If there’s one psychological experience that jars most humans in some form, it is recurring bouts of anxiety. We can all relate to the uneasy, nervous feelings that often go along with a future unknown. Despite differences in age, race, background, religious and political ideology, income level, or sexual orientation, feeling worry and tension over what’s to come is actually something that connects us all.
The intensity of the experience lies within the individual but it is imperative to strike an honest, open dialogue free from any judgment or shame. Sure, the negativity manifests differently in us all, but that doesn’t mean our sharing in what brings or exacerbates our anxiety and how we’ve managed to learn from it won’t benefit others. The more we collaborate in tackling these basic human challenges, the less power they have over us and the more likely we are to overcome them.
It is precisely within that dialogue where I found inspiration to write this piece. I wanted to write it with someone from a very different background, with her own unique challenges with anxiety, but one who I feel deeply connected with on this path. Our journey coming together was vastly different but the truths and insights we’ve gleaned are so similar and connected, we know they can help others.
Leeann is Yoga student, recently became a certified teacher, finishing her last year of college. After undergoing a particularly challenging divorce as a child, being an anxious teenager, along with the pressures of being a dancer contributed to deeply personal issues with control. The converging issues in her mind had nearly cataclysmic consequences on her body, after years of digging deep and undergoing significant amounts of pain (both physical and emotional), Leeann has emerged into one of the wisest, most compassionate, open and tremendously helpful human beings I know.
We’ve come together to share tools that have helped us manage our anxiety. Are we cured? Finished? Complete? No. We are each ever-evolving works in progress, but what we understand now is we don’t have to be complete or perfect to know we are whole, to know we are enough, to start the day with gratitude and withstand whatever highs and lows the outside world throws at us.
We recognize now how important our inner dialogue is and how deeply, profoundly connected the mind and body are and always will be. We share a bit of our personal experiences and then our most helpful tools. You will notice similarities and common truths, but we each carry a different echo. We hope you resonate with either of our words and will feel encouraged to start your own dialogue.
My experience with anxiety began very young. I’d lay awake just stewing at night, from the early ages of 7-8-9 I’d have trouble sleeping due to an over-active imagination. Sometimes this creativity can be fun, exhilarating even, but when the initial experiences of sadness, tragedy and heartache set in, the imagination is then led down a winding road of misery, and the very thought of those experiences repeating themselves would send my heart and gut into a tailspin of fear. The fear would build and I’d get sick, whether it be vomiting, aches and tension in my body, or even symptoms of the common cold, they all began and grew from an idea.
Making matters worse, I constantly felt guilt for those I knew who had circumstances much worse than mine. I felt gratitude for the good I had, the loving people in my life, but for some reason the noise of the good couldn’t overpower the constant chatter of the bad. I was trapped in a device of my own making and I didn’t even see it! I still had my happy days, of course, but inside, the unknown future kept me feeling a sense of dread. I feared I’d disappoint the world and that the world would ultimately disappoint me.
I’d yet to realize what power I held, what tools I had in my disposal, and the total lack of awareness that kept me perpetuating these vicious cycles. To borrow a line from Perks of Being a Wallflower, I felt happy and sad at the same time without knowing why. I felt sad, confused, unsure of anything. As soon as I’d strike out batting, I’d fear going back up to the plate, literally and figuratively. I let what-ifs takeover and it wasn’t until I began practicing Yoga consistently, deciding to become a teacher and delving into the wisdom of Eckhart Tolle, Joseph Campbell, Osho and others, that I woke the hell up and saw the misery I was repeatedly inflicting upon myself.
Below are some tools that have seen me through tough times and continue to see me through tough days:
-Disassociating from thoughts: We all talk to ourselves, internally or out-loud, there’s a dialogue within one mind. Recognize yourself as the witness, not simply the thinker. You are not your thoughts. How could you be something so small, so fleeting? You are the conscious presence behind them.
I borrow and echo this wisdom through Eckhart Tolle. I’ve been practicing staying aware of my mind-chatter and over the years it has become much, much easier. Set an intention to watch your thoughts, either through meditation, journaling, Yoga, setting an alarm a few times a day to check in and just observe, or whatever method works for you. Practice is key.
-Breathing through during the worst days: the greatest gift Yoga gave me was a stronger attention to my breath. When I’m anxious, worried, scared, stewing, my breath is short, labored, tense. My body is too. When I’m breathing, everything softens. Suddenly, I listen more acutely, I watch more intently, I’m more present. Combine watching your thoughts with slow breaths and you’ll see your mood transform within minutes.
-Movement/exercise/yoga: I do not count calories or exercise for weight loss benefits. I move because it feels good, it improves my attitude, keeps me energized and friendly. It also keeps metabolism ticking, my heart in great shape and muscles active. Win win. I always encourage students and loved ones to find movement they enjoy, be it walking, Yoga, dance, Pilates, gardening, hiking, responsible weight lifting, moderate running, playing with your dogs or children, frisbee, I could go on. Your body is a machine. It needs and wants to move. Use it or lose it.
-Being with others: I hold no specific religion or ideology in my heart. I feel we are born to love. Often specific regimens within spirituality are gateways to this experience. Sometimes they’re stifling. If yours opens you up, elevates you, makes you feel more love and respect for yourself and others, keep on keepin’ on. I have found my relationships with students, deep friendships and fostering stronger relationships with long-term loved ones to be an excellent religion and moral compass.
I don’t believe in holding onto bad relationships, whether family or otherwise. That is within your heart to decide who to keep close and who to wish well but send on their path. People say relationships, marriage in particular, are work. I disagree. It shouldn’t feel like work. Love yourself first, rely on that as your priority, your number one sense of confidence comes from within. Love is a reflective experience. Choose loved ones who elevate you. Period. Laugh, dance, walk, cry, exchange ideas and experiences with the same goodness you give.
-Give fear the middle finger: Confronting what it is that scares you proves the worst case scenario lies in your mind. Most things we talk ourselves out of will not even come close to killing us. It may hurt our feelings but there are valuable lessons within rejection and failure. Knowing what you can withstand will only make you stronger and more fearless, willing to try, willing to truly take steps toward your big dreams.
Recognize that what scares you is also what excites you, see the positive emotion over the negative what-ifs. Follow the excitement, believe in your ability to handle the inevitable ups and downs.
From Leeann: As a person who started Paxil at the age of 13, “anxiety” is a word that has resonated with me for many years. I spent my adolescence in and out of therapy and on and off of medications, never thinking twice about the fact that these weren’t permanent fixes. I would stay up all night checking my doors to make sure that they were locked and practicing superstitious rituals that I thought would keep my family and me safe.
I was scared to apply for jobs, meet new people and talk in class. It wasn’t until I started taking my yoga practice seriously and letting it penetrate my every day life that I was able to get off the medication and start dealing with my anxiety in a more direct way. This is a constant process and the lessons I learn on and off my mat help me to get through even the toughest days with anxiety. I know now that my anxiety doesn’t get to dictate my life and by taking baby steps, I am able to live more freely and open than ever before.
My journey with anxiety has given me the opportunity to experiment with different tricks and techniques to help me calm down and let go.
Inhale and Exhale- I find that whenever I am feeling anxious, my breath is the first thing that goes. Recognizing that and being able to slow down your breath can make a huge difference. It sounds almost too simple, but after about five deep and steady breaths, I always feel some relief. It helps if I count my inhales and exhales and make the numbers match. That way I give my body a chance to gain back control.
- Connections- Yoga has also brought me some amazing friends that have had a significant impact on how anxiety affects me. The people in my yoga community are open and loving humans who understand the depth of the mind-body connection, which is key in understanding anxiety. They’re helpful because they’re always encouraging me to stay out of my head. They serve as a distraction from my anxiety if I need it, or as listening ears if I want to talk about it. Surrounding yourself with loving, open people can keep you present and in the moment, rather than worrying about the future or the past.
- Leaning into fears- I have many small, trivial fears that come along with the bigger, more serious fears that can send me into a panic attack. I am learning that in some unconscious way, these fears are connected. While I can’t practice whether or not I will get a job when I graduate, or if I will be able to handle moving to a new city on my own, I found that I can practice fears that are on a smaller scale.
I recently bought a bike and started riding it in Chicago. I hesitated and was terrified to take this step as I came very close to losing a person dear to me in a bike accident two years ago. I always knew biking would be the most efficient way to get around the city, but I was consumed by the potential negatives. Thinking about getting on a bike in this fast-paced city gave me a knot in my stomach and triggered a sequence of dark and scary thoughts. Once I realized how little living in fear was doing for me, I decided to try taking baby-steps toward practicing courage and facing my fears head on. Since I began riding, I’ve noticed that I’m able to handle some of my more irrational fears that usually extract an anxious reaction.
By getting on my bike, I was practicing the act of freeing myself from constant worry and fear. I showed myself that my anxiety does not have to control me. Most of our fears are related to things completely out of our control, so by practicing facing fears that are in our control, we are learning to face and overcome. This could mean anything from riding a roller coaster to traveling to a new country on your own to telling someone a truth you’ve yet to reveal. It doesn’t matter so long as you’re giving yourself a brief moment where you’re letting go.
-Living Yoga off the mat- take your favorite quotes, memes, philosophies and lessons into the world, implement them on your bad days, not simply agreeing with them when times are easy.
None of these tools provide easy solutions. There isn’t an on and off button. They’re choices, tough choices to make in the midst of anxiety, but tremendously helpful in easing the intensity and moving through it. Applying the principles in everyday life, regardless of outside circumstances, will help keep a strong, calm presence within. Keep the dialogue moving. We can encourage each other through this.
Leeann Hepler works for a fantastic organization called Smarty Pants Yoga. Their goals surround empowering young girls through Yoga, teaching the real meaning of confidence, self love, strength, intelligence, and happiness. They're doing great work, you should check them out.
I continue to teach Yoga and write in the Los Angeles area. I teach private, couple, group and workplace Yoga, along with meditations, guided relaxation, and psychological coaching on building your own sense of health and happiness. Please feel invited to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for any questions and needs.