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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An Essay on Acceptance

WELCOME TO-2I recently taught a class with with a theme of acceptance. This is not a new theme to me (nor the yoga industry), but one I like to revisit because I’ve always found the topic to be quite transformative. Acceptance is a precondition for growth and healing and thanks to a lovely student of mine I have had a couple of new realizations on this topic.

You never know what will show up during a mindful yoga practice, and sometimes you will come across difficult realizations. Deep in a pose, you suddenly realize something about yourself, or something about your life that you do not like. It could be an imperfection in the way you move and feel, an awareness of a strained relationship, an internal unrest about something in your life, or the surfacing of deep and painful emotion. Contemplating acceptance around such difficult realizations, doesn’t mean we have to like or agree with it, and it is not the same as surrender or sacrifice (nor is it about resignation or giving up). Rather, it’s about acknowledging reality as it is right now. Acceptance is an allowing, not about shutting things out, and our yoga becomes a practice of seeing things as they are difficult or not.

To fully embody this understanding, consider the opposite. When we don’t accept difficult realizations that bubble up, then we avoid, we tense, we resist, we force – essentially we don’t see clearly, and therefore delude reality. A deluded reality eventually catches up with us, prolonging the inevitable of what we must face. A deluded reality is also not a solid foundation from which to work from. How can we ever truly change without a solid base? Like points on a map, when a destination is known, how can you find your way without knowing where you are right now?

That student of mine that brought this all forward for me had come to the realization during one of my classes that she had a toxic relationship in her life and years of not accepting it was taking a toll on her on well being.  Realizing and accepting the nature of this relationship meant she could move forward and change the nature of it.  Without this acknowledgment it would be impossible to set the boundaries and expectations necessary for positive change.

Applying the practice of acceptance in relation to growth and healing is palatable with those things in our life where there is possibility of change, but what about those things in our life which hold no possibility of change, those things outside our control? There are times when the awareness itself is unacceptable… the untimely loss of a loved one comes to mind. In these moments, sometimes all we can do is accept the unacceptable. Within these moments, acknowledgement of “what is” allows a new way of being to emerge – not necessarily unscarred or liberated, but just new.

“Grieve. so that you can be free to feel something else”.  (Nayyira Waheed)

Whether it is on or off our mats, when we are bearing our authentic selves, our heaviest emotions, and acknowledging our messy, imperfect bits, it can be hard, but no one said this would be an essay on easy. The question becomes, with whatever is showing up for you, can you greet it with eyes wide open and with no expectation to be liked? Within this lies the difference to true healing and change: that solid foundation of seeing clearly and all that it has to offer.

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