I have mentioned in my previous writings, that for the first time, along with my depression, I have been battling debilitating anxiety as well. Hence today’s blog title: Anxiety…a hostile takeover. I am certain this sentiment feels all to familiar to some of you too. Firstly, I wish to discuss the stats relative to anxiety in Canada.
According to Statistics Canada: One in four Canadians (25%) will have at least one anxiety disorder in their lifetime. Anxiety is the most common mental illness in Canada. This surprised the heck out of me!!!
Mood Disorders Society of Canada, describes Anxiety Disorders as….
- Intense and prolonged feelings of fear and distress that occur out of proportion to the actual threat or danger
- The feelings of fear and distress interfere with normal daily functioning
For the purpose of today’s discussion, we are going to focus upon Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).
The MAYO Clinic defines Generalized Anxiety Disorder as, excessive anxiety and worry about a number of events or activities occurring for more days than not over a period of at least six months with associated symptoms, such as fatigue and poor concentration.
Generalized anxiety disorder symptoms can vary. They may include:
- Persistent worrying or anxiety about a number of areas that are out of proportion to the impact of the events
- Overthinking plans and solutions to all possible worst-case outcomes
- Perceiving situations and events as threatening, even when they aren’t
- Difficulty handling uncertainty
- Indecisiveness and fear of making the wrong decision
- Inability to set aside or let go of a worry
- Inability to relax, feeling restless, and feeling keyed up or on edge
- Difficulty concentrating, or the feeling that your mind “goes blank”
Physical signs and symptoms may include:
- Trouble sleeping
- Muscle tension or muscle aches
- Trembling, feeling twitchy
- Nervousness or being easily startled
- Nausea, diarrhea or irritable bowel syndrome
There may be times when your worries don’t completely consume you, but you still feel anxious even when there’s no apparent reason. For example, you may feel intense worry about your safety or that of your loved ones, or you may have a general sense that something bad is about to happen. – The MAYO Clinic
In my past experience, I struggled solely with depression and thus, with many years of counselling and the creation of a toolkit to help me proactively manage my symptomology, depression, in essence, became “The Devil I Knew.” Anxiety not so much. With the arrival of “The Perfect Storm” in September of 2017 and my subsequent suicide attempt in November of 2017, anxiety had clearly decided it was missing out and that it too would LOVE to join the party! AWESOME, cue the hostile takeover; heart palpitations, hard to breathe, spontaneous body tremors, nausea, overwhelming exhaustion and complete immobilization. All seemingly out of the blue and beyond my control. In a word, BRUTAL. Especially, when one is to be on her mat to lead yoga class in less than thirty minutes, and she is pulled over on the side of the road; shaking uncontrollably, head between knees, heaving cookies, full on basket-case, and thinking, how in the Bleep! Bleep! Bleep! is she going to do this?!!! Which by the way, only serves to exacerbate ALL THE ABOVE to the nth degree!!!
For me, personally, I experience anxiety as a WHOLE BEING INVASION, a possession, in fact, with the line “Exorcise the Demons” singing gleefully in my head. Maybe you can relate?
Fortunately, through yoga and my understanding of the nervous system, I gained clarity on the impetus for my anxiety. During my spectacular, self-implosion of 2017 I had experienced several traumas simultaneously; one after the other, some, my own doing, others, inspired by external influences and simply beyond my control. They hit hard, fast, and mercilessly, cranking the volume up (I am pretty sure sound barriers were broken here) on my sympathetic nervous system…you know the good ol’ FIGHT, FLIGHT, FREEZE response. Until one day, I realized I was moving through my healing and recovery efforts waiting for the next “shoe to drop”, the next trauma to sucker punch me, and now, lucky me, with a nervous system more determined than ever to keep me safe from the BIG, BAD, WORLD. With this epiphany, I also knew exactly what needed to be done. Any guesses? Yeah, you got it, I turned to my tried and true lifesaver, YOGA, or what I playfully refer to as my SUPERPOWER.
What I would like to do now is share three very specific tools with you; tools, I utilize on a daily basis to proactively calm my sympathetic nervous system, ease my overworked mind, and manage my anxiety. Two of which are Pranayamas- yogic breathing techniques- and one, a power-packed restorative yoga pose. And, just a quick clarification, before we continue this discussion; when we are talking about the nervous system, inclusive of the sympathetic nervous system (again, fight, flight, freeze) and the parasympathetic nervous system (rest, restore, and digest), it is not a question of turning the sympathetic off and the parasympathetic on, both are simultaneously functional, rather the goal is to turn the volume down on the sympathetic, so that the parasympathetic system may dominate and work its magic more effectively.
So, let’s get to talking tools. The moment, we feel that first strained breath, that first overenthusiastic beat of our heart, that first hint of a tremor beneath our skin, we have the power within us to take control, to change the trajectory of our anxiety. Does this alone just not have you breathing out in a sigh of relief and self-empowerment? With practice we can change our story and, well, that is really damn exciting!
Firstly, I would like to introduce you to one of my faves. Why is it a fave? It’s super-easy, accessible and we can do it anywhere, anytime, without calling unnecessary attention to ourselves. Meet…Extended Exhalation, yep, just like it sounds; the exhale is purposefully longer than our inhale. Try an inhale-exhale ratio of 2 to 4, 4 to 6, or 6 to 8 count (depending on lung capacity and what feels comfortable); with a pause for 1 count at both the top and bottom of breath; ideally, we set a timer and aim to breathe this way for at least 5 minutes, however if 5 minutes is just not doable, we give ourselves as much time as we can; it will still be beneficial Of note, 8-10 rounds of breath is equivalent to approx. 1 minute. At its completion, allow yourself a moment to simply be present with yourself and receive the experience. Do a little self-inventory; notice your breath, sensation in your physical body, the state of your mind. And then perhaps gift yourself one more full breath in through the nose and a long, letting go sigh out through the mouth. Extended Exhalation is literally at our command; ready to help us slow it all down and invite ease in any given moment.
Up next we have…Bhramari, otherwise known as Bee Breath. Interestingly enough, this is another form of Extended Exhalation, with a twist, or rather a “buzz”. I did not always have a love affair with this breath. Going to share a little story here. The first time I learned Bee Breath, I was in a teacher training; there were 30 of us tucked into the studio, it was cozy and, on the positive side, it made for great acoustics! At the cue of our teacher, we moved into our first round of Bee Breath, and by the end of that first round of Bee Breath, this girl was triggered and went into a full-on panic attack. I had to leave the room and recover. What happened? Well, when I was 11, I fell in a nest of mud wasps, about 5 km from home on a hike…to accurately describe the insanity of it, picture me in a red sweatshirt, so covered in wasps, that you could not see a stitch of the red! I was stung hundreds of times, not kidding, and really freaking lucky I was not allergic- I would not have survived. Even more ridiculous, at the first attempt to extricate me from the nest, and yes, I was screaming my bloody lungs out, my Old English Sheepdog, Sergeant Tibbs, thought I was being attacked by my rescuer; took him down and sent yours truly back into the nest! So yes, it would be fair to say I have a bee phobia. And thus, when the chorus (imagine 30 people making bee noise together!) of Bhramari breath reverberated in said cozy room, well this girl lost it!!! I was catapulted right back into that nest, fighting for my life. The moral of this story: if you have had a similar experience, be mindful, go slowly exploring this breath, as the last thing we wish to do is exacerbate anxiety and panic. Clearly, I have worked through this and been able to embrace Bee Breath in all its buzzing glory.
So, how do we do it? We sit comfortably, we gently close off the ears (the tragus, flaps) with our thumbs, whilst our fingertips rest softly on the head, we close our eyes taking our gaze inward. We then take a breath or two (inhaling through the nose, exhaling through the nose, lips gently closed) to settle in and notice the state of our breath, body, mind, and energy. We then inhale and for the entire length of our exhalation, we make a low- to medium-pitched humming sound in the throat. It is important not to force the length of exhale, as this may have opposite effect, increasing anxiety levels. So, do what feels comfortable. I recommend doing this practice for six rounds of breath and then, keeping your eyes closed, return to your normal breathing. Allow yourself a moment to simply be present with yourself and receive the experience. Again, do a little self-inventory; notice your breath, sensation in your physical body, the state of your mind. And then perhaps gift yourself one more full breath in through the nose and a long, letting go sigh out through the mouth. I may not recommend this particular breath, if you find your anxiety rearing in the line up at the grocery store, unless of course you wish to inspire a Bee Breath Flash Mob- hmmm, now there’s something to think about, BUT where you have the space and privacy to do so this pranayama could make all the difference. Another beneficial perk…
According to Timothy McCall (Yoga International), the noise of Bhramari’s buzzing can drown out the endless mental tape loops that can fuel emotional suffering, making it a useful starting point for those whose minds are too “busy” to meditate.
Last but not least, let’s talk, Yogi crowd favorite, Legs Up the Wall. Here are the logistics: we are going to bring ourselves down to the ground in front of a wall, clear of obstruction, so that our legs may extend up wall. We will begin by bringing our butts to meet the wall first, so that from here we may swing legs gently up the wall. If you have tight hamstrings (upper back thighs) you may need to slide your butt further away from the wall to support your back body. Invite softness into your knees as well. Allow your arms to come to rest comfortably at your sides, just a few inches from either side of your hips. In the case of anxiety, I recommend turning the palms down for further grounding. Additionally, you may choose to place a folded blanket across your pelvis/belly, the added weight can support a greater sense of grounding /connection and feel really wonderful. You may also choose to place a folded blanket beneath your sacral area, that flat space of your lower back, for additional comfort and support. If, in legs up, your feet fall asleep, give your ankles a little roll around or bend through your knees and rest your feet upon the wall for reprieve. Any amount of time in this posture is PURE GOODNESS, however, if you can give yourself 15-20-30 minutes to hang out here, this particular asana is abundant in its benefits. It is believed that once we have been in a restorative pose for at least 15 minutes, we have shifted into the parasympathetic nervous system…we are now resting, digesting, restoring, and rejuvenating; inviting ease and equanimity. STOP, DROP & LEGS UP, as needed.
Anxiety can be downright immobilizing, terrifying at times; I have lived it, breathed it, and been held captive by it. My hope is that today’s stories, offerings, and insights bring a deeper understanding of the capacity we have within ourselves to take charge of our experience, to change our story. That we may, with practice, with mindfulness, with yoga, breath, kind movement, love, compassion and patience, inspire a different experience for ourselves; one of empowerment, of function, of ease, calm, and peace, of hope and possibility, of LIVING!
I will leave you with the simple, wise words of Thich Nhat Hahn…
“Smile, breathe, and go slowly.”
I wish you peace. I wish you well. I wish you whole. WE ARE STRONGER TOGETHER.
With deep gratitude and love. Namaste.