Anxiety. I don’t even like to spell the word out depending on the day (week/month/year) I’m having. The word alone can sometimes trigger a hundred different reactions, none of which are pleasant. Or at least it used to.
A lot has been written about this subject already. I haven’t read all that much because reading about it also had the adverse effect when I was in a particularly anxious phase of my life.
So why do I choose to write about it now? Probably because, on a global scale, a lot of it is going around right now. Many people, due to an unprecedented pandemic, are facing previously never known anxieties, due to health challenges, even death, job loss, home schooling, and the countless other realities we find ourselves in at this time. However, I also write now because I feel save enough again to do so but I am aware it may return any given day, depending on what is happening in my life and I’d like to share the tools that help me when it does.
Especially when I was a teenager, I went through daily attacks, nightly insomnia and when I wasn’t having an actual attack I was just anxious in general. This meant I felt anxious meeting new people, sleeping in strange places, traveling. The symptoms can vary from mild sweating to vertigo, heart racing, to an accelerated metabolism, nausea, and especially, difficulty with breathing. For many years of acute anxiety, I didn’t even want to speak to old friends or family, out of fear they might ask, was my anxiety gone yet. If I answered no, there would be silence or well-intended suggestions for what medications I might want to try and on my part I would experience a slight anxiety attack right then and there or a huge feeling of being a disappointment and/or crazy.
During all of these years and attacks, I tried numerous different techniques to cope, a lot of which worked, if I was experiencing the kind of nervousness you have, when you’re about to speak in front of a lot of people, or an exam, or a difficult conversation ahead. Even when big stuff happens, like when I was living in New York City and September 11th happened. That was fine because that was rational fear, right? Everyone was scared shitless that day and the weeks following. I remember thinking: “This I can handle. For once my fear doesn’t seem crazy because everyone else is scared, too, and we can all have anxiety attacks together. Yeah.”
But when I experienced a full-on anxiety attack, triggered by experiences that really ran the gamut, many of the techniques I knew about failed to calm me down fully. There was the deep breathing but that only helped occasionally and other times, it made me think of how anxious I was even more. There was also a method where you would ask yourself: “Ok, what’s the worst that could happen?” You might imagine how that went, since I usually had several dire circumstances at the ready. Breathing into a bag seems to help some people. To me it always felt worse, like, “hello, already I can’t breathe and now you’re restricting the space?” I think not. The list probably continues.
The good news is, we usually get through the attacks fairly unharmed, even if a little worse for the wear. Eventually the heart beat slows down, we can focus again, the attack is over. But how do we get from here to there and, most importantly, how can we expedite the process, shorten the duration of suffering like a cornered animal? To me, that’s where the rubber hits the road. How can I end this thing in a reasonable amount of time? Heck, I’d’ve signed away all my belongings, if somebody promised to end it within seconds. You may have guessed that never happened and it’s not that easy…it’s actually really fucking hard to face the regular stress that life throws at us on top of being a person whose mind processes most everything through the “I-can’t-do-it, I’m-too-scared” filter. Corona has not helped this matter by the way.
During these times, I frequently felt like I was living a double life. One like everyone else: “My rent went up, now what?” “How can I get my kid through school? I have so much to do today!” Then there was the second life: all of the above plus “Oh my God, I cannot move, I’m having palpitations and I need a bathroom. Stat.” I know I make it sound funny. It can be when it’s done but until then, quite frankly, you cannot imagine anything worse than what you’re experiencing at that moment. If you’ve lived through it, I know you read me.
I think that’s why I love but also wonder about the lululemon claim where they hashtag: “do something that scares you every day!” I’m like, “um, I got up this morning, does that count?” For real though, what if I am having an attack or an anxious period in my life? How do I get through it more quickly and with less feeling of trauma? In one question: WHAT CAN I DO?
I want to point out that I am not a medical expert, that I don’t have formalized medical knowledge to back up the suggestions I am about to make. These are just strategies I personally developed and that worked for me-not all the time but many times. So please, if you are experiencing a debilitating amount of anxiety (and only you can decide whether that is the case for you), panic attacks or whatever form your fear and or/trauma takes on, and especially if it interferes with living your life, seek out the help that is available through doctors and other health care practitioners. They have a much wider variety of professional tools as well as medicines than I could ever provide in a blog piece.
Lastly, you may notice how I don’t write anywhere how to prevent an attack from coming on. The truth is, I have only been able to stop it right before it happens but I have not been able to stop the phenomenon all together. I say this because I want this to be an honest story of what I was able to do and what, hopefully, can help you too. This is just me, a yoga teacher who works her way through it, by trial and error-and here’s what I came up with so far:
You might be disappointed reading this one. That doesn’t sound very innovative, does it? Yet here I list it–literally–as the first response. This past year, I have mentioned this in other blog pieces, came as one of the worst in my personal history. For a few months, my attacks returned every day (and night) and I just couldn’t find anything to prevent their onset or make them less intense while they were happening. Alas, I am a lucky little girl. I say little girl because the level at which I could communicate during the attack, was reduced to that of a 10-year old. I have a best friend whom I can call at any time of the day (or night), so that’s what I did. I felt the anxiety coming on (i.e. the fast-paced breathing, etc.) and I dialed her number. Sometimes I was in a public place but at that moment, who cares? So I just said: “I can’t breathe, I don’t know what to do. Please help.” She offered no magic spell, no psycho-babble. All she said was: “Honey, you’re ok. Your life is ok. This has nothing to do with your life right now..”, or something along those lines. It didn’t matter so much anyway. What mattered was, she was there. She heard me, distance was just an illusion. You probably already thought of a person, while you read this (bestie, brother, mom, adult children). Tell Siri to call that person, or speed dial him/her and connect. Feel the connection all through the phone line and know that nothing can happen to you that this person won’t be able to help you with. The most important message will get through to you: YOU ARE NOT ALONE.
2. Safe place
I know we’re not yet able to beam our way to the places we want to be instantly. Nevertheless, our imagination really only has the limits we ourselves create for it, right? Ergo, if you can imagine the worst, which is what an anxiety attack makes you do, chances are your imagination is on fire and you are well able to utilize that talent to the opposite effect! So, when you’ve conjured up the worst-case scenario and it’s causing anxiety, try to step out of the immediate threat matrix and create the safe matrix. This can be a place (actual or imaginary, visited or not yet), a person, a feeling inside you. While reading this, again, you may inadvertently have already begun to browse your files of places and people, am I right? Good for you, you know where or who is safe for you. That’s where you travel in your mind. Think safe, think the word if you have to but imagine yourself as being safe. Because, unless you really are experiencing danger (at which point anxiety would be the only right response because it will get your brain to think of quick solutions to fight or flee), you are.
A few years ago, I had to take an MRI. I wasn’t really nervous beforehand but when it came time to lie down in the half-pipe, my anxiety kicked in with such violence and speed that I didn’t know what to do. There was a sort of cage in front of my face and I was about to be rolled into what looked like a cremation chamber. I was freaking out. The kind technical assistant gave me a little red button to press, in case I needed to abort the mission and asked me if I was ok. I was not but I knew the results were important. There I was, loud tapping noises in my ear and all I can think of is how the hell I can get out of here but still get the scans to take with me when I leave. I began to think of news headlines. I remembered, B.K.S. Iyengar had passed away the previous day. Then I thought that Iyengar seemed like a pretty tough cookie. Then I thought, I wish I could be more like Iyengar. Then I figured Iyengar would do a pranayama right now and before I knew it, I started to count my breath. I’m not kidding, by the time it was over, I had almost fallen asleep. I had substituted my thoughts of anxiety with a news headline, followed by several other thoughts and in my case ended in a breathing technique but maybe yours would be even more thoughts. I know in yoga we want to let thoughts just pass like clouds in the sky and that’s exactly what I did. Didn’t get attached to any single one just kept picking them up, looking at them for a moment, then dropping them back down again. The whole aim being to substitute whatever thought came up for those fearful ones, without judging the kind of thoughts I was having. It really didn’t matter, anything but fear, I guess!
I know I said deep breathing seemed hard to do, which is why I looked to my pranayama practice for several solutions. If you’re an experienced yogi, you’ll have encountered some of these, I hope. If one didn’t work, I went on to the next one, until I found relief and it always came eventually…and with a little help from my friend: the timed breathing:
This one’s the easiest one. Come to a comfortable position. By that I don’t mean what we usually mean, the whole upright position, sitting on the floor, dadadada. That is great but while having an attack on the subway, you’ll have to improvise. So, sit/stand in any way you are able to and start counting your breath in for 4 counts, out for 4 counts, in for 4 and out. These don’t have to be full seconds, just count as well as you can and stay focused on the counting. Keep going with that. I don’t recommend breath retention at this stage unless it comes naturally to you. When I was having an attack, the tendency to hold my breath was already overwhelming, so it wasn’t helpful. Once the breath slows down and you notice a gap between the breaths, by all means, great.
The other common breathing technique I incorporated was–in some ways–even simpler: I breathed in through the nose, letting the breath travel as far upward as I could manage, even expanding the rib cage and then exhaled through the mouth to the sound of “hah”. If you’re in a public place, you can still do this without your mouth opened to a comfortable width. Just do it a few times until you feel something new arising. Feel the new energy (remember new as in it has nothing to do with the anxious, old energy!) coming in and let go of the used-up energy. With every exhale, you’re letting go of nervousness, your body is doing it for you. It naturally knows how when we give it the space to do so. There are countless more techniques but these two have served me well.
- Dynamic meditation
During calmer periods, meditation has been really great to stay somewhat centered and to dive deeper into my inner world. I’m pretty sure it’s made me an overall friendlier person too. Nevertheless, when I was experiencing an acute panic attack or just the hint of it, sitting still just wasn’t an option. Being still was hands-down the last thing I wanted/could do at that moment. I remember finding Savasana even challenging during these times. That’s where my Kundalini practice came in really handy. In Kundalini, even if you’re inexperienced in this yoga style, there are tons of so-called kriyas (cleansing techniques) you can do. Though you are moving, I felt very meditative during many of these. The most basic and still one of my favorites are the Sufi-circles. You just come to an easy cross-legged position and start circkling your upper body, while the hips stay grounded to the floor. Just keep stirring and stirring the batter with your spine, if you will and notice how soothing this circular motion can feel. Switch directions when you feel the impulse to do so.
Again there are tons of other Kriyas and also dynamic meditations in this and other yogic practices. Find something that works for your body and state of mind at the time you need it.
- Mantra chants
I’ve often said that music has saved my life on multiple occasions and it has. Whether it is Snatam Kaur or Snoop Dogg, listening to my favorite music has been an incredible healer. So it comes as no surprise maybe that singing along to your favorite mantras or even singing by yourself can be the ultimate soother. If you’re on one of those music streaming services like itunes or Spotify, there are thousands of artists and playlists to choose from. One of my favorites, because she sang fairly fast and stayed in the same tone the whole time (easy to follow), was Deva Premal. But I also love the angelic voice of Jo, of Edo & Jo as well as Nirinjan Kaur’s Adi Shakti meditation. Have any of your favorites downloaded to your smartphone (so you don’t need wi-fi!) and slip on the headphones whenever you feel you need to find speedy comfort.
I do hope one or more of these strategies is helpful to you. What are some of the tried-and-true methods you’ve been applying? I’d love to hear from you and thanks for reading!