Monday, August 5, 2013

7 Things I Learned About Treating Anxiety with Yoga and Meditation

My last morning at Kripalu, I made it to the 6:00 a.m. yoga practice. I was nervous, but I made it through the practice just fine. I used all of the microadjustments that we had practiced the previous day, and truly, by the end of the practice, I felt all that good energy flowing through me.

I was nervous, however, about driving home. For some reason, I always seem to get the nerves and anxiety when it comes time to leave and go back home. But I went and had another filling, light breakfast, chatting with another classmate, and then I went back to my room to pack so that I could check out at noon.

We did some movement in that last morning of class, but we also did a review of what we had learned, and a review of the tools we now had to help us deal with our anxiety and depression. I had a journal full of insight and things to work on, and if you're curious as to what I learned that weekend, here it is:

1. There is no quick-fix for healing anxiety and depression. You didn't develop anxiety and depression overnight, and you won't cure it overnight. But with steady, thoughtful work, you can heal yourself and live the life you love. You might think that prescription pharmaceuticals are the way to go for your quick fix, but...

2. Medications don't work. If you don't believe me, read any major study of pharmaceutical antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications: they work for approximately 1/3 of the patients that take them. Of the remaining 2/3, half of those see no improvement, and half of them worsen.

Even the psychiatrist I saw earlier this year agreed with me: medication should only be a long-term solution for very serious cases. Medication does nothing to solve the underlying problems that are causing the anxiety and depression - it's just covering up the symptoms without doing anything to address the cause - and it can create a host of new problems, mostly side effects. Medication doesn't teach you how to cope with the anxiety and depression when it arises, and the psychiatrist that I saw told me that he believed the real way to cure anxiety was to learn how to recognize the symptoms for what they are, and learn how to deal with them in a healthy way.

The last time I saw that psychiatrist, we were discussing how I am now able to recognize when an anxiety attack is imminent. Sometimes it's hard to be able to pull back and say to myself, hey, this is just my anxiety-brain kicking in, and here's what I need to do about it. But after practicing yoga daily for 7+ months now, I can recognize an anxiety attack for what it is 99% of the time, and I know how to get through it.

A huge part of successfully treating anxiety and depression, he said, was also major lifestyle changes. If you keep doing the same things over and over, repeating the same patterns, thinking the same thoughts, would you really expect anything to change?

3. Your brain can change for the better through yoga and meditation. Yes, neuroplasticity is a big word, but it's important to understand. You CAN change the way your brain works through simple yoga, pranayama (breathing), and meditation. These practices basically hit the "reset" button on your nervous system, and allow you to feel a state of relaxed awareness. Once your brain has that experience, it remembers it, and can create new neural pathways to relieve your symptoms of anxiety and depression.

It really works - remember, back in February, I couldn't leave the house to go grocery shopping or get my hair cut without getting nauseous and getting the dry heaves.

But as I followed my therapist's advice and got myself out of the house every single day, I created those new neural pathways that told me brain it was okay to get my hair cut. Going to the grocery store wasn't a threatening experience. My brain changed - it didn't react to these situations as a flight-or-flight experience after a while. And now, I'm working on being able to get out and travel in the bigger world, too.

4. A little yoga every day is better than nothing at all. We're all busy. We have jobs, kids, friends, responsibilities. We can't always make the time for a 90-minute vinyasa or restorative practice every single day. But even taking just 10 minutes a day to rest in a supported restorative pose or to do 5 Sun Salutations with a few minutes of Savasana can go a long way towards creating those new neural pathways that can help relieve your anxiety.

Finding those ten minutes is another important way to treat anxiety and depression: self-care. Very often, we put off finding time for ourselves because someone else needs us, or we feel obligated to our jobs or other responsibilities. One of the most important things I've learned from my battles with anxiety is that taking the time for self-care (things like yoga, massage therapy, relaxation, meditation) actually makes us stronger and better able to cope with whatever life throws at you every day.

5.  Slower is better. Sure, when I'm feeling really anxious some days, I love a good, long Ashtanga or vinyasa class to help me burn off some extra energy. But a nice, slow-paced Hatha class or even a good session of restorative yoga also give me the same feeling of well-being and peace at the end of the day. They can even leave me feeling energized!

It might seem counterintuitive, but slowing down is probably the best thing someone with anxiety and depression can do to relieve their symptoms. When you slow down, you become more aware. You can sense what's going on in your body, and you can take steps to help yourself. When you allow yourself to slow down, you give yourself a chance to acknowledge the thoughts going through your head and to approach them with a more rational, relaxed mind.

Think about it: You're highly agitated. You walk into your favorite coffee shop and are informed that they are completely out of your favorite kind of coffee. If your anxiety and depression has kicked in, you might freak out, yell at someone, and storm out of there feeling like your whole day is ruined. You might even get angry thinking that you won't have any of your favorite coffee to drink the next morning.

But if you give yourself a chance to step back and look at the situation calmly, you'll just say, oh well, and move on with your day.

My father used to tell me: Don't sweat the small stuff - and it's all small stuff.

6. The mind-body connection is real. For years and years and years, physicians and mental health practitioners have been taught to separate the body from the mind. Physicians can only treat the body. Psychiatrists and therapists can only treat the mind.

But, really, that makes no sense when you're trying to heal the whole patient. Your mind is just as much a part of your body as your heart, your lungs, your liver... Your brain is where emotions, sensations, and feelings originate, so why should we ignore it when we're treating an illness that shows up somewhere else in the body? And for that matter, why do we ignore the rest of the body when we're treating anxiety and depression?

Not to be too crude, but the easiest way to prove the mind-body connection is sexual arousal. Thinking a certain way can cause physical sensations and reactions in the body - right? So why should that not be true with other thoughts and sensations?

Another example is something that I learned during my hypnobirthing class. The instructor had us all lay down and relax and did a visualization exercise with us. She told us to picture a lemon. Think about the color of that lemon - bright yellow. Think about what the thick skin of a lemon feels like. Picture yourself putting that lemon right under your nose, and inhale deeply. Next, picture yourself cutting that lemon into wedges. Pick up one of the wedges and squeeze it gently on your tongue. What does it taste like?

By the time you got to the end of that last paragraph, your mouth was salivating a bit, wasn't it? THAT'S the power of the mind-body connection. And yoga, so far, is one of the best ways I've found to address what happens to me during an anxiety attack. Calm the mind, and you heal the body.

7. Learn to listen to your body. Now, this one ain't so easy. I don't know where we learned it, but for most of us, the only time we really listen to our body is when we have to use the bathroom, or get hungry, or get tired. And even then, we push ourselves beyond our limits - we work when we should be sleeping, we skip meals because we don't have "time" to eat, we make ourselves wait for a toilet break. This makes it really hard for us to know what our body wants so that it can function optimally, and probably a huge part of what causes the symptoms of anxiety and depression.

As I went through this weekend at Kripalu, I realized that most of the time, I have absolutely no idea what my body wants. I've learned somewhere that my body is not to be trusted, that it will betray me, that it will make me feel bad - none of which is true, of course.

For me, a big part of this is being able to tell the difference between self-care and laziness. Sure, it might feel GREAT, or at least, I would think it would feel great, to stay in bed until 10 a.m. every day. But that's not necessarily what I need. Part of self-care means self-discipline, which for me, means getting myself to the yoga studio at the end of a busy day, or taking the time for a healthy lunch after a crazy morning.

One of the things that we practiced during the weekend program at Kripalu was listening to our body to see what it was asking for. It's not easy. It takes practice to recognize what we need. But that's how you heal anxiety and depression - by treating yourself carefully and compassionately, and learning to give your body what it wants.

So...what now?

Now, with all this knowledge and experience in the yoga "practice lab" at Kripalu, I'm ready to move forward. I continue to do my daily yoga practice, I'm working on doing more restorative yoga (at least once a week, either in class or at home), and I'm preparing for my yoga teacher training that begins in October.

I continue to explore different styles of yoga with different teachers at different studios, and I continue to practice self-compassion and self-care whenever appropriate.

What would you do if you knew that you could not fail?


  1. This deserves an accolade of some sort. Thank you for this amazing and illuminating post.
    I am going to link to it, google plus it, twitter it, email it to myself and some friends and Facebook it.
    If you are this perceptive about this subject, you are the person whom I want to follow about this subject and other things you have to teach me about life.
    Thank you very much!
    Jean Yates.

  2. Thank you for sharing your insights with us. I admit that I should listen more. Your post also relaxed me! Congratulations for the yoga achievements. I wish you success with the yoga teacher training! oh, and I think that you are amazing!

  3. This was a great post...I teach people this sort of stuff every day and you are so right! I love that your therapist is looking at behaviors and thoughts instead of deadening your awareness with medicating things that can change with learning. I would also add that not only do all of these things add to the neuroplasticity of your brain and also to hit the reset as you put it but also to lower your overall baseline experience of how you perceive anxiety which in the long run is going to help immensely...If you start from a more calm place you wont rise as high on the anxiety meter. Thanks for this post...I am going to post it at work!PS I came here through Jean's site.