Anxiety and Listening: How Yoga Can Help

Anxiety and Listening - How Yoga Can Help.jpg

Let’s face it. Anxiety is the pits. An estimated 40 million Americans - roughly 18% of the population - suffer from an anxiety disorder. Anxiety is a painful state of sympathetic arousal that causes increased heart rate, feelings of pressure or tightness in the chest, shortness of breath, flashes of red hot heat, dizziness, racing thoughts, chronic muscular tension particularly in the jaw, neck and back, gripping and burning sensations in the stomach, inability to concentrate, and a desperate search for relief. Margaret Wehrenberg puts it well when she says: “What is it about anxiety that’s so horrific that otherwise high-functioning people are frantic to escape it? The sensations of doom or dread or panic felt by sufferers are truly overwhelming – the very same sensations, in fact, that a person would feel if the worst really were happening.” 

I have been hospitalized for anxiety no less than 8 times. I have spent close to two full years of my life as a resident at various inpatient facilities. These were safe spaces where I am grateful to have received incredible care and to have found healing to the extent that I can live freely and independently today. I remain particularly grateful to The Center for Posttraumatic Disorders in Washington, D.C. My stay there marked the beginning of a brand new life for me. I am also happy to share that since I started practicing yoga, I have learned how to manage my anxiety and I have never been hospitalized since.

I am not sharing this post because I wish to draw attention to myself. I am sharing these words simply in the hope that it can reduce some of the stigma around mental health issues – PTSD, depression, anxiety, addiction, alcoholism, all of which I have been diagnosed with at one time or another. I am living proof that recovery is possible and worth it.

When we are anxious, the very last thing we want to do is to tune in and listen to what we are feeling. All we can think about is finding a way to make it stop. Ignoring the messages our bodies are sending us is a survival strategy. The urgency of our need for relief can send many of us running for years. Sarah Peyton writes the following:

“Anxiety can eat a person alive. There is the gnawing sense that something is amiss, just under the surface of consciousness… It is a low-level sensation-wrapped irritation that is exhausting to live with and that some people endure for years or even decades. Once bodies are slowed down enough so that their voices can really be heard, the discovery can be made that they are trying to take care of us.” 

Yoga is one way that has helped me to slow down, to reconnect with my body, and to care about what it is trying to say to me. Yoga has taught me how to use my breath to self-regulate. It’s taught me how to tolerate discomfort and at a visceral level it has helped me to understand the meaning of “This too shall pass.” My yoga practice provides me with a physical opportunity to face and overcome my fears. It has allowed me to feel deeply at home inside of my body instead of feeling like it is a dangerous, unknown, erratic, unpredictable and untrustworthy land filled with booby traps and land mines. Most of all, yoga has taught me how to listen.

For the last 7 months, my stomach has felt like it is filled with battery-acid more or less most of the time. I’ve learned enough over the years to recognize that when anxiety surfaces with intensity like this, it is inviting me into the next phase of healing. It is ushering in a period of change and growth. I know I cannot do it alone, and so I reach out and surround myself with a team of support.

Each of us is unique. And for anyone suffering from anxiety, its roots are unique and often veiled beneath our conscious understanding. Underneath my anxiety is heartbreak. Underneath the burning sensations in my stomach are a profound sadness and whole-body grief accompanied by the exhaustion of carrying these feelings alone for so many years. When I really listen to what my anxiety is trying to tell me, I am reminded to have enormous compassion and respect for myself. In the instant of recognition, I often feel immensely tired. I finally give myself permission to rest and I become very gentle with myself. I allow myself to go as slowly as I need.

I respect my body for its unerring ability to hold me to the truth. My body speaks to me sometimes quietly and sometimes loudly. Yoga is one way of paying close attention. To me, true listening means abandoning any agenda of fixing. If my guts feel like they are being singed and seared by a kind of constant low-grade electrical shock, I’ve learned I need to slow down and to listen to what they are trying to say to me without any hope of changing the situation, without any urgency about making the unpleasant sensations go away. Only when I welcome them, when I make room for them, when I listen with incredible warmth and tenderness, do these sensations begin to morph and shift and reveal their true make-up to me. Just offering this quality of listening to myself usually helps to cool and soothe me. I am not truly listening if I already think I know what is right for another person. And the same is true when I listen to my own body. It has an intelligence of its own. 

There is a saying that time heals all wounds. In my experience, this is not true. Trauma and loss remain as painful and heartbreaking to me today as they did when they originally happened. But I have found that my heart has grown large enough to be able to contain these experiences and to continue to beat. If anything it has made me more fully alive. I have found that grief does not preclude me from joy, from intimacy, from friendship, from play, from peace, and most importantly from giving and receiving love. 

Teaching yoga is challenging in that the very thing it asks of me – to put myself in an exposed and vulnerable position in front of other people, one in which I am open to their feedback and judgment – is one of the most difficult and scary things for me! Any given class, or let’s face it, even any simple post or e-mail announcing a class, can trigger those old voices of shame and set my anxiety in motion. I am an introvert and this extroverted role has me constantly playing my edge. I am grateful that yoga has given me the courage to act in spite of my fear. I feel the fear almost every time I teach and yet I get up there and do it anyway. Yoga has been so pivotal in my own personal healing that I feel compelled to share it. What keeps me moving forward in spite of the fear is the ability to be kind to myself. This quality of tenderness - of radical self-acceptance, the deep understanding of how to care for myself and to honor my unique needs - is my greatest companion on the healing journey. It is this warmth and gentleness that has quite literally saved my life. If I were to write a mission statement as a yoga teacher it would be this: to provide a safe space for others to discover and nurture this quality of warmth and gentleness within themselves. 

Learning how to care for ourselves often requires us going against the grain of our familial, social or cultural conditioning. This can feel scary and uncomfortable. But yoga has taught me how to tolerate the uneasiness that so often accompanies real change. Yoga requires honesty and I am grateful for the way it hones this quality in my life. Sometimes being honest with ourselves is not easy and it means risking disappointing people that we care about. This can be extremely nerve-wracking. For example, I know that people who talk more than they listen, who dominate conversations, or who talk at me do not feel safe to me. I will never truly be able to let down my guard around them. I know that no matter my affection for them, I am exhausted and depleted after I spend time with them. And I’ve learned it is ok for me to minimize my exposure to these kinds of people during my personal time. I pay very close attention to how I feel in the company of others and when they leave I take time to notice whether I feel uplifted and lighter or depleted and exhausted. Life is short. Our time on earth is limited and precious. And the people I love deeply matter enormously to me. I have a huge family, I have an amazing partner, and there are only a finite number of relationships that I believe we can wholly nurture and give ourselves to. One of the ways I am gentle with myself is by honoring my needs and my truth with regard to relationships. In my teacher trainings, this is something we talk about a lot as I believe it is key to longevity in this field. The following line from Donna Farhi is etched permanently in my mind: “I have learned that an inability to create, sustain, and if necessary defend clear boundaries is a major cause of exhaustion, illness and burnout. Often teachers feel guilty that they have human limits – physical, emotional, and psychic limits.” I am grateful to my anxiety because I recognize that it functions in my life as a kind of radar sending out warning signals when I am getting off track and have forgotten to honor and respect my own limits.

Figuring out what we are sensitive to, what sends our bodies into high alert, can help us to make pro-active choices about how to best take care of ourselves. My triggers are unique to me. Heavy breathing, counting during pranayama, crowded spaces, loud voices and background noises are difficult for me and can cause feelings of panic. This makes attending a group yoga class a little bit tricky! Or flying on airplanes. This is not to say that I won’t go to yoga classes or travel or attend a movie or a festival. But I don’t need to ask myself to play my edge all the time. It is important to be able to face our fears but it is important also not to demand that we are out there getting boiled alive 24/7. Rest and self-care are absolutely HUGE for all of us. I’ve learned how to make these non-negotiable. And we can do small things to take care of ourselves. Like splurging for a pair of Bose noise-cancelling headphones before an overseas flight. And we can do big things too. Moving to Deer Isle was a generous act of self-care for me. A slower, simpler way of life with access to the outdoors has been so helpful to me in terms of living more freely and listening more deeply. I find that Grace rushes in to bless and affirm us when we take a leap of faith and make these kinds of bold choices. Kerry is a gift of Grace. I saw him at the Burnt Cove market within my first week of moving here and I knew in an instant that my heart had found a human home. I am grateful to have many places of refuge in my life today - Kerry’s big, broad chest, my yoga mat, the mossy forest, my family, my beloved dogs Gabriel and Mr. Two-Bits, my Faith, and the sun-warmed rocks at water’s edge.

Wishing you all comfort and peace.