Anxiety is dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system and the vast array of symptoms that come from that. To say that anxiety is a scourge of modern living is an understatement. How do we go about unwinding anxiety and it’s symptoms?
I always feel a great deal of empathy when I work with people with anxiety because I’ve been there myself and lived it. In what feels like a different life now, I worked for years in a corporate environment. The work was target driven and pressurised, with long hours, & difficult decisions to be made often without any support and out of normal working hours. Initially I loved it – it was a buzz. I enjoyed the sharp-witted banter and edgy living. However, over time, and in combination with a couple of personal crises, it took it’s toll. Buzz became hyperarousal & panic. I couldn’t sleep. I was drinking coffee to stay awake, drinking wine to get any sleep. Eventually I wound up seeing a doctor who informed me I had levels of cortisol in my blood comparable with someone faced with fighting a bear.
What we’re really talking about with anxiety is a nervous system that has fallen out of balance and needs fixing. The doctor offered me some kind of tranquiliser that thankfully I declined. It wouldn’t have fixed the cause, just masked the effects. I was lucky to have a yoga practice that I turned into a daily practice to keep me square. But it took a long time to fix my nervous system, with the final keys being total lifestyle change, and also years of study to understand it. Having worked my own way through anxiety, here are some of the things I learned all the way.
1/ You’re not mad, bad or broken.
I cannot emphasise this enough. Despite the big push towards greater mental health awareness, there is still stigma and judgement surrounding it. Personally I don’t like the term “mental health”, it implies some sort of head problem or madness with all the connotations that go with it. Nervous system dysfunction is more accurate but nowhere near as snappy.
Remind yourself of the defense cascade by checking this previous post – understanding it is key to understanding your anxiety. Trauma and stress, even minor stress, involves activating the fight or flight (sympathetic) part of the nervous system. The “buzz” I became addicted to in my corporate life was exactly this – excitement, stress, fear – they’re all shades of the same thing – sympathetic arousal. And who doesn’t like to feel excited, more alive, slightly activated? The problem is managing the level of it.
Mostly in the corporate world I lived within manageable levels of stress and could recover my nervous system through sleep or social engagement. However when the stress at work increased or I suffered a personal crisis, there came a tipping point and it became harder to return my nervous system to a balanced state. The resulting lack of sleep, loss of appetite, and higher cortisol levels became a vicious circle and my position on the defence cascade edged upwards. I had panic attacks. I felt like I was going mad which made me more frightened & anxious.
So the first thing way to tackle anxiety is to understand what’s going on. Simply your autonomic nervous system is out of balance. Nobody explained to me what was going on. I was offered pills. But the issue was physical in the first instance and I needed interventions to repair damage done by years of living in the sympathetic nervous system.
Think of a recent occasion when you got stressed (or really excited). What did it feel like? It’s a surge of energy, right?
Our autonomic nervous system is there to keep us safe. When we sense threat (or to some degree, reward via the dopamine circuit), our body reacts accordingly. To keep us safe, the nervous system makes us more alert, & directs energy to the heart, breath and limbs. We’re ready to talk our way out of it, run away or stand and fight.
If you’re sat at a desk at work, then only the talking option is really available to you and most of the time we’re unable to say what we really feel. So all of that additional energy or “charge”, has nowhere to go. Our body just has to get used to living with it.
At the start of lockdown my mum had a stroke. I was unable to go and see her, and had to try to manage a lot of the situation from afar. Had I been there it would have been stressful but I would have been able to use up some of that charge by helping out and sorting issues. But we were locked-down and my charge had nowhere to go. My heart & breath rate increased, I couldn’t settle, my mind ran faster and I had trouble getting unbroken sleep. I felt like a soda bottle that had been shaken up.
Telling someone in this state to breathe slowly or to try to relax is ridiculous. All that’s going to happen is that they’re going to realise they can’t. They’ll have more awareness of how agitated and activated they are, and that will make them more stressed.
The answer when you’re really charged up is to move. Run, walk, shake, punch, slap the floor. Discharge some of that energy. My saving grace was a combination of TRE which discharges the nervous system, and walking for hours uphill on a treadmill! Once physically tired, then I could start to think about yoga and meditation.
It’s for this reason that a lot of my students find Yin yoga harder than Kundalini. At first glance, Yin sounds really simple – lie around on a bolster and stretch. If you’ve ever tried to do Yin when you’re stressed then you’ll know how hard it can be to switch off. Four minutes seems excruciatingly long. The practice becomes tedious and exacerbates mental rumination. The fact is you’re running too fast for Yin. Kundalini, with it’s repetitive movement, stress positions, fast breath and bioenergetic shaking, banging and punching works much better with someone who’s activated. It’s a gradual discharging of energy to arrive at a place of calm.
Once you’ve discharged some of the excess energy, breath is a great place to start managing anxiety. The nervous system can change your breathing pattern. Conversely you can change your nervous system by controlling your breath. It’s one of the best ways to retore balance and it’s a free resource.
Functional breathing is light, slow and deep. Any deviation away from this is dysfunctional. So by working with your breath to restore functionality, you will restore harmony to your body.
Breathing diaphragmatically is a big part of the battle. The vagus nerve, one of the main players in the parasympathetic nervous system (rest, digest, relax), runs through the diaphragm and is stimulated by it. Also breathing with the diaphragm slows the breath down and also makes gaseous exchange more efficient.
Rest you hands on your lower ribs either sitting up or lying down. Breathe in and feel the lower ribs flare out and away from the spine. As you breathe out they’ll move back into place. Keep your shoulders, neck and upper back relaxed. Do this for 3-5 minutes at regular intervals throughout the day.
Slowing the breath to 5 or 6 breaths per minute is optimal (most of the population breathes around 17-18 times a minute so you can see the scale of the problem). At 5 or 6 breaths a minute you restore heart rate variability (HRV) which is seen as a measure of the health of your nervous system. When balanced as you inhale the heart rate will increase, as you exhale, the rate will fall. Someone who is very stressed or suffering with anxiety will display very little variation between inhale and exhale. Whereas someone with a slow rate of breathing, will have greater HRV and display greater resilience. (Please note that there is little point to reducing the speed of your breath, if you increase the volume ie gulp in more air to compensate. Reducing speed must be accompanied by less or the same volume).
Try breathing in for a count of 4 seconds, out for a count of 5 seconds, hold for a count of 1 second and repeat. Those with the members package can check out 5.5 Breathing in the Breath Meditation section.
Develop self-awareness of your breath – get to know it intimately. Breathing is mostly unconscious and reflects our state. Bringing it to conscious awareness throughout the day will help you uncover dysfunctional patterns and correct issues before they become uncontrollable.
4/ Get grounded
When you’re activated, being present is almost impossible. Your mind is whirring, you’re ruminating, easily distracted. A lot of energy moves up the body into the upper chest, shoulders, neck and head. Anyone who has practised yoga for a while will know that the energy in the top of the body is quicker than that in the base of the body. Anyone who has practised Qigong will know the slow effortlessness that develops when you connect to your feet and legs.
One of the first signs in TRE that someone is becoming overwhelmed is that they lose awareness of their feet – they can no longer sense the size or shape of their feet. We spend a lot of time in TRE establishing a connection to the feet and legs. It brings attention back to the body, rather than it all sitting in the head. It also creates a sense of security and safety that lessens the threat trigger.
If you’re really activated, stamp your feet for a while. Less activation can be helped by 30 minutes of Qigong, dance or even massaging your feet.
Being in nature regularly is a lovely way to feel grounded. But if you don’t have easy access to the countryside, create a safe space within your home. And pay regular attention to your surroundings – take time to look at things properly, or pick them up. Another great way to be present is to spend time in the company of others, listening, laughing and sharing. Your friends will soon let you know if you’re not present and not paying attention to them.
5/ Address your lifestyle
We don’t make great decisions when we’re stressed and we also don’t view things rationally. When I worked for my corporate bosses I was so caught up in the drama of it that I felt things couldn’t change. I also felt that I was way more important within the company than I actually was – I thought that if I didn’t work 10 hour days, things would fall apart. They really didn’t. Nor, as it turned out, did my bosses value my superhuman effort.
Sympathetic nervous system arousal gives you almost tunnel vision. Don’t forget it’s our survival mode – it cuts out incidental stuff and focuses you on the scenario at hand. It also raises our heart rate so the more elevated emotions such as love, compassion, forgiveness, empathy, and self-compassion are unavailable.
We can’t all give up our jobs to become yoga teachers (nor would I recommend it – it certainly comes with its own set of stresses and strains!). But it is so powerful to look at your life honestly when you’re relaxed. My life changed completely when Alex and I spent 2 weeks on a Greek island doing absolutely nothing. Towards the end of the holiday, when nervous system balance was restored, I looked at my life with clarity, I could see how out of balance it was and how unhappy I had become. I was lucky to be in a position to then make real changes.
Never underestimate the power of small changes. Added together they can become a tsunami. Don’t try to change things overnight or be too ambitious. Focus on small, manageable changes that are easy to maintain. Enjoy the results. Let your nervous system drop a notch or two. Make more small changes. And soon you’re heading down the curve.
What originally hooked me to Kundalini yoga was the self-awareness that came with it. I’d practice it every day before work and very often in meditation something would bubble up. Why are you doing this? Why does this stress you out so much? This is a pattern of behaviour. What are you distracting yourself from? Through self-reflection I started to unravel the patterns and habits I had got tangled up in. I’ve seen it so many times with my students too where they have had big revelations and made life changing decisions as a result. It’s a wonderful practice for that and is definitely a practice for the times.
6/ Get good at stress
One of the most common things I see with people who have acute anxiety is that they limit their experiences to things that won’t trigger them. In essence they close their lives off to minimise what they feel. Often they won’t go anywhere or try anything new. Things that trigger them are avoided. It often works but makes life extremely limiting.
Stress is a part of life that isn’t going to go away. We live in a fast paced world with plenty of stimulus to activate us. Rather than try to avoid it, another approach is to get really good at stress. Stress by itself isn’t a bad thing – in many ways it creates positive adaptations for us as humans such as energy, motivation, overcoming challenges and finding solutions. The problem is when we don’t manage stress well and don’t balance it out with periods of genuine rest and relaxation.
In the quieter times in our life we can develop skills to handle stress well. In Kundalini we spend a lot of time moving through the different parts of the autonomic nervous system. We might hold out arms in the air until it becomes uncomfortable so you can watch how your body and mind responds when it’s put under pressure. Immediately after a stress position you are encouraged to return to a baseline state of soft relaxation and a light slow breath. Exercises like this, repeated time and time again not only make you adept at recognising the symptoms of stress, but also trains and strengthens the nervous system. You are much better able to return to a more relaxed state after a period of stress.
Techniques such as cold water swimming or showers, rapid breathwork, and stepping outside your comfort zone for positive challenge, all teach eustress or beneficial stress. TRE puts you right in the nervous system and is probably the most direct experience you can have of it in a controlled setting.
To recap if you’re suffering with anxiety first understand how you got here and the physical cause of it. I’ll say it again, you’re not mad, bad or broken – your nervous system is out of whack. Find ways to get rid of the pent up charge then begin working with the breath and meditation / yoga or Qigong in order to repair the physical symptoms and get grounded. Slow down, and when you start to relax, take time to assess your lifestyle and make small, manageable changes if you can. Finally in quieter times develop your capacity to deal with stress and encourage good stress.
If you would like more information about managing anxiety, please get in touch. TRE sessions run online every couple of weeks. Breath coaching information can be found here. And for details about our classes click here.