Anxiety in a modern world
Some level of anxiety is a natural response to environmental stressors. It keeps us focused and safe. But when feelings of anxiety become overwhelming or unmanageable they can begin to take a toll on many different aspects of our lives. There are four standard recommendations to treat anxiety: talk therapy, medication, exercise, and yoga. For many of us, a combination of these approaches can be very effective.
Just as certain medications might work better for you than others, or certain therapists seem to understand you better than others, your yoga practice must to be a good ‘fit’ to be most effective. Yoga is commonly misunderstood to be just a physical practice of stretching and strengthening your body. The physical postures of yoga are important but they are only one tool of a toolbox full of healing practices. A thoughtfully created yoga practice will include a unique combination of physical postures, breathing techniques, meditations, chanting/mantra, lifestyle recommendations, and in some cases even learning about yoga philosophy.
Yoga therapists look at their clients holistically, addressing their physical body, breath/energy, state of mind, behavior, and emotions. For example, you might stub your toe on a chair in your house. Immediately you feel pain in your physical body. Your breathing might get shallow and quick. Your mind might begin to race thinking “That chair isn’t supposed to be there. Who is responsible for this?”. You might then behave in a way you normally wouldn’t and shout out to your family “Who left this chair in the middle of the room?!” And when nobody answers, you might storm away feeling angry. This simple example illustrates how stubbing your toe can quickly throw you out of balance in our body, breath, mind, behavior, and emotions. Below I will explore how anxiety effects each of the different areas.
Physical symptoms of anxiety
For many of us, anxiety shows up in our bodies in the form of muscle tension, especially in the neck, shoulders, and back. Anxiety might make you feel restless, or maybe it’s exhausting and you feel tired a lot. Some of us unknowingly clench our jaws, which can lead to headaches and dental issues. Pain in your body can create anxiety – and anxiety can certainly create tension and pain in your body. It can be a troubling cycle that we feel trapped in.
Asana (“AH-sa-na”) or yoga postures are the most commonly used yoga tool for the physical symptoms of anxiety. When a client is experiencing pain or tension of any kind, we want to first release the tension with carefully designed poses that address the areas of pain and/or tension. Depending on where you carry your tension, a thoughtfully designed yoga practice will bring relief to the areas you need it most. Once you are out of pain you can begin to build strength and resilience so you can stay out of the loop of pain and anxiety.
Physiological symptoms of anxiety
Physiological symptoms of anxiety show up in how our body functions. For many of us anxiety can cause gastrointestinal (GI) issues like constipation or diarrhea. It can also cause gas, bloating, and nausea. Often anxiety will exacerbate Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). Physiological symptoms of anxiety can also show up in the respiratory and cardiovascular systems of your body in the form of rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, elevated pulse, asthma flare ups, and even panic attacks.
Pranayama (“pra-na-YA-ma”), or breathing techniques, are a simple and effective way to help bring your body’s functioning back into balance. Yoga can directly influence your nervous system, helping you to get out of the cycle of fight or flight. Thoughtfully designed breathing practices send your body messages to rest and digest. When your nervous system is functioning properly you will find that you can digest food easier, breath deeper, and stay calm when it’s time to relax.
Cognitive symptoms of anxiety
There is no doubt that anxiety affects our state of mind. The cognitive symptoms of anxiety show up as a distracted mind, inability to adapt to new situations, forgetfulness, obsessive thoughts, sleep issues, and often anticipating the worst case scenario. It is as though our mind is always racing with worry and we cannot find the ‘off’ switch. It is difficult to know if anxiety effects our thoughts or if our thoughts effects our anxiety. Again, we are in this constant loop of worry we cannot turn off.
Our minds are extremely powerful. Whatever your current state of mind is will determine the perspective from which you see the world. Do you see the world as a friendly or hostile place? Why? Can you change your state of mind and subsequently change your perspective? YES YOU CAN! Meditation is an extremely effective tool for influencing the mind.
Meditation is simply the experience of focusing your mind in one direction. Practicing mediation daily can train your mind to focus more easily so when your anxiety increases you have the tools to stay calm and not let your mind spin out of control with worries. It only takes a few minutes of meditation every day to build new patterns in your mind. Meditation can be done lying down, seated, or even walking. It can be a guided experience, like imagining you are taking a walk in nature. It can be focusing on an object you want to feel more connected to, like a strong tree or a warm sunrise. It can be reciting a simple mantra that is meaningful to you, perhaps an affirmation or just the sound of “OM” or “Amen”. There are countless options for meditation practices, you just have to find one you like.
Behavioral symptoms of anxiety
Living with anxiety is lonely. You might find yourself avoiding people or places that cause you stress. You might withdraw from friends or family. You may notice you are biting your nails or moving erratically, bumping into things or feelings clumsy. Anxiety can increase the volume and rate of your speech, it can show up as compulsive behaviors, hyper vigilance, and even substance abuse. When we are struggling internally, it will eventually show up in our behavior.
Bringing your physical body and your state of mind into better balance will help regulate your behavior. Additionally, the yoga teachings of the Yamas and Niyamas are wonderful tools to better understand your behavior. The Yamas are five guidelines for how we live in the world: (1) Non-violence; (2) Truthfulness; (3) Non-stealing; (4) Moderation, and; (5) Non-greed. The Niyamas are five guidelines for how we treat ourselves: (1) Cleanliness; (2) Contentment; (3) Discipline; (4) Self-study, and; (5) contemplation of a higher power. Traditionally, these ten guidelines were taught to students before they began any postures or meditation because the way we interact with ourselves and the world around us must be in order before we do the deeper practices of asana, pranayama, and meditation.
Emotional symptoms of anxiety
Anxiety takes an emotional toll on us. You might feel sad, overwhelmed, frustrated, and worried. You might experience persistent irritability and even a constant feeling of dread. Emotions are generally a byproduct of what is going on in all of your other systems. If your body is uncomfortable, your energy is low, your mind is racing, and your behavior isn’t reflecting who you really are inside, your emotions will reflect that.
It is difficult to change your emotions while you are having strong feelings. However, you can try to bring in more feelings of gratitude and joy on a consistent basis so those pleasant emotions become more and more familiar. A gratitude journal can remind you about all the good things you have in your life. It can also be helpful to focus on things that bring you joy and spend a little time every day doing things we like. It can be as simple as preparing yourself a favorite cup of tea, sinking into a hot bath, turning off your electronics for 30 minutes, or walking in nature. Think about the simple things that bring you joy and make those a priority in your life.
For more information on yoga therapy or to register for a Yoga for Stress and Anxiety workshop please visit www.bodyandmindyogatherapy.com.