While the strategies in the previous post are ways to regulate in-the-moment when we pop into anxiety and the fight or flight response (sympathetic nervous system), in order to prevent these situations from continuing to happen we can make larger shifts in our lives. Whenever making changes to our lives, it is important to take small steps changing one thing at a time so as not to overwhelm ourselves and inadvertently sabotage our efforts. By shifting things slowly over time we can build on our successes. You may or may not being doing some or all of these things already. Perhaps consider adding one or part of one slowly over time.
We all have experienced anxiety at one time or another, whether preparing for a test, prior to a presentation at work, or on our first day of a new experience. We may feel a keyed up sensation in our body, our heart may race, our breathing may be short, and our thoughts may run quickly through our minds. When we experience anxiety, our autonomic nervous system has most likely picked up on a potentially dangerous situation and is letting off of the vagal brake (see previous two blog posts for details on what this means) to prepare us to fight or flee if necessary. Thus, inherently, anxiety is not a bad thing; it is our body and brain’s way of alerting us to pay attention. Anxiety becomes pathological, in other words a diagnosable condition, when it becomes a regular occurrence, interferes with our functioning, and we meet certain other symptom criteria. Essentially, when our anxiety is out of control and is no longer helping us it can be helpful to try some skills to address it.
In helping people with their anxiety, I see two main ways to target it: (1) Short term distress tolerance strategies to help with anxiety in the moment (what some experience as anxiety attacks and others as panic attacks), (2) Shifting ones lifestyle to create more safe-enough spaces for regulation and health.
Perhaps with a greater sense of how our autonomic system works (see previous blog post) we can shift towards understanding how to help ourselves regulate. As before, it is important to understand that our autonomic nervous system uses a process called neuroception to interpret our experience within our environment and then determines which of the three autonomic states is needed. What I find so essential about this is that it happens outside of our conscious awareness. That is, we do not choose our state so there is no shame in what our brain and body choose to do; it just happens based on our experience (i.e., our perceptions of it) and how our brain interprets it.
This is an exciting time in the fields of mental health and neuroscience. We are beginning to better understand how the brain and the body work with greater refinement as technology evolves. Through Stephen Porges’ work with the vagus nerve, we have a greater understanding of how our bodies respond to our world automatically, outside of conscious awareness - that is, from our autonomic nervous system which involves the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
The Vagus Nerve - A Brief Overview
The vagus nerve is the tenth cranial nerve and is responsible for a number functions in the body. In terms of how we interact with our world, the vagus nerve controls the parasympathetic nervous system, sometimes referred to as “the relaxation response”. We now know that there are actually two parts to the parasympathetic nervous system. One helps us engage socially in a relaxed manner and the other shuts down our system to protect us in the event of perceived life threatening danger.
I love that so many are trying to be positive and connect with the positive these days. And I would like to encourage us to authentically feel our feelings. To not skip over or suppress them because they are uncomfortable. The grief, despair, fear, anger, sadness, and/or whatever else we may be feeling (including positive emotions) is real. It is through sitting with and working with these feelings that we will be able to come out strong on the other side. It is through our work that we will resolve our feelings so that they don't later seep into our lives seemingly without our control or even understanding. It is okay to feel what you feel now, whatever that is, knowing that the discomfort is temporary and necessary for life, love, and change. Give yourself permission to do what you need to do when you are ready.
We can't save everybody. When we try, we fail. Once we know that, we begin to say "no" more and set boundaries so that we can focus our efforts on those close to us (priorities) and those we choose to help (in my case, my clients and agencies to which I donate money and sometimes time). Sometimes this pisses people off because they aren't used to hearing "no" or expect us to say "yes" for whatever reason. And, none of this has to do with us. Yes, we are all connected. And yes, it is important to support each other. And of course, there are many sad stories out there. But it is equally important to allow people to have their own journey and to not enable them so that they do not have to experience pain or discomfort because without that pain or discomfort, life lessons are missed. That is, each time we enable we take away someone's learning opportunity. And this too, pisses people off because it's uncomfortable and not what some want. It makes people be responsible and accountable and take a deep look at themselves. This doesn't mean we don't care or don't have compassion, it actually means we do... That we allow people to experience their own life in a way they can grow. We can still be there for them, but not by taking away the discomfort or pain, but by holding space for their journey, by loving them unconditionally, by listening, and if we know them well enough, by gently planting the seeds of change as they are ready for them. To me, this is what it is to be a helper, to care, to love, and to hope.
I feel so free. I feel that my life is my own again. Who would have thought that waking up an extra 45 minutes early and doing something I love (practicing yoga asana) and leisurely eating breakfast afterwards (instead of scarfing down oatmeal while driving to work) would cause such a shift.
Instead of work being the focus of my life, as in "gotta get up and get ready for work" or "gotta get home so I can get to bed before work in the morning", work is now just part of my day. It is just one of the many fulfilling things I do. This in and of itself has lowered my stress considerably. It has made me feel as though I have my life back, that I am truly working to live instead of living to work. That's not to say that I'm not living or enjoying life when I'm working; I love what I do. Certainly those moments are as important as any other. It's just that time spent at work is not really play… it's work.
I have also noticed significant freedom in my body. The Yoga Sutras are clear that we need a consistent, steady practice over a long period of time. Knowing this and having practiced yoga for six years I cognitively understood that practicing even just a little bit each day (instead of 2-3 longer practices per week) would lead to greater shifts in my body and beyond. So I guess it's neither surprising nor profound that my flexibility has increased significantly in just three weeks. However, I'm still amazed. It is amazing how quickly things shift when we focus our attention. It's amazing that with this new found flexibility in my body, I am more physically comfortable in asana practice, in meditation, and off my mat; my ability to be more present, to live more fully has expanded. Who knew?
The answer to that is, I did. I knew. We yogins all knew and have always known. And yet, the shifts are profound. The effort is worth it. Yoga truly does give time; it gives life. Roll out your mat and just do it!
I love alignment. As a student I love the stability and ultimately the freedom I feel in shifting my bones to their true natural anatomical positioning from whatever has brought them out of it throughout my day. As a teacher I love seeing a student’s own body in alignment with their own anatomy. This excites me for many reasons.