After A Decades-Long Battle With Anxiety, I Found Healing In A Yoga Studio
A surprising amount of stuff gets worked out on the mat.
I still remember what I assume was my first panic attack. I was in my elementary school cafeteria during an after school program. A dreamy feeling fell over me and my extremities felt numb. I was terrified and everything felt hazy. I couldn’t necessarily articulate that I was afraid, just that I felt an eerie sensation that everything around me had changed in some way. I asked my friend if this was real or if I was dreaming. I distinctly remember her grabbing my face and assuring me that everything was fine and this wasn’t a dream. I couldn’t have been older than seven.
That sick, dreamy feeling followed me throughout most of my adolescence, meeting me at the most unexpected and inconvienient places. The times I panicked during school presentations were never really a surprise to me, but feeling out-of-body and out of my mind in a crowded mall or in a Wal-Mart SuperCenter was always a shock.
The same numbness revisited sometime in high school. That was both when I realized that the foreign feeling that blanketed me was both a problem and had a name. I headed to class convinced that I would collapse on my way there. I sat through an hour and half of Algebra 1 almost entirely convinced that I wasn’t really there. The lighting in the room felt way too bright—almost surgical—and I couldn’t make sense of our lesson no matter how hard I tried. I felt divorced from reality in a way that I could not ignore. I floated across campus on muscle memory, my mind was elsewhere.
Anxiety continued to exist in the background of my life for a while. Knowing what a panic attack was didn’t make it any less scary. Once one started to take hold, I had no other choice but to ride the wave until it passed, I was just less inclined to assume the worst every time. I always knew these feelings would come back and and they did, but never in a particularly memorable way.
I felt divorced from reality in a way that I could not ignore.
That was until one weekend I spent alone in my campus apartment during my junior year of college. All of my roommates had left for the weekend and I found myself inexplicably afraid to go to sleep at night. The depth of the night sky held something ominious and I was terrified of letting my guard down in its presence. I opted instead to stay up all night watching reality television and working on a political science paper until the sun came up. It was only then that I felt safe enough to close my eyes and rest again.
This wasn’t a panic attack, but it was the beginning of what would become a months long grappling session with anxiety and eventual depression. I battled intrusive thoughts about death and existence almost constantly. Concepts that I’d only thought about in passing, I was now obsessed with. Focusing in class became nearly impossible. My regular routine was entirely upended. Writing for my college’s online magazine, putting on makeup and laughing with my roommates had all been fun parts of my daily life. Now they felt meaningless.
For the next few months sleeping, eating or even having a conversation about anything other than the fucked up thoughts and feelings cycling through me felt nearly impossible. My world, which hadn’t always felt safe and secure before, had completely shifted so that I was also bracing for iminent danger. My former reality was always just slightly out of reach.
I left school for a few days in hopes that time spent at home would rearrange my faulty mental wiring. I spent the hour-and-a-half-long ride home wondering what would happen if I opened the door and flung myself out of the speeding car onto the hot asphalt of the highway. I didn’t want to die, but I didn’t want to live in this headspace anymore either. Maybe a moment of impact was what I needed to get back to how everything used to be.
I returned to school expecting everything to settle back down within a matter of weeks. I rearranged my room in hopes of waking up with a fresh and mentally healthy perspective. I saw a therapist at my university’s counseling center on a weekly basis, but found most of what she had to say infuriating at best.
My world, which hadn’t always felt safe and secure before, had shifted so that I was also bracing for eminent danger.
I took my prescribed antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds on a semi-regular basis but was pretty convinced that if it wasn’t going to help me feel better instantly, then it wasn’t going to help me at all. I wanted this to go away with the swiftness of a headache. I consider medication a perfectly viable treatment option for many of the 40 million people in the U.S. who experience anxiety and if I had taken it correctly, it may have worked for me too. My refusal to take it as prescribed wasn’t so much an act of defiance as it was an inability to care about the body I no longer felt a connection to.
Feelings of constant worry gradually faded away as I recommitted myself to focusing on school, extracurriculars, friendships and dating. I was still very conscious of my thoughts and feelings, always half expecting that a disturbing and obsessive thought pattern would recur. I ditched the pills and the shitty therapist. These weren’t healthy choices, but my ability to ignore problems that are staring me in the face is unparalleled.
I spent the next year or so experiencing panic attacks on a much less regular basis, periodically looking back at that confusing time of my life and writing it off as “those crazy few months” to anyone I talked to about it. Making light of it was easier than admitting that some variation of those intrusive thoughts popped into my mind at least once a day.
Within a few months of graduating, I moved out of state for a job. Knowing no one and having never been so far from home, should have created the perfect recipe for a mental tailspin. I wish that I could say that the move was exciting—that I felt happy and eagerly anticipated all of the new things that would come my way. In reality, I felt numb. I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of new opportunities. Everything happening around me couldn’t have elicited more than a shrug in response. It was what it was.
My ability to ignore problems that are staring me in the face is unparalleled.
That all changed when I started taking yoga classes. I looked into yoga studios just to have something to do in this new city. Fitness was never previously a priority for me, but all the time I spent gasping for breath after going up a few flights of stairs made me think differently. I had some previous experience with yoga and knew it was low-impact enough for me to handle. My dream scenario involved developing a rock hard core and being able to do inversions with ease. That didn’t happen, but I was surprised to find some level of mental strength in that yoga studio, which would have been so helpful to me years ago.
Anxiety is best battled with patience. Learning to move “one breath to one movement” wasn’t just a way to get the most out of my yoga practice, it was a lesson that gets me through my hardest days. I learned to slow down and that I shouldn’t feel guilty for wanting to be comfortable in my surroundings. There was nothing wrong with taking a moment to catch my breath and be present with it, rather than forcing myself to do anything more than that, if I didn’t feel like I could. Yoga taught me to have patience with myself and take everything one breath, one movement and one moment at a time.
Yoga is about more than planking for long periods of time and perfect posture—it’s about being present in your body. That’s why a surprising amount of shit gets worked out on the mat. It’s impossible not to literally face your whole self when you’re standing in front of a mirror, wobbling your way through tree pose. Feeling your feet firmly planted on the ground and each breath enter and exit your body forces you to choose which thoughts and emotions you want to focus on.
I shouldn’t feel guilty for wanting to be comfortable in my surroundings.
I often find myself echoing my yoga instructors suggestion to “let go of any thoughts that don’t serve you.” It sounds very hippie-dippy, but I’ve found it to be incredibly helpful in times of crisis. When my thoughts overwhelm me, I always visualize them being physically written out on a chalk board. They’re then erased and what remains of the words float away in plumes of white dust.
I know that I won’t be able to work through everything this way. There will be days that the wind get knocked out of me by nothing more than the sheer force of my own mind, but I choose how to handle it—one breath, one movement and one moment at a time.