Re-frame and Befriend Anxiety

In our over-stimulating world, our systems responsible for anxiety are being triggered in ways that it was not designed for. For many of us this has led to an increasing frequency and intensity of our body’s anxious response. However, if anxiety can be re-framed in terms of its relationship with the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) we can appreciate its usefulness and regain some control.

The job of the ANS is to scan the environment (both the external and internal environment) for signs of threat or danger. In her book, the Polyvagal Theory in Therapy, Debb Dana describes the ANS as acting like a security system of a house. It is always on guard, scanning all incoming information at a rapid processing level (beyond our awareness) to detect any signs of danger or threat. As soon as threat is detected, the sympathetic response is triggered, and the body’s systems are put into action for fight or flight mode. Here’s where anxiety steps in. What we know to be typical anxiety symptoms (increased heart rate, tight/constricted breathing, hyperventilation, sweating, muscle tension, constricted vision, dizziness, feeling of being outside of oneself) are all normal experiences of the fight/flight response. These symptoms may feel uncomfortable, but they are normal and expected. Our system is getting ready to run, resist, or fight the threat. All of this is important when we need to protect ourselves a dangerous situation.

Unfortunately, those of us with anxiety know that it can sometimes show up without good reason and be detrimental in our functioning. This is because your nervous system can be triggered by false threats the same as it is by real threats. In fact, we humans have such powerfully imaginative minds that the simple act of thinking about a stressful event can activate the fight/flight response in the body. The speedy ANS doesn’t distinguish between a real, immediate threat versus one that you are replaying in your mind from last week or one that you are imagining in the future.

Keep in mind a surge of anxiety symptoms is not really a problem in most cases – the signal comes, we feel it briefly, and assuming there’s no actual danger, our system calms down returning to a regulated state. A problem occurs when the feelings of anxiety are particularly intense or untimely because people can start fearing the anxiety itself. This can lead to a cycle of increasingly frequent and sometimes debilitating symptoms.

Fortunately, we can use mindfulness to interrupt this spiral. If we can monitor our wandering minds when they drift to stress-provoking memories or imaginational stories, we can redirect our minds to the safe present moment, quelling the nervous system’s threat response. Therefore, when we feel that fear of an anxious response rise up, we can turn it into cue to return our thinking to the present moment. Take a couple of breaths, bring your mind back to a task, feel your feet on the ground, be present.

We can also acknowledge, that while the acute symptoms of anxiety are not comfortable, they are completely safe. Getting familiar with how your anxiety feels and welcoming the multitude of sensations is an important part of integrating it into your life. We can learn to accept the feelings of anxiety, and even befriend them.

The reality is, no amount of resisting, avoiding, or pushing away your body’s response to anxiety is helpful in the moment; it will just fire up the nervous system’s protective response even more. Alternatively, you can take a breath and say, “Thanks nervous system for alerting me, I realize you are just trying to protect me, but I’m okay right now.” We can observe and accept anxiety with a sense of curiosity and non-judgment. Rather than labeling your anxiety as “bad” or “unwanted,” observe it as a natural response to a perceived threat or stressor and use your mindfulness to determine whether that response is to something imagined or real.

 

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Parallel in Yoga Therapy and Counselling – a Strengths-based Approach

I love doing yoga therapy. I have been a yoga therapist for many years now and I’ve had much success in helping my clients progress in their mental health problems. I also love doing counselling work which is why I went back to school to become a registered counsellor. During my educational training for counselling, I needed to contemplate and develop my preferred therapeutic style. What I learned is there is a common thread that binds my approach in yoga therapy to my preferred orientation in counselling and this is through the strengths-based paradigm.

In the realm of mental health and personal growth, the traditional problem-focused approach in counseling has long been the norm. However, many mental health professionals are recognizing the power of the strengths-based approach in fostering positive change and empowering individuals. Rather than solely focusing on deficits and difficulties, this approach centers around uncovering and harnessing an individual’s innate strengths, skills, and resources. When the spotlight is shifted to a person’s strengths, they are empowered to take ownership of their personal growth journey and overcome challenges in a unique and meaningful manner.

Yoga therapy is typically an adjunct therapy to counselling and is unique in its interventions through the implementation of yoga postures, breathing exercises, meditations, and other yoga based practices for symptom management and relief. In my opinion, one of the significant pieces to the healing that occurs in yoga therapy is the clarity individuals gain when given an opportunity to be in a setting where their mind is calmed and they get a chance to connect to their bodies. During these moments, insight often emerges and I hear statements of certainty about what needs to be done to help themselves heal. The client’s plan for healing is completely self-generated; my role is to simply facilitate the inquiry and promote the setting for the client to make this connection, and in this way, a strengths-based orientation is in play.

Central to the strengths-based approach is the idea of empowerment, and this is where the two disciplines merge. In both yoga therapy and a counselling of this style, the client is encouraged to trust that what presents true and important to them through self inquiry is where the focus is placed. In a strengths-based approach clients are encouraged to recognize their unique capabilities, past successes, and existing resources to tackle challenges. In yoga therapy, empowerment emerges when a client discovers they have the answers within themselves and realize this potential. Both bolster confidence and self-efficacy for one’s healing journey and equip an individual with the resilience needed to face future challenges.

In a world that often magnifies weaknesses and problems, the strengths-based approach offers a refreshing perspective that empowers individuals to harness their innate potential. In doing yoga therapy, I have seen its tremendous benefit towards self-realization and meaningful transformation. I look forward to further connecting to this orientation in my practice of counselling therapy.

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Interrupting the Wandering Mind is Helpful for Depression


Research is proving, a wandering mind is not a happy mind. A study done by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert found that 47% of the time, people were thinking about something other than what they were actually doing, and regardless of whether the wandering thoughts were positive or negative in nature, the more thinking time spent out of the present moment related to greater unhappiness (Killingsworth, M. and Gilbert, D., 2010). Considering these results and the increasing prevalence of depression and other mood disorders, it makes sense we learn strategies to interrupt and steer our wandering minds. Yoga and mindfulness can help you get there.

You might be wondering what is so bad about a wandering mind. For this, consider where your thoughts go when left to wander. The mind ruminates on past events; it elaborates in self-evaluation, comparing, and judging; it daydreams and imagines future scenarios (often negative); and it assigns stories to experiences. Wandering minds jump from direct experience into elaboration – taking you from the present moment into the past, future, or fantasy. As much as this can contribute to creativity, when left unchecked, the wandering mind develops habits of analyzing and projecting negatively towards ourselves and others, making it a very unhealthy addiction.

So, if being lost in our thoughts is making us unhappy, it is important to learn ways to lessen the mind’s natural inclination towards wandering. Ultimately this is about interrupting the moments when we get lost in thought and learning how to redirect ourselves back to the immediate experience, in other words, becoming more mindful. We can do this by accessing our senses – take a couple deep breaths and feel the sensation of the breath moving, smell the air, scan your environment, feel the weight of your feet on the ground, etc. We can also do this by immersing ourselves in the states of creative flow, choosing activities where we are totally absorbed into the experience of the activity, e.g., music, dance, art, gardening, etc.

In yoga and meditation, we practice embodied mindfulness, which is particularly helpful for interrupting the wandering mind. Embodied mindfulness is simply being aware of body experiences as they happen, and we learn to do this without narrating, evaluating, or judging what we are sensing. By noticing what you feel in your body, we teach ourselves to come back to the present moment through the internal sensations, heightening our interoceptive abilities. Embodied mindfulness also helps us build emotional resilience (Bo Forbes, The Neuroscience of Depression (boforbes.com). Regularly checking in to what you notice in your body, without needing to control, change or fix what we feel, gives space for the emotions to be there and helps them move in our bodies, and this can interrupt a cycle of rumination or feelings getting “stuck”.

Try these practices to strengthen your mindfulness skills and “rein-in” the wandering mind:

  1. Body-based Check-ins: Embodied mindfulness is a skill that can be practiced and it doesn’t have to be reserved to yoga class. You can do a couple minute practice anytime in your day.

    Start by settling your attention inwardly (it is helpful to close your eyes) and sense what you notice in your body (without the need to interpret, control, change or fix what it is that you feel). E.g., Do you have tension anywhere? How does your breath feel? Are there any feelings or emotions present and where do you feel this in your body? Are there any other sensations are present in your body and where? If at any time, you come across difficult feelings, see if you can meet them with self compassion. Try breathing into the feeling and notice how it shifts and changes over time.
  2. Mindfulness Meditation with Mental Labeling: In this style of meditation, you are developing the brain’s capacity to recognize when it has wandered off and to learn your habits of what types of thoughts you are ruminating on (giving you insight). Lastly, it gives you practice to how to let go of thoughts.

Find a comfortable seat, set a timer for 5-10 minutes, and close your eyes (or cast your gaze downwards if preferred). In the meditation you aim to keep your mind steady on one thing, usually the feeling of your breath somewhere in your body, and whenever your mind wanders away, the mind can be recruited to briefly step in and label the type of thought you’re having. For example, you can say “obsessing over details” or “negative self-judgment” or “revisiting the past”, and then you return your focus to back to your breath. This is repeated every time you notice your mind has wandered simply as an act of recognition. Don’t be discouraged if you repeatedly do this, that’s totally normal and it’s the important part of the training.

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Adhi Mudra for Anxiety

A mudra is a specific position of the body most often involving the hands and fingers which is used to symbolically channel the body’s energy flow for a desired effect or intention.

Adhi translates to “first” because this is the first mudra we do prenatally. It is a self-soothing gesture and comforts us during anxious times. Adhi Mudra draws the excess mental activity down into the body where it can be processed and grounded making it a good mudra to try when feeling anxious.

Adhi Mudra is an easy mudra to do at anytime, for example you can do it during meditation, in a yoga pose, during pranayama, or you can easily hold your hands in this position during a stressful moment in your day and no one will know that you are doing something to ease your anxiety. 

How to practice Adhi Mudra

  1. Find a comfortable seated position.
  2. Hold your thumbs in the center of your palms and wrap your other fingers lightly around each thumb. 
  3. Rest the knuckles of your hands downward on your lap (downward facing hands is associated with calming the mind while upward facing hands is associated with increased energy/alertness).
  4. Relax your shoulders, face, and forearms. 
  5. Hold this gesture for a few minutes and notice how it feels, then release your hands.

Try combining this mudra with slow diaphragmatic breathing for extra benefit to calming anxiety.

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How Yoga Can Help Manage Chronic Stress & Burnout

Living during the time of a pandemic with worldly tensions around every corner, combined with constant societal pressure to be pushing, achieving, and being productive, and there’s no mystery why so many are teetering on the edge of burnout. Stress is a part of life; it is certainly not going away, and in order to thrive, we need to weather the storms. It is critical we learn ways to keep our nervous systems resilient so we can continue to “bounce back”, and yoga’s ability to improve nervous system flexibility can help manage chronic stress and even prevent burnout.

Chronic Stress & Burnout

Some of us are so used to being chronically stressed that our systems barely remember or know what it feels like to be restored and relaxed. Signs you are dealing with chronic stress are not being able to relax, finding it difficult to switch off from thinking or doing, irregular/rapid heart rate, panic attacks, insomnia, frequent bursts of irritation, rapid/shallow breathing, digestion problems, aches and pains from tense muscles and extreme tiredness.

It’s a very fine tipping point from chronic stress to burnout. Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It could be the compounding effect of one thing after another or it can be one big event like taking care of a sick loved one or losing a job or home. Burnout happens as a result of a complete overwhelm to the nervous system; it’s when our bodies literally force us to stop doing by shutting us down. In burnout, your nervous system shifts to a state of “freeze” (see dorsal vagal pathway in the polyvagal theory), which presents with symptoms of feeling frozen, numb, void of emotion, and having no motivation or energy.

Unfortunately, when dealing with high stress, we often make unhealthy lifestyle choices which heighten our risk for burnout, e.g. poor diet, too much caffeine, lack of sleep, no exercise, and numbing out or “leaving the body” by scrolling or binging on media. Unfortunately, these habits create a pattern where we are not replenishing our systems, nor are we processing anything – there is no emotional discharge, and our experiences can get stuck in the physical body.

We can interrupt and counteract this accumulation of internalized stress through yoga. Plenty of research is underway to understand this relationship better. The current research focusing on stress and burnout in healthcare workers, shows yoga is effective in the prevention and management of musculoskeletal and psychological issues, and in subjects who practiced yoga and mind-body meditation, sleep is improved and stress levels and burnout are consistently reduced.  The Use of Yoga to Manage Stress and Burnout in Healthcare Workers: A Systematic Review (nih.gov).

Below I highlight a few of the helpful ways in which yoga interrupts the compounding effect of stress and the shut down response of the body. It is important to note there are many different styles of yoga. For the purposes of this topic of stress and burnout, I am speaking about yoga of a slow and gentle nature, and practices which are intentional in its therapeutic application of pacing, posture choice, meditation, and breathing techniques.

Yoga Applications to Manage Stress and Burnout

Inner Body Sensing (Embodiment)
Yoga teaches us awareness skills of what’s happening within our bodies – noticing feelings, sensations, energy levels, body positioning, etc.  When we regularly practice tuning inwards to the senses of the body, we get more familiar, more comfortable, and more tolerant of that which we can receive, including experiences which are unpleasant. This helps be more proficient in digesting all the emotional-mental stress that is moving through us and we become more resilient to stressful and emotional times. In addition, by being more embodied, we are better able to attend to momentary muscular tension and this can awaken us from a shut-down response.

In my classes and in yoga therapy sessions, I often take the students through a mind-body check-in to heighten the skills of inner body sensing. Once this process is familiar, the check-in can be used throughout your day to keep the flow of body-based processing going and become more proficient at assessing your nervous system status, allowing you to intervene with therapeutic tools (breathing, meditations, gentle yoga) as needed. This helps to lower anxiety or awaken us from a shut-down response.

Try this quick mind-body check in to improve your embodiment skills (can be done in any posture and any time in the day):

  • Start by noticing where your body is grounding. If standing feel your feet to the ground; if sitting or leaning, feel the connection of ground through your seat, back and legs; if lying down, sense the back of your body and all the places it makes contact to surfaces beneath you.
  • Move your attention to sensing how you are holding yourself – posture, body tension, and notice any other sensations present with you in the moment.
  • Sense your breath and notice the rate and depth of your breath in this moment.
  • Reflect on anything else that seems to be present withing your internal body awareness – feelings, thoughts, energy levels, etc.

Mindful Breathing and Moving
Breathing properly is key to regulating our nervous systems and an important antidote to chronic stress and burnout. Breathing slowly, through the nose and with good movement in the diaphragm will help recovery. Be aware if you have a pattern of hyperventilation or upper chest breathing (it is very helpful to do regular checking of your breath throughout the day). Focus on long smooth breaths, breathing into to the lower lungs (expanding low ribs and belly on the inhale), and working towards a slightly longer exhalation, will help to engage the vagus nerve and parasympathetic division of the nervous system. Check out this information page for more information on how to do proper diaphragmatic breathing.

Mindful movement is about paying attention to what you feel as you move and making decisions of how much of a stretch or how long to hold a stretch based on what feels helpful in the moment. Many slow paced, gentle yoga classes are excellent to encourage the mindfulness aspect while moving; however, doing a few stretches on your own can be very effective as well. The process is accumulative – the more your body relaxes from the mindful movement, the more the mind relaxes and the nervous system regulates, and this pattern becomes more efficient with practice.

Try this short yoga class focusing on mindful movement. For more classes like this, try Stretch & Relax Yoga which is offered as a drop-in class at In Balance Yoga.

Intentional Rest (relaxing or restorative yoga postures and meditations)
When you take time to properly rest (not zone out on your phone), but enter a state in which you find a comfortable posture, close your eyes, and actively encourage a quieting of the mind and body, then your brain waves shift from the active thinking, known as Beta state, to the slower Alpha state where decompression happens. Brief periods of relaxed, alpha state in your day will assist the brain with waste removal, aid in the consolidation of new skills and knowledge, and serve as a way to balance the drive for productivity. After intentional rest in alpha state, your mind is more receptive, open, creative, and less critical, and this is important to restore the balance of stress and burnout.

Doing a restorative yoga pose or guided meditation, such as body scans and Yoga Nidras, will provide you with a moment in your day for intentional rest. Check out this blog highlighting a few yoga techniques and postures to stimulate the vagus nerve in relationship to regulating the nervous system. When possible, it is beneficial to close the eyes and use an eye pillow when resting. The light pressure on the eyeballs from the pillow stimulates the vagus nerve and oculocardiac reflex, facilitating the relaxation response.

If you want to learn more about how yoga can help you manage chronic stress or return you to a more regulated state in the case of burn out, consider connecting with a yoga therapist. With guidance and practice, you can develop better regulation skills for emotional resistance to stress and burnout.

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Yoga Techniques to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve plays a central role in your emotional and physical health. The vagus nerve travels from the brainstem down into your stomach and intestines, enervating your heart and lungs, and connecting your throat and facial muscles. Therefore, any yoga practices that stimulate these areas of the body can improve the tone of the vagus nerve. Stimulating the vagus nerve has a regulating effect on your body and mind, helping you regain balance if you are either ramped-up with anxiety or shut down with pain or fatigue.

You can learn how to regulate the functioning of your vagus nerve with these yoga techniques:

1. Diaphragmatic breathing – increases vagal tone and this can be accented by extending the length of the exhale to be longer than the inhale.
How To Do Diaphragmatic Breathing – YouTube

2. Body scan with progressive muscle relaxation – doing a scan of your body to identify where you are holding tension and then consciously releasing those areas of tension. (When short of time, focusing on releasing the tension around the eyes, face, jaw, and tops of the shoulder is especially helpful in to improve vagal tone).
Progressive Muscle Relaxation Meditation – YouTube

3. Practicing yoga postures that open across your chest and throat – Examples: cow pose, shoulder extension stretch, sphynx pose, fish pose (active or supported)

4. Poses that release or stimulate the belly – Examples: cobra pose, prone lying over cushion, child’s pose with folded blanket connect to abdomen, back extension over bolster

5. Loving kindness meditation – this meditation helps to establish feelings of positive emotion and connection with others, as part of the social engagement properties of the vagus
Loving Kindness Mediation – YouTube

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Wellbeing Practices To Support The Winter Blues

As we near the start of winter and work through the shortest, dark days of the year, it’s important to monitor how this affects your emotional and spiritual wellbeing. In the winter months, it’s easier to get socially isolated, which strongly affects our mood, and some people are especially sensitive to the limited daylight exposure and suffer with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Here are five things you can do to keep your resiliency up through the season.

1. Get socially connected
This will be our second pandemic winter and the effects of prolonged social distancing on mood can’t be understated. Connecting with others in a safe way is very important.
● Make it a priority to get out and see people. Make an effort to set up visiting date times and when Covid safety is a concern, meet outdoors, wear a mask, or visit with them virtually
● Create a new social obligation for yourself, for example, start up a weekly class of anything that peaks your interest – art, fitness, education, etc. Many classes have an online option when needed
● Increase your volunteerism; it helps combat feelings of isolation

2. Prioritize outdoor time
● As often as possible, try to get 30 minutes exposure to daylight (not through windows) 
● You can combine this with walking outdoors to get some exercise

3. Stick to routine
When our bodies fall out of routine, our internal systems (digestive system, nervous system, endocrine system, etc.) can become disregulated, making us feel worse. Sticking to a routine can be very helpful to keep our mental and physical health at its best.
● Give yourself an 8-hour sleep opportunity nightly, minimize exposure to screens just before bed to help boost natural melatonin production
● Keep bedtime and wake up times as consistent as possible
● Stay consistent with your eating schedule on weekends
● Regular exercise boosts your mood, and you’ll pump extra oxygen to your brain, which can help you feel more alert

4. Consider supplements in your diet, particularly Vitamin D
As our exposure to sunlight dwindles in the winter, our stores of vitamin D naturally decrease, and if your diet is low in Vitamin D, you’ll likely benefit from some supplementation. 
● To combat SAD, research shows Vit D3 (the type that your body naturally produces through your skin) is favoured over D2 for helpfulness
● If you are unsure about your diet and need for supplementation, consider consulting with a dietician or naturopath

5. Yoga and meditation
● Yoga promotes circulation, strength, and flexibility, and can help combat pain and lethargy
● Classes promote social connection to others in group settings
● Certain meditations, such as gratitude or loving kindness meditations, encourage the feeling of connectedness with others and help the release of the “feel good” hormones in the body – dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. Try this Loving Kindness Meditation: Loving Kindness Mediation – YouTube

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