The first time I began to really think about the mind-body connection was when I started having panic attacks during university. This re-occurring and unsettling experience presented very unfamiliar sensations to me. I felt a complete lack of control over my ability to ease off or stop the panic attacks. I would experience a shortness of breath, hyperventilate and enter into a vicious cycle of anxiety and breathlessness. When I found myself in this state, the one thing I was repeatedly told in order to find calmness in my bodily reactions, was to bring my focus to the breath. Over this time I was urged to explore this further by giving yoga a go.
Yoga is a practice grounded heavily on following the movement of our breath. It made sense that if I wanted to try to better respond to my anxiety that I would take up yoga. It took time but my anxiety lessened, and my panic attacks stopped. I cannot say that this was due to yoga alone as I adopted many other lifestyle behaviour changes too. Most prominently: mindfulness meditation and eating a more balanced, diverse and whole-food rich diet. I believe that collectively, these have all contributed to strengthening my physical and mental well-being, and in turn have allowed me to re-gain a sense of control over my perception of events and my body’s physiological responses.
As seen with many behaviours, there is often not one single cause but instead multiple reasons why someone behaves the way they do. I believe this is often the case when experiencing anxiety. I imagine anxiety as being represented by a cluster of tangled thoughts, sitting restlessly in our minds, demanding our engagement at every opportune moment. At a glance, this tangle of thoughts seems impossible to disengage from, with every side appearing just as tangled and confused as the other. However, with patience, effort and persistence nothing about this process of untangling is impossible. It may not be easy, but it is not impossible. Well… that seems to be my understanding so far.
Through a growing awareness around the experience of anxiety, I have found that as long as we know how to respond and cope with it, are able to differentiate between real and perceived threats and are aware of our emotional responses, we have the capacity to increase our sense of calm and try to overcome anxiety-provoking situations. In realising and achieving these things we have the strength to re-align our mind-body connection and to live harmoniously and with intention.
Equally, I recognise that a little anxiety is good for us. When we experience feelings of situational anxiety, as opposed to chronic anxiety, it can be used to help us redirect our behaviour away from harm. This is explained by our innate fight or flight response to threat, that prepares us to engage or to seek safety. A little anxiety also helps us to better focus and achieve our goals. This is supported by an increased sense of preparedness and alertness, driven by hyper-arousal and the adrenaline rush experienced when we’re initially faced with more challenging and stressful situations. Furthermore, we are able to better emphasise with others who struggle with anxiety, thus developing our understanding and encouragement toward those around us. If we recognise these positive attributes of our body’s natural responses to stressful situations, we are able to feel more thankful, less frustrated and can project our energy toward perceiving stressful events as opportunities, set in motion to motivate us rather than hinder us.
Today, I can confidently say that I no longer experience anxiety that can prove detrimental to the decisions I make, my responses and my health in the longer term. Naturally, not all the anxiety I experience is always beneficial, as described above. However, when the balance is tipped from beneficial to detrimental, I now hope that I am able to recognise this early on, and in turn, implement the various coping strategies I have adopted and practiced over the years. Nourishing my mind and body through movement, mindfulness and wholefoods have all fed into this process of healing. More often than not I feel good, but there are still days where I have to admit that, for whatever reason, things just aren’t great. On these occasions, I sit with my thoughts and emotions and I explore them for a little while. I choose to acknowledge any anxieties I’m holding onto, but before they consume me, I try to give time to bring myself back to a more rational, reasonable and balanced state of being. I find comfort in knowing that: some days it’s really okay to not be okay, just as long as we don’t let this be our every day.