“It’s not a matter of letting go – you would if you could. Instead of “Let it Go” we should probably be saying “Let it Be.’ ”
An estimated 30% of the world’s population has at least one form of anxiety, yet only one in ten people with a diagnosable form of the illness seek treatment. Of the different forms of treatment available, research shows a combination of medication and therapy is most successful but coming in second place right behind them is mindfulness meditation. We’ll attempt to unveil the mystery of meditation shortly, but first let’s take a moment to unpack – or uncork if you will – the debilitating world of anxiety.
There are four major categories of anxiety: Social Anxiety Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Panic Disorder, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). That’s a lot of “disorder” – but after all, the definition of disorder is the disruption of systematic functioning. If you or someone you know has any of the above, that term pretty much hits the nail on the head. Because normal functioning is a monumental battle when in the throes of an anxiety attack. It is called an attack because your amygdala – that part of your brain tasked with managing emotions, especially the negative ones – wages war against your prefrontal cortex – the analytical and decision-making centre of your brain – and often wins. It isn’t a coincidence that many symptoms of a panic attack mimic those of an actual heart attack.
Research has shown there may be a genetic link to anxiety. You are more likely to develop an anxiety disorder if someone else in your family has it as well. And women are twice as likely as men have it. Some people have one specific type of anxiety, while others may have several that co-exist or stem from one another. Over the years, I have been diagnosed with all four, which means I’ve won the Grand Slam of anxiety disorders. Yay me.
When I was in my early 20s, I was diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder, which is a fancy way of saying I don’t do well in social situations. My earliest memory of this comes from even before that. When I was a teenager, I was completely head over heels for a hockey player on our local junior team. My friends did everything in their power to get me to talk to him, but I wasn’t able. As in I was physically unable to speak when he was around – like we’re talking full on Koothrappali from the earlier seasons of The Big Bang Theory here, only it couldn’t be fixed with alcohol, and it only seemed to happen with this one guy. I know now that Selective Mutism is a symptom often associated with Social Anxiety Disorder, but back then it just compounded my angst to the point I wanted to throw up at the thought of just seeing him. Ironically, through the wonders of social media, we now actually chat every once in awhile. But I often wonder, even after all these years, if I would be able to speak to him if we were ever to meet again in person.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me at that time, a decade later I would also be diagnosed with Prosopagnosia (a congenital face blindness that prevents me from being able to recognize any human facial features – even of those closest to me), which is the likeliest instigator of all the subsequent drama. The social anxiety often stopped me from meeting up with friends and eventually progressed to the point where before going out in public, I would pre-emptively imagine embarrassing myself so much so that I would never be able to show my face again, which started to make things like going to class a significant challenge. Et voilà: the upgrade to a diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder at 27.
Everyone has different experiences with their symptoms. This is my attempt at describing how it feels for me when I’m having an anxiety attack.
The apoplectic battle continues to rage between the facets of my brain I have come to think of with equal levels of fondness and loathing as Dr. Jami and Ms. Hide. In yoga, the terms used to describe these aspects of the brain are the Thinking brain and the Observing brain; in neuroscience, we often hear of the analytical or left brain and the creative or right brain. The descriptions that hit closer to home for me are the Thinking Brain and the Feeling Brain. Dr. Jami is the designation I have chosen for my Thinking Brain who, were it up to me, would be in charge one hundred percent of the time. She is responsible for all my “normal” day-to-day functioning, as well as the relatively constant critical analysis that has, admittedly, led to some pretty decent successes along this human journey so far. Oh, how I wish I could summon her at will. Actually, that is a falsity. Dr. Jami is almost continuously present. And her presence is not always helpful. Enter Ms. Hide, my Feeling Brain. What a hideous abomination she can be. Ms. Hide is really quite brilliant. Shockingly so at times. She effortlessly creates scenarios Dr. Jami could not possibly envision in her wildest dreams. And the authenticity with which she delivers these stories is so riveting, they instantly become my actual reality. She certainly has a flair for the dramatic and she is particularly partial to subject matter that is both dismal and macabre.
Most of the time, Dr. Jami is in charge. She is demanding, but organized, and when she is in control, things tend to run smoothly. But Ms. Hide is a bully, and whenever she capriciously decides to take over, Dr. Jami is forced into the background, an unwilling bystander left to observe and critique every detail she perceives. She tries to stand up to Ms. Hide, logically enumerating all the incongruencies she detects, arguing that this is not, in fact, reality but a nightmarish dreamscape created to ensnare me in yet another downward spiral of panic and impending doom. I can hear her. I can feel her urging me to believe Her. And yet Ms. Hide’s stories are so beguiling, so captivating, that I end up under her spell every single time. All the while Dr. Jami pleads with me to come back to her, and when I am unable to do so, she becomes incensed and begins making disparaging remarks and berating me for being so stupid as to not be able to see through Ms. Hide’s ludicrous web of fantasy.
And so it continues. Ms. Hide accusing me of massive humiliation and incompetence, promising the inevitable annihilation of not only everything I have worked so hard to build thus far, but of all my hopes and dreams for the future as well. Dr. Jami attempting to bring me back to her side by bullying me with insults underscoring my intellectual inferiority as clearly evidenced by the fact that I continue to allow myself to be enticed to drink the potion.
Ms. Hide makes me want to disappear; to be swallowed up by the Earth so as never to have to face my ostensible self-induced mortification again. Her stories may not be real but the shame she makes me experience is so visceral that I would rather cease to exist than to continue to endure it. Meanwhile, Dr. Jami observes every crushing moment, shaking her head in disgust and disappointment.
On most occasions, the above merely results in a sleepless night of tossing and turning and listening to a horrible internal dialogue. The worst episodes elicit a full-blown panic attack. Those make me feel like I’m actually going to explode – as if my body will not be able to contain its cells and they will violently burst out of their bonds. To alleviate a panic attack I need weight and small spaces. Ideally another human lies on me with as much of their body weight pressing down on me as I can tolerate. When that is not possible, I have a weighted blanket and multiple ankle weights that I place on my chest, belly, and wrists, and I lie on the floor of my closet in the dark (or any other compact space I can find in which to enclose myself). The absolute worst of those attacks landed me in the hospital and resulted in diagnosis #3 (Panic Disorder).
Then three years ago, while in a session with my former therapist (I moved – I didn’t fire him, I swear!) I mentioned I had “tricks” for managing my anxiety. I had been using these techniques for as long as I could remember, so they did not seem out of the ordinary to me. He asked me what I meant by “tricks”, so I gave him a few examples. For instance, If I’m at someone’s house or out at a restaurant, I need to count the bathroom tiles to calm my nerves. I need to rinse my face exactly 17 times when I wash it in the morning so my day will start off well and then again in the evening so I won’t have bad dreams. Do I really believe these actions will have their desired effect? Dr. Jami doesn’t, but Ms. Hide certainly does, and we know who wins that argument every single time. I could tell by the look on his face he was contemplating something significant, and after a moment he asked me if I ever have any unusual thought processes. The only one that immediately jumped to mind (I had never mentioned this to anyone before because it is so ridiculous that I find it super embarrassing) was that whenever I hit a pothole I have to check the front of my car the second I get home to make sure I didn’t actually hit a person, and I worry about it incessantly until I can do so.
A year after that session, almost to the day, my doctor gave me my fourth and latest diagnosis, and now I feel like a walking version of the DSM-5. This time it was “functional OCD” – meaning I usually do not require medication to manage it. Unless, of course, I go through a period of intense extended stress. Then my overall anxiety skyrockets, and subsequently, so do my O’s and C’s.
The biggest struggle for me through all of this has been how it has affected my ability to have fun with my friends. Nothing makes me happier than a girls’ night out – or even better – an entire weekend. I am lucky enough to have what I consider the greatest group of kickass girlfriends a woman could ask for. And we all love food – and wine. But for me, alcohol increases the likelihood of an anxiety spiral exponentially. There are VERY few individuals with whom I will allow myself to have more than one glass of wine due to the sheer terror it elicits. The mere prospect of a potential loss of precise control of my faculties during which I might say or do something embarrassing is nauseating. Each of these women has seen me go through these attacks and although they are My Tribe and love me anyway, my reaction is always the same. Any witnessed panic attack is routinely followed by a second one later when I am alone, brought on by the fact that I subjected someone to having to behold such a mortifying display. And believe you me, the sequel puts the original to shame every single time.
There is, however, a silver lining to all of this. It led to my discovery of Mindfulness Meditation. And while I do continue to work with a therapist (as most of you will already know if you’ve read some of my other posts), and occasionally have to resort to medication during periods of intense and prolonged stress, for the most part, my regular meditation practice has been the most successful means of managing my personal experiences with anxiety.
Contrary to popular belief, meditation is not the emptying of your mind. In actuality, it is the active direction – and trust me on this one, very frequent re-direction – of the attention to a specific stimulus, most often the breath. Our minds are so programmed to be constantly thinking that experts estimate the average person has approximately 60 000 – 80 000 thoughts every day. It’s no wonder Buddhists have a term for this. They call it Monkey Mind.
Meditation is considered the end game of yoga. We’ll go into that in much greater detail in a future post, but for now, suffice it to say that it is a mega-powerful practice. Meditation can include a variety of different activities, but all have the same goal of achieving one-pointed focus. Mindfulness meditation attempts to anchor that effort on something inside the body. This is known as sensory withdrawal and studies have shown it can be immensely useful in helping people cope with their anxiety symptoms. It is important to point out here that the goal of most anxiety treatments is not to eliminate anxiety altogether, but rather to make it more manageable. Anxiety can be an extremely useful emotion when it arises in appropriate situations, such as when an actual threat presents itself.
Meditation is not something that comes easily to most people for the very reason mentioned above. Our brains like to time travel. We spend the vast majority of our lives either replaying past experiences or imagining future events. This is why, for most people, learning to meditate can be a frustrating experience. Research has shown that novice meditators can focus on their breath or any other anchor for roughly 20 seconds before their mind wanders off. This phenomenon can be discouraging to beginners, especially if they believe that in order to truly meditate you need to be still and have unwavering concentration for hours on end. And while these adepts do exist, if meditation were a sport, they would be the Olympians. After all, scientists have determined that it takes a minimum of 10 000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert in any area.
The good news is that scientists have discovered that the positive effects of meditation are cumulative, so no effort is ever wasted. One study even showed an overall reduction in disruptive anxiety symptoms in novice meditators after only 6 weeks of practice.
So, inhale, exhale, and repeat.
OK, full disclosure: Unless I am actually teaching meditation as part of one of my yoga classes, I don’t personally use my breath as the anchor for my own attention. This is because I feel the greatest connection to my breath in my chest – which also happens to be where I feel my symptoms of an anxiety attack the most intensely. Consequently, focusing on my breath when I am alone, especially if I am dealing with some strong emotions, can actually bring on an anxiety attack or escalate one into a full-blown panic attack. So, while the breath tends to work well for most meditators, it is not a necessary part of the practice. Over the years I have found that I prefer to focus on the parts of my body that make contact with my cushion or the floor because they evoke a sensation of grounding, which as you can imagine from the above anecdote, has an immediately therapeutic effect on me. However, you can literally choose anything that works for you.
Meditation is a deeply personal practice. There are hundreds of methods and options available, from guided recording apps to classes and silent retreats. How you meditate isn’t important. What is is that you stick with it until you find what works for you. We will continue to explore the practice of meditation and its many benefits in future posts.
In the meantime, if you’re looking for other ways to help manage your anxiety symptoms, please use the following link to access my YouTube video Yoga for Anxiety 2020.
But please see your healthcare provider if you feel you need additional help.
Until then, inhale, 2, 3, 4, exhale, 2, 3, 4…
PS The Mindful Grape is up for grabs if anyone is looking to label a new wine vintage (I ask only that I get to try a bottle in return). You’re welcome 😉
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