Yoga as a source of anxiety

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My first attempt at painting, three weeks ago.

A friend of mine recently brought this blog post to my attention. The author asks a question I’ve explored a little bit myself – does yoga ‘cure’ anxiety, and conversely, can it produce it?

It might help for me to take a small step back and retell how my anxiety began to manifest itself, how I overcame my worst period of anxiety and panic to date, and why yoga helps me keep my anxious thinking from building up.

At the peak of my anxiety, my husband and I had uprooted ourselves to Spain to pursue our graduate studies. Impulsive as I am, I’d insisted we take the leap that year, even though we didn’t have enough money to fund our 18 month stint.

I’ve always talked about the stress that came from our financial situation and the rigors of our MBA program (not to mention the shock of moving across the Atlantic with nothing but a couple of suitcases) as the main trigger for my breakdown.

The truth is that, while that was almost certainly one trigger, there was another I haven’t discussed with anyone before.

In May of 2005, a couple of months before my husband and I left Nicaragua to start our new adventures in Europe, one of my direct reports at work died suddenly and tragically in a violent car accident on her way home from work.

The details around the accident were particularly jarring for me. This woman was driving along, in her lane, respecting all traffic laws and minding her own business when the driver of a speeding car on the other side of the boulevard lost control, jumped the curb, flew in the air, hit her car and crushed her.

I was fairly numb in the weeks after we heard about the accident. The following morning, after the Head of HR had notified me of what had happened, it was up to me to open up the branch this woman managed, and to deliver the news of her death to the staff there.

You’d think I would have been a wreck through all this, but I reacted like I normally do in emergencies – I was calm. And numb.

I never properly mourned my colleague’s death, but the scars followed me to Europe, where in the run-up to the start of my panic disorder I was constantly thinking about the “what if’s” in life. More specifically – What if my plane crashed on the way over? What if burglars broke in and decided to kill us? What if I have a stroke when I’m alone in our apartment and can’t get help for myself in time?

It had become clear at that point that death was out of my control. My colleague had not provoked it. The manner of her death was highly improbable, and at her age – just 35 years old in 2005 – she “should” have had many more years on this earth with her little daughter.

But it’s the “should” in life that make even the most natural and inevitable of things so much harder to process.

And it’s living in the imaginary world of “what if” that unleashes the need for control, the vortex of self-doubt and the constant need for validation that ultimately drive panic and anxiety.

I used a series of mental tricks and tools to break the cycle of anxious thinking (you can read more about that here), but none of those tricks helped me learn the skill of living in the present moment – a skill that yoga has inadvertently introduced into my life.

Yoga helps me with anxiety because when I practice, I don’t think about anything but what I’m doing. I don’t think about the other people in the room, or what might be happening at work, or even what might be happening with my son or my family. I start to practice and give myself a nice long break from the whir of my thoughts and the all-consuming specter of my worry.

I don’t have to make an effort to not think about anything, it just naturally happens. An hour and a half later, I come back into my head with a new perspective on whatever was stressing me out before I started.

That being said, that doesn’t happen naturally for everyone.

Some people get that feeling when they’ve hit a good rhythm during a run, or when they play the piano, or when they find their groove skiing. They become so wrapped up in the here and now that they naturally and effortlessly start living in the moment – the mortal enemy of the “what if” spiral.

Any activity that doesn’t do that for you can certainly add to your anxiety. Any activity that causes you to fall into the spiral of judgment and self-doubt can, of course, make your anxiety worse. Even yoga.

So if it’s yoga that is doing that to you, regardless of how well it works for me, be kind to yourself and skip it!

Maybe you can take up painting??

I’ve heard that can be pretty relaxing!

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One thought on “Yoga as a source of anxiety

  1. I would try some forward bending sequences to help with anxiety. I have a few on my blog menu under “yoga sequences”. Also, Ujjayi pranayama with accent on the exhale helps, but only do 30 minutes after asana practice whilst in savasana. May you find relief from your symptoms. Let me know if you have any questions.

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