November 29, 2015
Anxiety at its best keeps us out of harm’s way. Anxiety at its worst keeps us in a kind of psychological prison. Anxiety is necessary to our survival as human beings. It alerts us to danger and equips us for avoiding it. Anxiety helps keep us safe. When anxiety alerts us to a threat, our stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol primarily, start to pump at increasing rates. Our eyes dilate so we can scan our surroundings quicker. Our breathing becomes more rapid so we can sprint. We are on guard. Just like our animal friends, our autonomic nervous system is preparing us for fighting, for running, or for standing completely still. Unlike our animal friends, however, our brains do not shut off the anxiety “valve” when a threat leaves. Sometimes it goes off even when an actual threat never existed. Add to that our emotional brain cannot distinguish between a lion chasing after us to satisfy its hunger, and the boss breathing down our necks to meet an important deadline. The brain and the body respond the same regardless of the event.
Think on this a bit more. How often do we really find ourselves running from lions? Now think about how often we deal with deadlines. And jammed stores during the holidays. And people who cut us off in traffic. And bad hair days. Add to that the memories of painful times. Of loss. Of embarrassment. Of shame and guilt. As humans, most of us stay in some state of fight or flight most of our days. Marinating in that kind of stress for long periods of time has very negative side effects. It takes a mental, as well as physical, toll.
Our physical body was not meant to carry this amount of anxiety for such long stretches of time. Sadly, we are not taught “mental hygiene”. Dental hygiene, yes. Mental hygiene, not so much. Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Sat Bir Khalsa states, “When you went through high school, you were never taught how to deal with stress, how to deal with trauma, how to deal with tension and anxiety…We know how to prevent cavities. But we don’t teach children how to be resilient, how to cope with stress on a daily basis.”
Enter the practice of yoga. The practice of yoga postures and breathing has proven to be for many of my clients to be as effective as any kind of medication. I am not against medication for anxiety. Anti-anxiety drugs have been the strategy of choice for many attempting to calm anxiety. Xanax, Ativan, and the like, have their place. The first line of defense I prefer for controlling anxiety, however, is yoga. Its practice has an increasing amount of scientific research to back it up. And lucky for us in the CSRA, we have a number of excellent instructors and studios that can guide us through very effective and non-narcotic approaches to controlling anxiety.
Yoga is an excellent tool for combatting unhealthy levels of anxiety. It’s a remarkable strategy for managing moods, in general. The practice of yoga focuses on the body’s movements and the body’s breathing. A popular belief in yoga is that it increases the amount of oxygen that enters the body. That’s not quite true. What it does do, however, is limit the amount of carbon dioxide our body lets go of thereby helping the oxygen we do have in our system to work more efficiently. That is the key to increasing calm.
In a nutshell, here’s how it works: During a typical, let’s say, beginner’s yoga class, you will move through different poses or postures. In a basic class, you are more apt to move through these sequences at a slower pace. For people with anxiety, this is a good thing because your muscles, although responding to some stress, are not over stimulated. The body’s movement requires more breathing; however, most of the breath work in yoga encourages deeper, controlled breathing. This helps the body engage its psychological “brake”, or the parasympathetic nervous system. It says to the body, “Yes, the muscles are engaged. Yes, they feel pushed, but you are okay. All is well. You are not running from a lion. Chill.”
While you are focused on your breathing and the movement of your body, guess what you are not focused on? All of the things that got you anxious in the first place. We call this “mind chatter” or “monkey brain”. In AA, it is sometimes called “stinkin’ thinkin’”. Whatever you call it, this kind of self-talk places emphasis on our fight or flight response keeping us in a state of high stress and anxiety. Yoga keeps our focus on the here and now. It encourages us to move through our mind chatter both physically and mentally resulting in our levels of adrenaline and cortisol to lower. That’s a very good thing.
Yoga is known for making people physically flexible. Yoga also helps make us emotionally flexible. In my line of work, this is critical to a client’s overall mental health. Yoga shows us how to build tolerance for feeling a range of emotions. For those of us with anxiety, that is of significant importance as high levels of anxiety can make us believe we are doomed, unworthy, unattractive, unloveable, and/or weak. Increasing our mental tolerance helps us recognize these feelings are fleeting, that they are built upon memories and/or misconceptions. Yoga shows us we are in control.
As a registered yoga instructor, and a licensed professional counselor, I incorporate yoga postures and breathing into my counseling sessions frequently. Clients are amazed at how quickly relief comes after we move through a short series of breathing and moving sequences. They report feeling better quicker with breathing practices than with medication. It’s amazing to watch and quite an honor. That’s why I end most of my counseling sessions the way I end my yoga classes…by saying “Namaste”…the light in me honors the light in you. Take that, anxiety!