In this blog post, I share a little glimpse of my experience with anxiety. In doing so, I feel the weight of this and want to start out by stating a few things. Anxiety is no small thing. I don’t share the entirety of my experience with this really hard issue here. That would be an enormous blog post. Although I have overcome a lot in my experience with anxiety, there are still times when it’s really hard and I shrink back. But, I keep going and growing. Working with anxiety is really complex and what helps one person may not help another. I’m not claiming any answers, just a small part of my journey in hopes that it might encourage someone else. If anxiety is life-limiting for you, there are professionals that can help.
“There are always two risks. There’s the risk of trying something new, and there’s the risk of not trying it.”
~ Rob Bell (author, speaker, spiritual teacher.)
In the spring of 2015, Jules Mitchell asked if I would join her as a student in her next round of yoga videos for Udaya.com. Jules didn’t know, but she was giving me an opportunity to do something even bigger than traveling to Bulgaria to film yoga classes.
Let me back up and explain why…
I have lived with varying degrees of anxiety for a long time. At one point, when it was the most intense, I needed medication to help me function in everyday life. I know what a panic attack feels like. It’s awful. I’m thankful the worst of it has been behind me for years now, but working through anxiety has been an ongoing process in my life.
I didn’t really see the ways anxiety was still affecting me until I was seeing a counselor early in 2014 for a phobia I wanted to finally confront. In a hard realization, it became clear that my fears didn’t just lie in the object of my phobia. I had to face anxiety that was showing up in other areas of my life that I had learned to live with or just avoid. I wondered how I missed this. Maybe it just wasn’t as debilitating as it once was and I figured this was my normal. Occasional, mild anxiety is better than frequent, high anxiety. Or maybe I had been denying it. I think deep down I knew that dealing with this was going to be freaking hard and I hoped that I could just tuck it away and be fine. As I continued to meet with my counselor it was becoming clear that I could be living more expansively and with more ease than I was.
Part of managing my anxiety has alway been to first, feel it. With the help and guidance of my counselor, I practiced being with the anxiety and applying some new coping strategies. Through a gradual and slow process over time, I learned to notice how the anxiety manifested in my body — my heart rate, my body tension and where exactly I could feel it (it would change depending on the situation), my breathing, everything I was feeling and where it was showing up in my body. I also practiced awareness of my surroundings when I sensed anxiety coming on by using my senses (all sounds, sights, smells, touch). And it struck me: this is yoga and mindfulness, I’ve been practicing for this for years! It renewed a deeper connection to my yoga practice that would now be an excellent primer and partner in this process of confronting another layer of my anxiety.
Having a direct experience with all the sensations of anxiety is an important part of working through it for me — and it’s so hard. I had to confront discomfort with full awareness. Sometimes I would use various coping strategies to get through an intense moment, but often, just noticing all the sensations come and go was enough to ease the intensity. I was learning to get comfortable feeling discomfort. This was the opposite of what I had done for years. Throughout my life, I trained my brain and body to avoid unpleasant feelings and sensations of anxiety. Every time I felt anxious about something and then avoided it, it actually strengthened the anxiety. It’s like I was confirming to my mind and nervous system, “You are right! This is something to be afraid of! Let’s for sure not do that!” This is helpful and necessary if there is actual threat, danger or something that is not serving us well, but not so much if you are just being asked to go to Europe with one of your favorite yoga teachers and film some videos. This brings us back to the Bulgaria trip.
By the time Jules approached me about filming I had made a lot of progress. However, when she asked I felt that familiar nervous, reluctant feeling and initially wanted to say no. Years ago I wouldn’t have gone. But this “no” was that old familiar disproportionate fear that had kept my life a little smaller and I knew this invitation was a way to continue making progress expanding — so I decided to go.
A few months went by and I missed a subtle, anxious voice that crept in and started whispering things… “I need to step-up my physical practice if I’m going to be filming multiple classes a day for 4 days!” So I started adding more days of challenging practices. In the increasing concern of my physical ability, I was laying aside some key aspects of my yoga practice — awareness, contentment, acceptance, ease of breath and movement. I was fixated on only the physical aspect of a multidimensional practice. And I was hurting. If the body and breath are tense and not at ease, it makes it much harder for the mind to be at ease. What I was doing was elevating anxiety.
I did this despite the wisdom I got from Jules early on when I questioned my ability to keep up with the long days of filming. She said that she didn’t want Instagram stars, she wanted real people. Taking care of my needs, resting and modifying my poses would serve as a positive example for those who need to do the same. This is advice I would give anyone else as well. That’s some of the essence of yoga. But, sometimes we are so close to ourselves, we miss it. I missed it.
It was a blind spot that Shelly Prosko, physiotherapist and yoga therapist, helped me see.
I had been connecting with Shelly around this time and told her about the upcoming Bulgaria trip and that I was having some trouble with my practice. She immediately saw what I was doing. My desire to “train” for the filming was overpowering my body’s need for rest, ease, and breath. She encouraged me to have the courage to do what I need to do during the filming. She said that what I can do is less important than who I am and allowing that to shine through me with joy — no matter what pose that’s in. All of this clicked. Courage. Joy. It spoke right to my heart. In the beginning I thought the courage was just making the decision to go to Bulgaria. That was only part of it. The courage is to go exactly as I am.
I felt once again more at ease. I went back to a practice that served me well.
I headed to Bulgaria, with all my anxiety and courage and joy. I remember very clearly practicing under the cameras and lights and film crew and repeating a simple mantra to myself in each class — “Joy”. It was wonderful.
While there, another opportunity to experience something with my anxiety presented itself. Jules asked if I wanted to film my own class. That same “no” came up in my mind. Actually, it was “HELL NO.” That night as I thought about it, the anxiety was big. As I sat with it, my husband came to mind. He desires a more expansive life for me more than anyone. He’s had a front row seat watching anxiety rob me of opportunities. I knew exactly what he would say. Yes, there were risks in doing it — I could fumble my words or people may not like it. But, I knew the risk of NOT experiencing it was greater. I knew I had to do this.
The day of my filming, the anxiety was there. I felt it, I noticed my breath, I felt my heart beat a little faster, and I knew that it was all a part of this unique experience. This was a practice in expansiveness. I was not under any threat or danger, so I filmed a yoga class — the very practice that was an aid in helping me actually work through the anxiety to get to that moment.
I must close by stating that I realize how very fortunate I am to not live in perpetual threat or danger. Sometimes it feels trivial talking about what has triggered my anxiety when people live their lives facing actual threats on a daily basis. Nevertheless, my experience with anxiety has been real and it’s very real for many people. My hope is that as we heal, we become more expansive and move into spaces to bring safety, security, hope and love to all beings around us who need it.
I also feel that I should add something about the tools for anxiety I’ve used along the way. I mentioned that I have taken medication in the past. The fact that I no longer take medication does not mean that I am against it. Not at all. It just was a tool needed then that is not what I’m using now. And who knows if I will ever need it again. I am so thankful for the medication because without it, I wouldn’t have been able to even access other tools, like Yoga and mindfulness. As I said in the beginning of this blog post, I’m not an expert, just someone sharing my personal experience and there are professionals that specialize in helping you find the right tools for you.