Anxiety: a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome. – Oxford Languages
Anxiety or anxiety disorder?
As someone who has struggled with anxiety and also someone who is fairly adept at self-observation thanks to nearly two decades of yoga, it surprised me how relatively steady and centered I felt throughout the pandemic.
Sure, I worried about my parents and my mother-in-law. Sure, I heaved a sigh of relief when my niece got a clean bill of health after coming down with the virus. Sure, I fretted about the wellbeing of my city-dwelling kids during the peak of the quarantine.
But unlike the gigantic, sleep-preventing, seemingly causeless waves of anxiety that I’ve experienced, these were “reasonable” worries. Unlike my anxiety of old (anxiety disorder) that is hard to express in words, these were worries (plain old anxiety) that I could and did share with my support system – husband, friends, and family.
So, as vaccines are being distributed and the activities of life are shifting into gear again, I have been genuinely surprised to feel my old “pal,” anxiety, making a resurgence. “Things are getting better,” I catch myself scolding myself, “what is your problem?” (Which, by the way, only adds fuel to the fire of anxiety.)
But, seriously, what is going on? Because I work with enough people to know that I’m not alone here.
The physiology of anxiety
Allow me to do what the yogis do and start with the physical. Our autonomic nervous system is made up two parts – the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is best known as the “fight or flight” center. The “stress hormone” cortisol is its fuel, and it literally gets us going. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated our circulation speeds up, our body gets hotter, blood pressure rises, and our heart rates increases.
The parasympathetic nervous system is our “rest and restore” center. The “feel good” hormones serotonin and oxytocin are its calling cards. It is the nervous system designed to reduce anxiety. Physically, it essentially undoes the effects of its sister system, bringing us back to “steady state.”
Which brings me to my point. The sympathetic nervous system is meant to be engaged for short bursts, for example, when you see a sabre tooth tiger crouched and about to pounce. We are not designed to live for long periods of time on high alert.
Nervous systems across the globe are out of whack
As clinical psychologist Christine Runyon, in her interview with Krista Tippet, describes, last March the news of the virus sent nervous systems around the world “into overdrive from which they’ve never retreated.” She goes on to say that this long period of stress has disrupted our mind-body connection, which is always just as sensitive to what is imagined as to what is real.
It is this disruption – which has impacted us physically, mentally, and emotionally – that has left me (and maybe you?) on a pretty shaky foundation from which to navigate yet more change as the world around us shifts into a faster pace and more activity.
Whether or not we realize it (and if I’m a litmus test, many of us did not), we’ve been shouldering a significant weight of worry and stress for more than a year now. You could even say this stress is its own pandemic. The fact that it is so global has made it seem and feel normal.
IT. IS. NOT. NORMAL. The fact that we have not been able to downshift into “steady state,” that our parasympathetic nervous systems have been all but dormant for a year is not the way we are designed to live. We are wildly overstimulated. We are fatigued. We are drained.
We are also determined, hopeful, and strong. So, we keep on keeping on. Without even a pause, we find ourselves gearing up to navigate the change of re-opening. Remember, change – even highly desirable and anticipated change – is stressful.
What can we do about our anxiety?
I hope that understanding why you’re feeling more anxiety than you might expect right now is helpful. Grappling with my feelings intellectually always helps me. But we can do more.
- We can practice yoga. On an extra-stressed day, you might choose a vigorous practice such as Ashtanga. On other days, a quieter, more nurturing style such as Yin or restorative might be more suitable. Whatever you choose, moving and breathing on your yoga mat is a wonderful way to re-center and calm a frayed nervous system.
- We can practice breathing exercises designed to balance the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Chandra Bhedana (breathing only through the left nostril) is said to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. Nadi Shodana (alternate nostril breathing) is said to balance the two systems. (I’m happy to teach you each of these and other exercises if you’re interested.)
- Finally, we can sit in meditation – every day. Stillness and silence give us the chance to see, identify and honor our feelings as real and valid messages from deep within. Observing our feelings “pass through” us like clouds drifting across the sky is a powerful way to weaken our reactivity to them.
Self-care is extra-important right now. Be gentle with and accepting of yourself and your feelings. In the wise words of yoga teacher, Marth McAlpine, remember “We are capable of so much and we are capable of only so much.”
Take care of you. Let me know if I can help.
If you’re struggling with stress of anxiety, please reach out. We can meet for spiritual direction, a one-on-one yoga practice check-in, or lessons in breathing or pranayama.