I have anxiety.
In fact, sitting down to write this blog about having anxiety heightens my anxiety. However, I want to be real and share this part of my story, including how yoga has helped me learn to manage my symptoms and find peace instead of feeling shame.
I have experienced many of the common symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder for most of my life. I can tell my anxiety is high when I start feeling the need to move. It can begin with small movements like fidgeting (I can twiddle my thumbs with the best of them) and turn into a full on need to get outside and walk for miles to escape my thoughts and get the energy that has built up out of my brain and body. I also start getting irritated easily at my family and want to control every situation, especially during large family events and holidays. My manic cleaning mode switches to hyperdrive and I begin to run around my house scrubbing floors, picking everything up, and making sure it appears there is order to the chaos.
Other symptoms include difficulty concentrating and focusing on one task or completing a project, ruminating over what I have said or did – or what I didn’t say or do. The worst symptom I experience is not sleeping well. I can usually go to sleep, but I will wake up at 2 or 3 AM and my brain will start spinning. I can’t shut off my thoughts and it is difficult to relax and let myself go back to sleep.
I used to think I could “fix” myself and get rid of these symptoms by doing more – more meditating, more yoga, more reading, more exercising, more therapy…you get the picture. But over the past couple of years, I have learned more about GAD and that this mental health condition is something I will live with and manage for the rest of my life.
I also know that I am not alone.
The Epidemic of Anxiety
Most of us don’t need to see statistics to know we’re in an epidemic of anxiety, but during COVID, the number of people reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression skyrocketed by 270% from 2019 to 2021. We feel it closing in around us, in the form of our own anxiety and that of our friends, family, children, coworkers, and our fellow denizens of the internet on social media.
A friend told me that she recently took her teenage son to counseling because he is struggling to control his anger. He was diagnosed with a temporary adjustment disorder. The counselor described this as something many young adults and adults are experiencing in the wake of the shared, collective trauma of Covid. We are mad and anxious, and we don’t know why. Every person you encounter could be dealing with this on some level.
I have learned that by widening the lens of our understanding to encompass not only the aspects of mental health illnesses that occur in the brain but also originate in the body, we can more effectively address our current mental health epidemic.
Managing My Anxiety
I am grateful that I can now name my mental health condition and receive treatment. It also makes a lot of sense why I was attracted to the health and wellness profession from an early age. I was seeking tools to help me cope with the symptoms that sometimes debilitated me and my daily activities. My studies in the health and wellness field and my career in wellness and yoga have helped me learn and teach strategies to help manage stress and anxiety. They have definitely helped me and I hope I have helped others along the way.
I am a fitness enthusiast. Making time for exercise and movement each day has offered me many benefits including improved self-esteem, brain function, and sleep. I have enjoyed teaching and participated in almost every style of aerobics and have fun being active outdoors in all seasons of weather. Although some may see my need to exercise as a way to stay healthy and fit, I know it is something that helps me stay calm and centered.
In addition to my exercise routine, I meet with a psychologist and take medication to help me work through my worries and challenges. I started seeing a counselor regularly at the age of 18 and have continued this treatment for all my adult life. It has been such an important tool to managing my anxiety. I love my girlfriends and I am so grateful they take time to listen to me and help me process what I am thinking or feeling, but working with a professional has given me additional tools and concepts to think about helping me get out of my own way and moving forward again.
I have also learned a lot about nutrition and how eating a well-balanced meal helps my mind. Eating nutritious foods is the number one thing I can do to help keep my gut microbiome healthy and protect my brain.
My mental health progress has not been linear. My anxiety comes in waves. Although I find relief in the “quiet times,” I know that my mental health conditions are never really gone. I’ve had to accept that there will be tougher times that I’ll need to cope with, and it hasn’t always been easy. My fear of “messing up” or not living up to my own standards prevents me from losing my drive as I work or show up and parent my children, but the anxiety can be draining.
Yoga & Anxiety
Many of you know I have been practicing and teaching yoga for 20+ years. It truly was divine intervention that I was introduced to a practice that helps me turn away from the world and be present with what is. It has taken time, but I now know that the thoughts and feelings racing through my head do not define me. My meditation practice has helped me learn to witness the thoughts and detach my self-worth from them, even if I am filled with fear at the time.
Making time to practice is not always easy. It is hard to make time for self-care – even when we KNOW it is good for us and we will feel better when it is over. The hardest part for me (and for many) is showing up and getting started.
As a teacher, it is definitely easier when I am forced to roll out my mat and teach. This is a job that allows me to practice while I work. BONUS! Moving my body helps me get out of my head and into my body. I can incorporate different postures that support my current state and help myself start to feel more grounded and less anxious. Yoga helps me take slow, deep breaths and I can put myself into relaxation poses that help me calm both my mind and my body.
So what happens when my anxiety skyrockets and I am not teaching yoga or meditation?
Let me get real with you for a minute…I am a mom of three kids ages 13 – 8. They still need and want my full attention and can get into trouble in the blink of an eye. All three of them are in activities outside of school and enjoy playing with friends. In addition to driving all over town, I work hard at keeping calendars updated, meals planned and prepared, laundry and housework done, and everything else that goes into being a parent. My husband is a HUGE help and I am grateful we are a team on this parenting journey, but the lists that I keep track of in my head would scare him. Let’s not forget I also run my own business and the lists for solopreneurs will make steam come out of your ears. This is what keeps me awake at night when everyone else is sleeping peacefully.
When I can’t sleep, I breathe. Extending my exhale helps my body move out of the fight-and-flight response (sympathetic nervous system) and into one that relaxes and calms me (parasympathetic nervous system). I place my hands on my belly or heart and invite my body to relax. This can help me stay calm and relaxed even if I don’t actually fall asleep.
I also find myself making time for yoga nidra. This practice has been a lifesaver for the past 8 years. I learned about it when I had my youngest child. I knew it wasn’t always going to be practical to take a nap in the middle of the day and sleep when the children sleep like my grandma told me, but I can listen to a guided meditation and give myself 10-20 minutes of deep relaxation and peace. My kids now know that when I tell them I need to go to my room to “rest,” they cannot bother me unless it is an absolute emergency. I go to my room, close the door, lay down under my favorite blanket, and turn on a guided yoga nidra practice.
When I am done, I feel fully refreshed and recharged ready to parent again. My family has experienced the benefits of me making time to rest that they respect this sacred time and leave me alone – or they experience a very angry mommy if they don’t. 😊
Instead of taking every kind of group fitness class, you can now find me walking in nature, kayaking on a lake, or practicing yoga on my mat. I remember to enjoy the experience and it is always more fun with friends.
Although I wish I was perfect (seriously I do), I have come to terms that it is not humanly possible and I will enjoy life a lot more if I can practice doing my best, forgive myself when I make a mistake, and live in the present.
I’m also learning to make peace with my mental health condition. I now understand that everyone has their own journey – and I am not alone in feeling that my journey is ongoing. I hope that by sharing my experiences and being honest about my current challenges, including the tools I use to help me live day-to-day, moment-to-moment, will help someone else feel seen and understood.
May is National Mental Health Awareness Month
Here are a few resources you may find helpful.
- Yoga Nidra for Restful Nurturance
- Live Mentally Healthy: https://mhanational.org/live-b4stage4
- #Together4MH Resources: https://www.nami.org/NAMI/media/NAMI-Media/PDFs/2022-MHM-PARTNER-Guide_FINAL.pdf