yoga

Anxiety, self-study, and taking up space.

Cape Cod National Seashore - February 2017

Cape Cod National Seashore - February 2017

I experience anxiety more than what I perceive to be the normal amount. I believe that anxiety can sometimes be a rational, appropriate emotional response to some life circumstance. Nervousness is a normal thing to experience. That it is normal doesn’t mean it is necessary, but that’s a conversation for another time. Say there is something pending for which the stakes feel high, and the outcome is something in which you feel heavily invested, or to which you feel heavily attached. Not knowing what the outcome will be, you feel anxious about what will happen. This strikes me as normal. You’ve applied for a job, you’re preparing for a presentation, you’ve got a big game, you’re going to tell someone something important, you have some big decision to make - you don’t know how it’s going to play out. No one ever does or ever can. We play fortune-teller and future-trip on stories we tell ourselves about what is going to happen. Future-tripping is a phrase that I like to use to describe this anticipatory anxiety (I did not make up this phrase, it’s a thing). It’s best described as getting caught up on what you believe may or may not happen and getting attached to that story that you’ve concocted. I say it’s a story that you’ve concocted because, unless you’ve got a crystal ball and some skill that I have yet to master regarding divination, you actually do not know for certain what’s going to happen. Seriously - you actually don’t know, and from where I stand, that’s actually a good thing. It means anything can happen, and we have no idea what’s next. How exciting! It would be a terrible bore to always know what’s going to happen. That said, worry can arise from the not-knowing, and this worry is a very human thing.

All that to say, to some extent, worry and anxiety seem to me to be normal things to experience. For some reason, though, I experience it more often than in the fairly reasonable circumstances that I just described. I also experience it to a degree that can severely interfere with my day-to-day life.

Emotion begins as a physical experience. Our endocrine systems produce and release hormones in response to stimuli, and that results in sensation. We cognitively process the sensation and have patterns of thought that match. Something happens, and our bodies produce a chemical that is evolutionarily designed to trigger a response. Example: something threatens our wellbeing, our body produces adrenaline, and we experience fight-or-flight fear. If the something threatening you was a sabre-toothed tiger, that response would likely save your life. That’s the point of the system. Very clever, really. This is a very brief summary of the neurobiological explanation for emotion, and it’s worth further investigation, if you’re interested. The research is out there - but I’m not a scientist and that’s not the point of what I’m writing here.

I experience this fight-or-flight fear in situations seemingly entirely void of reasonable stimuli to catalyze it. Over the years, I have developed helpful tools and coping mechanisms to work with it (or at least survive it). This is the primary reason I developed an interest in yoga and meditation to begin with - to combat the good ol’ garden variety anxiety-depression combo. This seems to be a very common thing, and the reasons for its commonness will not be tackled in this post (but are probably worth further investigation, as well). The fact that it is so common is the primary driver for my passion for teaching yoga and meditation. These tools saved me and continue to save me all the time, so it feels meaningful and important to me to bring them to other people.

One aspect of yoga has been of paramount importance and usefulness in my ongoing wrestling match with anxiety: svadhyaya. As I believe I have discussed before (if not on this platform then certainly on my Instagram), yoga is so much more than asana (posture practice on the mat). It is, in fact, an eight-limbed path (not the same as the Eightfold Path of Buddhism). One of those eight limbs of yoga is called niyama and outlines personal practices that relate to our inner world. Svadhyaya is one of the niyama, and it basically translates to self-study. It is the single-most accessed aspect of my yoga practice.

I use svadhyaya to collect data on myself. I have turned myself into a case study and use my life as an experiment. I will likely write a whole post dedicated exclusively to this practice, but for now, the important point is that self-study has changed the game in the way I navigate my experience of anxiety.

From self-study, I have been able to draw the following conclusion: if there is an absence of an obvious external stimulus to trigger worry/nervousness/anxiety in the “normal” human way I described earlier, then I am likely out of alignment somehow, and usually, that misalignment comes from not speaking my truth. Now, this is not a biologically reasonable catalyst to fight-or-flight, but the data show that the two have historically gone hand in hand for me.

It’s hard for me to take up space and ask for what I need. This is tied to self-worth work that is all too common. When I know that there is something that I need, and I don’t ask for it, I spiral. This shows up in my body as anxiety. There’s a loose connection to be made to the biological design of anxiety, I suppose. I need something in order to be well, and my body tells me to run or fight for my life. It is a massive over-response, but it is apparently how I’m wired. Learning this through the process of self-study allows me to head this anxiety off at the pass more and more. Most often, though, it allows me to understand what is going on when I find myself in a puddle of fear for seemingly no reason.

Anxiety is horrible, honestly. It sucks. Like, really really sucks. It varies in severity, like all experiences. Sometimes, it’s just a slight tightness in my throat and chest. Sometimes, it’s a mild headache. I get on with my day and ignore the discomfort. It can be a little hard to focus, or a little hard to smile, but it’s fine. I’ll live. Sometimes, it’s bad. Sometimes, it keeps me home from social gatherings, prevents me from getting work done, or lets my room get messy. Sometimes, I curl up on my bed and tremble and wonder what’s wrong with me. I don’t return phone calls, I don’t eat or eat too much, I don’t sleep or sleep too much. Sometimes I cry, scream, shake. Sometimes, I sit and stare at a candle flame. In any case, I don’t feel vibrant, alive, or engaged with my life. I feel broken and unworthy. I feel overwhelmed by shame and despair. I feel like the feeling will never go away. It makes everything feel like a task requiring insurmountable effort. I can intellectually process that there is little to no validity to the feeling, but that intellectual understanding never makes the feeling go away. Never.

I share all of this for a few reasons.

First, as always, I’m hopeful that some of you will see your experience reflected in my own and find this validating. You aren’t alone. We’re all human. Some of us go through similar things. There is strength in community.

Second, also as always, I’m hopeful that there is something in my learning process that will serve you in your own. Maybe svadhyaya will change your life, too.

The third reason is purely, undeniably selfish. What I’m working on is sharing the unfiltered version of what is real and true for me. When I don’t tell the truth, I end up in a puddle on the floor. Lately, it seems that my body completely rejects anything short of absolute transparency. I’m trying to appeal to that need by baring my heart, bloody and mangled though it may feel today. I’ve had a bad few weeks of experiencing anxiety more than I typically do. Last night, I tried to skip out on a party after arriving two hours late (because I didn’t feel grounded enough to go) and being there for ten minutes. Someone caught me on the porch and I ended up staying, but when I got home I fully melted down. I’m doing three loads of laundry today because I’ve just let clothing pile around my room because it’s felt like too much to tackle. Laundry. Laundry felt overwhelming. What the hell? I’ve been alternating between sleeping barely a few hours and needing to sleep constantly. I’ve had to either force myself to eat or found myself mindlessly putting food in my mouth. I’ve been having nightmares where I wake up gasping and in tears. So maybe, maybe, if I share, my body will calm these irrational responses. Maybe, if I tell the truth, I’ll be able to relax and soften. Maybe, if I’m honest with all of you, I’ll feel grounded in my life as it is. I need to feel seen and heard and supported. I find it so difficult to ask for people to look at me, listen to me, and show up for me. I’ve never practiced this asking, so for the first time in my life, I’m learning how. It’s so messy and clumsy. I talk around in circles and mumble, but I’m trying. When I don’t, my body screams at me. I’m sick of bearing the screaming (here showing up as anxiety), so I guess I’d better learn.

Finally, if you are not someone who experiences anxiety the way I do, the odds are that you know someone who does. This post might grant you some insight to their experience. I can’t tell you what they need or how to show up for them. I can tell you, though, that one of the kindest things you can do is ask them what you can do to support them - because maybe, like me, they’re desperate for it but have no idea how to tell you.

One more thing - I do have access to the support that I need. It’s all around me all of the time. I’m so lucky to be fully surrounded by people close to me who can and do hear me and see me and show up for me with a kind of love and consistency that occasionally brings to me knees with gratitude. I know that I am loved, and I am held by those people. I have the help that I need. What I’m working on is being willing to ask for it (rather than waiting for them to notice something is wrong - which they always inevitably do), and even more so, being willing to receive it.

Thank you for being here. Thank you for being you. We are all walking each other home.

XO
Spencer