I walked into a yoga room. I was on time, but everyone else was early. The space, not large to begin with, was packed, yoga mats mere inches apart.
This was Yoga for Anxiety, and the turnout far exceeded the studio’s expectations. “Look around you,” one instructor prompted. “See how many of us are living this secret life of anxiety?”
We glanced sidelong at each other, squirming a little on our sticky mats, feeling exposed.
Yes. Anxiety affects millions of people. Normal people. People that you interact with every single day.
There’s lots of advice for getting rid of anxiety, but most of it centers around changing your thoughts. Thinking positive. Being grateful for what you have.
In short: cognition.
Most strategies aim to out think your anxiety or distract your brain away from it, but a lot of anxiety is primal. I’m not going to dive into a whole bunch of neuroscience here (though you can if you want), but basically survival instincts function below the level of conscious awareness.
The stimulus is perceived and before you have time to ruminate over whether you should run or not, you’re already moving. They call it triggered for a reason. The whole neurological loop bypasses your cortex completely, and your cortex is where thought occurs.
So, you’re trying to intervene with thought in a process that doesn’t involve thought. That’s like setting up a road block on a side street and expecting it to damn the flow of traffic on a freeway.
Ain’t gonna happen.
Anxiety pretty much defined me in my younger years. It showed up in lots of ways, some of them just irritating like having to get out of bed at midnight to check my bank account and make sure my money hadn’t disappeared before I could relax and sleep.
Others were more endemic.
The only time I stopped feeling anxious (and, honestly, the reason I took the career path I did) was when I intervened at the body level
i.e. the level at which the stimulus and response were occurring.
The worried thoughts, you see, weren’t causing the anxiety. Instead, I felt anxious and was seeking a hook to hang it on, a concrete reason why I felt the visceral unease vexing my gut. When I solved the sensation, I solved the worrisome thoughts along with it.
Here are five simple ways that you, too, can short circuit the fear response. Of course, these don’t work in the moment; they’re practices to use with the purpose of cultivating resilience in your nervous system.
A resilient system, like a trampoline, absorbs shock and springs back without splintering, snapping or otherwise flipping out.
1. Go Fetal.
Liz Koch, author of The Psoas Book and Core Awareness, recommends the fetal position as a way to nourish your exhausted psoas. Your psoas, in case you’re wondering, is a deep abdominal muscle that connects the torso, pelvis and leg.
It’s often blamed for a lot of spinal or pelvic dysfunctions, but because of its reciprocal relationship with your gut brain, the psoas is an integral component of the fight-flight-freeze response.
Chronic, low-grade stress creates perpetual muscle tension. Every time you experience a fear-inducing stimulus (paying your mortgage on a strapped budget, your car breaking down on the freeway during rush hour, the death of your beloved grandmother, your husband walking out on you, physical assault, an emotionally abusive boss, watching the evening news, etc), your body fires its biological protective mechanism — the fetal curl — in readiness for defense.
Over time, this repeated micro-contraction through all your flexor muscles, including your psoas, results in an overwhelmed nervous system wired with excitement from being in a constant state of vigilance. All your body wants to do is curl into a ball and save itself (which really explains the popularity of blanket forts, doesn’t it?).
Find a safe and quiet place where you won’t be disturbed to lie on your side curled into the fetal position. It takes a long time for your body to release its vigilance, so plan on a minimum of ten minutes here, and a half hour is ideal.
2. Gain Weight.
Stress and fear cause a flood of cortisol and adrenaline into your system. Imagine drinking four large cold-brew coffees in an hour. We’d have to tie anvils to your feet to keep you on the ground.
Chronic fear is like that for your nervous system. It rockets you into hyper-vigilance with all systems go, but you can only handle that kind of stimulus for so long. Like a kid at Disneyland, eventually you’re going to get cranky, scream for a while and then conk out.
Only you have to keep moving through life. So, instead of sleeping, you dissociate.
You stop feeling. Maybe just your body, maybe your emotions, too. Sure, you can walk and talk and feed yourself without stabbing a fork in your eye, but your brain has only a fuzzy map of your sensory world.
Sometimes all you need to calm down your body is a little definition, like telling your brain here you are, remember? These are the boundaries of your territory, here and here and here.
Weight is an effective tool for this. While you can use all kinds of things to apply weight (I’ve seen home made sandbags and bolsters and even ten pound weight plates from the gym) a safe and convenient option is a weighted blanket like these.
3. Move Big Stuff.
Just like weight from external sources can help settle your nervous system, lifting heavy things can give you the same sense of self from the inside out. And when I say heavy, I mean heavy.
We’re talking about low, low reps with weights at 70-85% of your one rep max. And we’re also talking about whole-body, multi-joint movements: squats, deadlifts, strict presses, the like.
Of course, your heavy is relative to what you can lift. Calculate accordingly, and consult qualified weight lifting coaches to get you started safely.
(For anyone who’s all like, I can’t lift heavy because insert reason here, I’ve got a 70 year old client who is kicking ass at Olympic weight lifting, so it’s not just for testosterone-saturated men in their mid-twenties — but again with the safety because that’s important.)
I find that when people are stressed, they inherently turn towards activities that seem calming, like yoga. There’s certainly nothing wrong with yoga (and lots to be gained), but it just doesn’t have the same dampening effect on the nervous system as lifting super heavy stuff. (Personally, I like a combo. Yin, yang and all that.)
I don’t have data on this; it’s something I learned from an old-time powerlifter many years ago. But not only have I experienced it personally and witnessed the effects in clients, I’ve also learned to listen to some of that wisdom of the elders. Most of the time, they’re on to something.
Find yourself a coach. Search “barbell gym” or “barbell club” in your area (hot tip: Crossfit gyms often have barbell or Olympic lifting clubs that work out in the same facility, but you might have to call and ask how to get signed up).
4. Take Up Space.
Anyone who has seen Amy Cuddy’s famous TED Talk where she presented her groundbreaking research that showed how you hold your body literally changes your brain chemistry knows the power of posture. And yes, I do know that her research is a bit problematic.
Here’s why I’m not concerned about that: Again with the wisdom of the elders. Yogis have long – like, thousands of years long – observed that expansive postures dampen anxiety. I’ve witnessed it personally in my clients and heard their anecdotal reports of feeling more grounded, of losing the desire to stress eat, of traumatic memories all but vanishing as their bodies uncurled, shoulders and chests opened, shrink wrap dissolved.
Maybe we can’t replicate the research in the brain. Who knows why. And maybe power posing won’t change your whole damn life (I always thought that was too simplistic anyway).
But depressed, worried and stressed postures are hunched. Relaxed postures are open and expansive. That much I don’t think anyone can argue with.
So, get big. Triangle pose from yoga is a good start, or just grab a door jamb with both hands and lean into it to stretch your chest. Think opening the front of your body, the opposite of a fetal curl (and this is a great thing to try after you’ve spent some time nourishing your psoas in that fetal position).
And, as I mentioned at the get-go, these aren’t hacks. These are practices. Maybe therein lies the rub — getting big works best if you do it on the regular.
5. Wake Up, Sleepy Feet.
Feet are rich sources of information. You have tons of cells in your toes and ankles that tell your body where it is in relation to the ground, what the texture is beneath your soles and what kind of terrain you’re traversing.
Unfortunately, your feet have probably spent a lifetime encased in shoes that dull their sensory perception, walking on ground that’s entirely flat and smooth. No longer are your feet subject to the subtle angles and changes in pitch you’d find in nature.
Nor do your toes caress rough granite, cushy pine needles, spiny branches and sloppy mud that squishes between your phalanges.
When the world gets to be too much, sometimes being entirely present can be a bit overwhelming. Clients who never get a break from high-stress, go go go lives often cut off sensory awareness from the knee down in order to avoid overwhelm.
Like, they literally hyperextend their knees, constricting all the muscles in their feet and calves.
It’s as though they’re saying Stop! This is too much! I can’t be all here right now!
It would be the equivalent of digging in your heels to avoid being dragged into the pit of Carkoon where you’ll suffer being painfully digested for a thousand years by the all-powerful Sarlacc.
Only you’re the one doing the dragging.
The relief on people’s faces when we dissolve the stiff, wooden tissues of their lower legs and un-glue the bones of their feet so they can move again is arresting.
They actually look younger, eyes brighter, facial muscles softer and more relaxed. All the fretting around their eyes up and vanishes, and they unanimously report feeling calmer and more centered than they had just an hour before.
And it’s so easy to do. Find yourself a foot roller, or just grab a lacrosse ball for a few dollars at a sporting goods store. You could even use a narrow wooden dowel to roll the soles of your feet. Spend time walking barefoot outdoors on different types of terrain.
And if you really want to up the ante, get yourself a wobble board and free up those ankles!