Panic or Exhilaration? Your Choice.
When I wrote my previous post, I was on a yoga HIGH. So high that I glossed over the moment where I almost had a panic attack. Almost. But didn’t. Maybe that’s why I was so exhilarated?
I’m not prone to panic attacks, so this was unusual, but I do tend to be anxious. Spend a few minutes in my brain around 2:17 am or 8:01 am or 3:33 pm or 9:15 pm and you’d be anxious also. It’s a constant struggle, alternating between worry that I am not good enough, fear that something bad will happen, and fantasizing about an unrealistic future. It goes something like this:
What if I get fired? I wonder if I could make a living with writing, teaching, and Reiki? What if we lost the house? My husband would leave me. Where would I live? Would I stay in New York or move somewhere else? Back to D.C.? Why isn’t my father answering the phone? What if he is dead? How am I going to deal with the house and all his stuff when he dies? I want to be near the kids. My son thinks I love my daughter more than I love him. I am a terrible mother. How could I let that happen? Dammit. I need sleep! So I don’t lose my job. I’m breathing in. I’m breathing out. Try chanting. Abahu purusakaram. I forgot to water the plants.
And so on. However, after years of therapy and years of yoga, I’ve discovered a secret. For me, anxiety is a habit, a go-to emotion that I can change, not a disability that is inherent in my nature. It’s a learned response based on my upbringing and how my parents dealt with their anxiety and enabled my anxiety. It’s gotten me out of stuff I didn’t want to do and gotten other people to take care of me. And, let’s face it, anxiety is a terrific motivator! (If it doesn’t paralyze you.) We all have anxiety. It’s what we do with it that can make the difference between living a circumspect life versus a more open and courageous life. My biggest fear is that I will die regretting that I didn’t do more. Well, no, my biggest fear is that I will lose a child. And that is the worst anxiety that grips me at 2:17 am.
Back to my almost panic attack. After we worked on lifting our ankles and stretching our armpits, among other things, we did some back-bending poses. Back-bending poses alleviate depression and are exhilarating, though they can increase anxiety. I was a textbook case on Monday. We did a pose, similar to the one pictured above, where we used the chair to support and encourage lengthening and flexibility in the back, opening our chest, throat, and neck. With a more familiar teacher and class, I might have stopped myself.
Sometimes, you need to get out of your comfort zone and do something different. Hear differently. See differently.
The teacher looked at me as I was wiggling my way into the chair, oh-so-cautiously preparing for the pose. (Frankly I was procrastinating.) He said he thought it might be good for my neck, providing a stretch, not a compression (as in headstand, which I currently don’t do). I was skeptical. And afraid, but proceeded. I got into the pose, and gently let my head lean backwards. My neck, throat, and heart open. Exposed.
That’s when the panic arose.
Whoa! My head is heavy. Body scan. Does this hurt? I don’t think so. But it should hurt! Breath tightens, fear arises. Is it okay? Body scan. Does this hurt? I don’t think so. But it should hurt! Breath tightens, fear arises. Can I get out of the pose? When can I get out of the pose? What if I can’t get out of the pose? Breath tightens, fear arises. Should I ask for help? He’s busy helping other students. Maybe I should get out of the pose. I need help! Breath tightens, fear arises. God Damn Iyengar Yoga. Why do they hold poses for so long? Body scan. Hmmm, maybe it doesn’t hurt. Breathe. I’m breathing in. I’m breathing out. Oh! I think I just felt my ear open up a bit. No, I must get out of this pose. Now! I’m going to regret this tomorrow. What if I really hurt myself? Breathe. Oh! I just felt my neck release. When is this pose going to end? How am I going to lift my head out of this pose without hurting myself? I must get out of this pose. Now! Breathe. I’m breathing in. I’m breathing out. Oh! My neck released some more. Phew. Pose is over. I am not doing it again. There’s no fucking way I’m doing this again. But. How about that. Hmmm. I did it!
That’s when the exhilaration arose.
There is new research released recently that studied the brains of people undergoing stress and anxiety. The brains of highly resilient people were demonstrated to acknowledge the stress and anxiety but to dampen the response. Those who were not resilient, who succumbed to the panic, didn’t respond to the anxiety and the stress until it was too late. Breathing became difficult and they overreacted, making the situation worse. One conclusion is that through mindful breathing exercises, you can become more tuned into your reactions and more able to control your response without overreacting.
Breathe. Feel. Feel fear. Feel panic. Feel exhilaration. Feel love. Feel joy. Breathe.
Photo Credit: Viparita Dandasana by Bobby Clennell