dinner or riding the elevator to my dorm room and all of the sudden my vision would go blurry, I’d become drenched in sweat, and my ears would ring. I was admitted to the ER for dehydration and pumped full of fluids. Again, I made no connection between what was going on in my life and what was going on in my body. The truth was that I had moved 3,000 miles from home to a university that was as big as my hometown where I knew no one and I was totally and completely overwhelmed.
During this time, my anxiety was coupled with depression and I eventually left that school, moved home and stared a quest of self-discovery and understanding.
However, my anxiety continued through college, while not always with the same symptoms. It was also manifesting in obsessive thoughts, having to plan things in excruciating detail as a way to cope with the many demands I felt from school and working. At this point, anxiety was equating to fear. I was scared of so many things, flying, needles, sleeping alone in the home I grew up in, and all of these things were triggering that ever present anxiety. It was soon after that I found yoga.
It has been a long journey to deeply understanding the root of my anxiety, and how it manifests within me. I will not say that I no longer experience it, because I do to some extent each day. What I’ve learned however and am continuing to learn is that I am not a weak or flawed person for having this anxiety. It is a part of me, a part that I am exploring and making friends with. Through yoga and mindfulness, I've learning to notice the patterns and qualities of my anxiety so that I can start to break it down and help it to pass. I’ve gathered tools that really help me during times of high anxiety, and my hope is that they will be of help to people who also identify with anxiety.
Yoga- I think it’s clear that I believe in the magic of yoga it is the thing that gives me clarity, confidence and somuch more. Specifically, when I am feeling high anxiety, I practice a grounding and slow style of yoga. Basically, I’m learning to tune into my body and balance whatever feels out of balance. So because my anxiety feels like excess nervous energy, grounding yoga poses like child’s pose, standing poses, and planks create a sense of stability to counteract that. I also love restorative yoga poses because I am able to sit with my feelings, and find a calm and steady breath that creates this incredible sense of surrender and acceptance in my body and mind.
Meditation- For so long, I fought meditation as a part of my yoga practice. I had tried it a couple of times but could never find any quiet in my mind, and this made me feel more anxious. Just sitting felt uncomfortable. Recently, I decided that these were issues I could no longer sweep under the rug and needed to face head on. I experimented with some different styles of meditation. For me, using a mantra (repeating a word or phrase) really helps me to stay present. As does holding a mala (a necklace with 108 beads) and taking one round of breath for each bead. I’ve also found success using a flame to steady my gaze. There’s something really mesmerizing about gazing at a flickering light that helps quiet my mind. Usually, in my meditations, I start by using one of the above techniques to settle my mind and become present, trying to filter out all of the hundreds of thoughts racing through my head at a given time. I really try just to focus on the mantra, breath, or flame during this time. Then, I open myself up to let whatever thoughts are present to come forward. Sometimes, nothing is coming but I have a sense that something is off. So I literally start asking myself questions that I imagine a therapist might. I say things like “why do you think you’re experiencing back pain today?” “why is it that the comment that girl made upset you so much?” “why do you think you’re feeling nervous about that upcoming yoga class?” Usually, after some inquiry, I can start to find answers. The answers aren’t always pleasant but, there is so much release that comes with understanding and deeply feeling these things. I always feel cleansed and lighter after these intense sessions of meditation.
Journaling and Speaking- Sometimes just holding these thoughts in my mind isn't enough, I need to physically get them out of my mind. That’s where writing comes in. Sharing my thoughts in personal journals or even in public forums like this help me to make so much sense of what’s happening. When even writing is not enough, I know that I need to speak the words, and be heard. I’m so lucky to have a partner that lets me breakdown and share with him, but having anyone to listen is a blessing, whether it’s a parent, friend, therapist, even your pet! Often, when I speak my anxieties, I can see that they are either totally irrational, or totally rational and valid. Both outcomes help me to feel unburdened by those feelings.
Expressing Yourself Creatively- I really never considered myself a creative person. But, when I made the choice to share my passion for yoga and create a business around it, I discovered so much creative energy living in me. I would have these ideas and visions for projects pop in my mind when I was walking, or laying in Savasana after yoga. I found huge joy in creating a website, I started painting handmade affirmation cards (and they looked really cool!), I created a yoga game, I came back to my love of writing. It felt like as soon as I changed my outlook on creativity, the flood gates opened and creativity started coursing through my veins. The connection between creativity and anxiety is that when I am creating, when I am totally engaged with any of these outlets, there is no space for fear or anxiety. I am in that place called “the flow” where I am totally present, engaged and functioning on a level of intuition rather that habit. It’s something that we’re all capable of experiencing, it’s just a matter of finding that thing that makes your soul soar.
The Truth about Fear
The last thing that I’ll say about fear, and by extension anxiety, is that it is largely irrational. All of the things that I’m most scared of, the things that trigger my anxiety have NEVER happened. Just think about that for a moment, all of these things that I spend precious hours obsessing over have never actually happened. When I think about it that way, it’s almost laughable. Now, when I feel myself dreading an upcoming flight (my palms just started sweating knowing that I’m flying tomorrow), I take a really deep breath, and refocus my attention on the present. We can’t control what might happen, we can control our thoughts about it. I can consciously push this image of the airplane taking off out of my brain and instead look out my window and see the golden light bouncing off a eucalyptus tree (isn’t that a better use of my time?!) It doesn't always work, and I will most likely have a minute of panic tomorrow on the plane, but I always remind myself, “in this moment, everything is fine.” I have faith that I am stronger than my anxiety, and that it is no longer welcome here.