In my first year of college I became crippled with anxiety.
When panic attacks took over I was unable to leave my apartment, sit in restaurants, or be in loud, stimulating places. My heart would race, I would break out in a cold sweat, my vision would narrow, and I would edge nearer and nearer toward fainting or vomiting. Anyone who has suffered the sudden onset of anxiety knows this moment all too well. The experience is visceral and terrifying.
Facing my Fear
I remember very little about my first yoga class except the anxious voice in my head. The internal mantra of “not good enough” rang through my mind. A voice I used to numb away in moments of panic by going straight to sleep but in the midst of a yoga class, I couldn’t escape. For the first time I sat face-to-face with my anxious demons and I survived! The anxiety didn’t kill me as I had previously feared. Laying down for Savasana, the final resting posture, I surrendered into the floor. Layers of stress, fear, and panic melted away. For the first time in a long time, I felt at peace in my body and in my mind.
I don’t remember when I went back to yoga again, but I know I did. I left class knowing I had just met my biggest challenge and my greatest gift. Yoga would eventually teach me that I could experience the depth of my panic, and not only survive but thrive. Meditation would eventually teach me that I could feel my feelings and not run away.
Yoga and Meditation for Anxiety
When an anxiety attack strikes the reptilian part of your brain and limbic system becomes overly stimulated.
When you experience panic you enter an impaired cognitive state and perceive, often unreal, threats which force you into survival mode. This triggers the “fight, flight, freeze” response which hijacks your nervous system. In an instant you become disconnected from the higher, more evolved regions of the brain associated with emotional regulation and strategic thinking. In his book, The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk says, “top-down regulation involves strengthening the capacity of the watchtower to monitor your body’s sensations. Mindfulness meditation and yoga can help with this.”
Yoga emphasizes a combination of breathing practices, physical movements, and meditation. These components help produce states of relaxation and safety and can help become a source of healing for people faced with anxiety. Yoga helps students to develop a relationship with their interior world. They learn that they can tolerate their sensations, befriend their inner experiences, and make new choices. Kolk writes, “in yoga you focus your attention on your breathing and on your sensations moment to moment. You begin to notice the connection between your emotions and your body. You begin to experiment with changing the way you feel…Will focusing on your exhalations produce a sense of calm?”
Achieve greater emotional balance and mental stability.
This helps foster emotional regulation by no longer suppressing your inner experience. If you’re new to yoga, I co-created a special 28-day online program called Yoga for Beginners which you can experience anytime, anywhere, in the comfort of your home. Through this program you will learn the foundational physical movements and breathing techniques found in a yoga practice.
In meditation for anxiety you bring attention to your breath and bodily sensations. This is not very different than yoga except now you are seated rather than moving through a physical pose or posture. This practice can help to down regulate the nervous system. By activating the areas of the brain in the prefrontal cortex associated with executive function and control over worrying or self-referential thinking, anxiety can be significantly reduced. If you’re new to meditation, I recommend starting with a program such as Meditation 101. This is another 28-day program, which I created to introduce you to mindfulness meditation. This program includes breath meditations, a body scan practice, plus supportive practices such as loving-kindness and gratitude which can help you cultivate self-compassion as you learn to navigate the often anxiety inducing stresses of daily life. Experiment with adding a brief yoga and meditation practice to your daily self-care routine and experience the benefits yourself.
“Taking the seat of the witness” – from this seat you have the power to re-enter a state of peace and well-being.
One of the great gifts yoga and meditation provide is the ability to notice and name the sensations of anxiety before they take hold of your nervous system. By developing an increased sensitivity to your bodily sensations, breath, and thoughts you are able to notice your moment to moment experience with greater discernment. If part of you notices that you’re becoming anxious, that means part of you is not caught up in the anxiety! From this place you can pause, turn your awareness to your breath or bodily sensations, and bring yourself back to the present moment.
Yoga and meditation changed my life. Since discovering these practices, I have never experienced a full-blown panic attack again. The skills I learned through yoga and meditation gave me the capacity to experience the onset of anxiety and tools I can use in those moments to calm and soothe myself back to steadiness and presence. My sincere hope is that these practices help change yours too.
To enjoy Meditation 101 or Yoga for Beginners, you can learn more and also receive a free 10-day trial by visiting InnerDimensionMediaTV.com.