How Yoga Has Forever Changed My Relationship with Anxiety
It was the spring of 2017, and I was more overwhelmed than ever. College graduation was a few weeks away, and my grandmother was in the hospital. I’d just broken up with my boyfriend of four years, and I had no idea what I wanted to do with this new "adult" life heading my way.
As the weeks went on, the stressors swirled relentlessly in my mind, and soon came the head-to-toe breakouts. Then the panic attacks, the sleepless nights, the blurred vision, the shortness of breath — all of which I told myself would pass once I became less "overwhelmed." It didn't. And looking back, I should have seen it coming.
In first grade, I'd lie awake, struggling to breathe as I worried about the environment and "where all the trash goes." I'd regularly need to be picked up from sleepovers while everyone else nodded off in their sleeping bags, excuse myself during class to catch my breath after answering a question aloud, and even pull at my eyebrows habitually throughout the day, all because of this overwhelming sense of unease. Long before those final weeks of college, I'd suffered from anxiety — I just didn't know it yet.
Only when the panic attacks became so persistent did I realize that no amount of waiting for it "to pass" would help me. I needed help. (Related: Why Is It So Hard to Make Your First Therapy Appointment?)
Diving Into Therapy
I found a therapist, and it didn't take long for her to pinpoint what I had been experiencing as generalized anxiety disorder. From there, she pointed me in the direction of a psychiatrist, who ultimately determined a daily dose of Zoloft, a common anti-anxiety medication, could help.
Along with the meds, I kept up with my therapy appointments, which, to my surprise, began to include a yoga flow and breathwork exercises.
I wasn't aware initially, but my therapist was also a certified yoga instructor, and she liked to lean on both her psychological and physical training in client sessions. We’d start each appointment with breathwork: a deep breath in through the nose and a long breath out through the mouth, keeping my tongue behind my two front teeth to slow the speed and keep me centered.
Fast forward six years, and I can confidently say that therapy was the first decision that changed my life, Zoloft the second, and yoga the third. I was finally given a vessel to talk through what was happening for me, a pill to restore the balance in my brain, and a movement to bring my thoughts back to the present.
Healing From Yoga
"When people experience anxiety, it comes from a place of feeling like the stress is out of their coping abilities and out of their control," explains Rachel Goldman, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in New York City. On the other hand, "yoga can be something that you have complete control over."
When I practice yoga now, I am fully aware of everything around me and going on with me. Concentrating on a point ahead as I stand in a tree pose, I can keenly hear the offbeat hum of the apartment radiator. And laying in savasana I can actually feel the rhythmic pulse of blood through my body. These are small moves, small moments, but they remind me that I have control over the flow and my thoughts. (Related: 10 Benefits of Yoga That Make the Workout Totally Badass)
Prior to treatment, I'd instinctively fixate on the past or the future. Yoga has helped me find alignment, not just physically but also mentally. By focusing on my breathing and balance to best maintain each pose, I'm able to narrow in on what's happening right then and there. I'm able to see the right now: It's just me, my mat.
"Yoga allows us to feel more present," says Heidi Kristoffer, founder of CrossFlowX and creator of the newly-launched CrossFlow Yoga app. "Connecting breath to movement, as yoga encourages, will bring us into the here and now. If you are in the present, you can not have regrets about the past or worries about the future."
Since realizing the profound impact yoga has had on my anxiety, I’ve seen great improvements in my practice over time. Still, achieving a certain level of advanced yoga was never the point. I practice yoga whenever I feel panic taking over.
Therapy has helped me realize that anxiety will likely always be a part of my life. It's something I live with but can now make peace with because yoga has allowed me to regain control.
I still get panic attacks, my thoughts still race at night, but I now know the power that movement can have on my mind. Just getting out of bed and doing a deep breathing stretch can do wonders — a calmer mind and a calmer body.
"Not only does practicing yoga give you a chance to quiet your mind and focus on yourself, but it’s also been shown in studies to raise levels of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric (GABA); low levels of which have been linked to anxiety," says Goldman.
Without the foundation of strength and stillness yoga has given me, I’m not sure I would be where I am in my journey with anxiety and my life. I'm now able to find peace.