Anxiety is something that affects everyone from time to time. A certain amount of anxiety is normal and part of our genetic make-up; it’s our natural reaction to threat or danger, it’s what kept us alive when we lived with the constant possibility of attack from predators or other tribes. Commonly known as our ‘fight or flight’ response, the body releases hormones like adrenaline, which triggers a number of physiological reactions to ensure we are alert and responsive to danger. Even today, minus the threat of sabre-tooth tigers, high levels of anxiety or panic are considered normal in appropriate situations. It can help us to evade danger and in exam or interview situations it can help us to perform to our highest ability. However, for some people, their fight or flight response can be disproportionate to the level of the present danger. Sometimes, it is triggered when there is no imminent danger at all. Their survival instinct becomes activated, adrenaline and cortisol are released, the senses become heightened, and suddenly the initial trigger is magnified and becomes even more overwhelming. However, unlike in the case of genuine danger, there is no way for the body to release this build up; there is nothing to run away from, nothing to be fought. This is when we get into panic attack territory, this is the point at which we are suffering beyond that which is situationally appropriate, and this is what an anxiety disorder looks like.
I consider anxiety in the same way I consider alcoholism or addiction. An alcoholic can be sober for twenty years, but they do not stop being an alcoholic. I suffered with chronic anxiety and panic attacks for more than six years but I’m not comfortable saying “I used to have an anxiety disorder”, even though it no longer affects my life on a daily basis. I don’t believe it’s something I will ever be ‘cured’ of, I believe that I reached a level of understanding and insight into it and have been able to use skills and strategies to circumvent that road to panic before it begins to build momentum.
A number of years ago, my anxiety was almost constant. I was having not just one, but multiple panic attacks every day. I was exhausted from being in a constant state of unease, I developed insomnia, as I got more and more tired I got more and more clumsy and forgetful, only fuelling the anxiety. I was on medical leave from work under doctor’s orders and even going to the shop around the corner to buy bread or milk was overwhelming. My doctor asked me to try mindfulness. Up to this point I had never even heard of mindfulness. Needless to say, I was extremely nervous showing up for that first session. It was only due to be twenty minutes, we would sit in a cosily lit room, scented with a lavender oil-burner and the facilitator would press play on the tape and we would listen to a track taking us through a mindfulness exercise. The room was too hot, the lavender was burning my nose, it was giving me a headache, the CD was crackling, it was too loud, my ears hurt, I couldn’t stop jigging my legs, I was definitely annoying everyone in the room, they were all looking at me, I know they were, oh god, I was tapping myself on the head, tap tap tap, how long had I been doing that for? Did anyone see me? It’s so hot. I’m sweating, there are big sweaty patches under my arms, gross, is there sweat coming through my shirt anywhere else? How the hell am I going to get out of here and home without anyone seeing that? Someone is laughing in the hall outside the door, it’s so distracting, what are they laughing at? It’s so loud. Do they know what’s going on in this room? Do they know it’s full of crazy people? That’s what they think, isn’t it? I can’t breathe. There’s a lump in my throat. I feel like if I try to take a deep breath a moan will come out so I try not to breathe. My chest hurts. My heart is going too fast, way too fast. I know I won’t pass out because you don’t pass out when your blood pressure is high but I’m dizzy all the same. What if I’m the exception though? What if I do pass out, as fast as my heart is going, as high as my blood pressure is? Jesus, how long has the CD been playing for? What’s that woman saying? Why is she speaking so slowly? I have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing, I missed the instructions, I’m such an idiot, everyone else is able to do it. There’s a hand on my shoulder and I jump a mile. I’m outside of the room. I can’t breathe. I’m dripping in sweat. Am I going to throw up? I’m on the floor. How did I get here? Oh god, there’s no way back now, this is it, it’s happening and they’re all looking. Where will I go from here? Where can I go from here? Someone help me. I can’t do this, I can’t do this, I can’t do this, please, please, please, tap tap tap tap tap, please- there’s moaning, I think it’s me- please help me.
I went back to that group once more, the second time I don’t think I even lasted as long as the first time before excusing myself and having a panic attack in the toilet down the hall. I couldn’t face it a third time. It took a lot of reflection for me to realise why the idea of relaxing was giving me panic attacks; it seemed ridiculous, I hated the ridiculousness of it. That’s the thing about mental illness; it isn’t rational. You want to understand it, you think that if you can see it’s logic then you can begin to combat it, you can form a strategy. I had not expected meditation to make things more difficult, but it turned out that my anxiety didn’t want a spotlight shone on it. The idea of sitting still, in silence, alone with my thoughts was far too much to bare. Given that much attention they might overwhelm me, it felt like looking for trouble.
I had done a little bit of yoga in college. I wasn’t very good. I had a mat, rolled up behind the couch, a layer of dust across the top of it. Alone in the house one day I pulled it out and unrolled it, lined it up perfectly with the lines of the wooden floor; I wasn’t even sure if I remembered anything other than downward dog and child’s pose. I got down on the mat, sat back towards my heels, pressed my hands down on the foam, pressed my forehead into the floor between them. It was like coming back to earth. I hadn’t even realised how untethered I was, suddenly I felt my body on the floor, I knew where I was, I knew I couldn’t fall any further. I was grounded for the first time in years. I felt safe for the first time in years. I cried and the tears ran the wrong way, down to my eyebrows, into my hairline. They pooled on the mat and I rubbed my face in them.
As time went on I began to roll out the mat more and more often. The postures I had learned started to come back to me and I turned to YouTube and Instagram to learn more. This was my meditation. Here was my mindfulness. It was like enough of my brain was occupied with focusing on the physical movement that the rest of my brain could rest and be still. There wasn’t room for focus on the movement, the feeling of my body, the floor beneath me and the anxiety. Yoga became my rest, my comfort, my meditation, my solace, my prayer. In time I began to be able to meditate in stillness for a while after my practise. Last Summer I did a week-long silent Vipassana retreat. Seven full days in total silence, alternating between sitting and walking mindfulness meditation from 7am until 9pm. The woman who did that is not the same girl that walked, terrified and hunched, into that first meditation class. That is the transformative nature of yoga. That is what makes it so powerful.
“Yoga is a powerful vehicle for change. As you build strength, you start to believe in your own potential.” –Tiffany Cruikshank
Yoga brought me back into my body. I gave myself to it, and in turn it gave me back all the things that anxiety took from me. It taught me how to breathe again, how to stand with my back straight and my shoulders back. It taught me to trust that no matter what, I wasn’t going anywhere- I was connected to the earth, I wasn’t going to float away. Likewise, I would not crumble and break, I was solid and I was strong. On top of all of this, it gave me refuge, it was my asylum.
I have experienced first-hand what yoga can do if you give it a chance and that is exactly why I want to bring that potential to everyone. I find it hard to articulate how passionately I feel about it without sounding disingenuous, but there is nothing in the world that fills me with more joy than when I see someone realise that they have found something special within themselves and that it’s yoga that shone a light on it for them. I am never so proud as when someone tells me that they have experienced some sort of change in their life because of yoga. I feel totally humbled by the strength that comes from the unlikeliest of places, from the people who take it and shine in spite of whatever odds may be stacked against them. This is my true pleasure as a teacher.
If you are effected by anxiety and would like to speak to me personally please feel free to contact me, I will help you in any way I can. If the idea of going to a group class is too much perhaps a one-on-one session and some tea and chats would be just what you need.
If you aren’t ready to reach outside for help yet, there are lots of online resources that can help to give you some of the facts, sometimes this in itself can help.