When I was in my twenties — long before I discovered meditation — I suffered my first anxiety attack. It was when my boyfriend and I were heading towards a break up, the TV show I was on got canceled, I was working out two hours a day, smoking, living on coffee, wine and vodka, and pretty much thought my world was coming to an end. I could not calm down. I could not stop thinking or crying. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t breathe.
20 years later, I’m now an avid meditator and “spiritual lifestyle person” but that still doesn’t exempt me from the hamster-on-speed running marathons in my head. Going through a year of cancer treatment, another breakup, moving countries… it’s trigger city!
According to stats, anxiety is now the fastest growing mental health issue in the U.S., affecting more the 20 million people. While writing this article I took an online test to determine my level of anxiety. The questions were pretty generally applicable — I mean, who doesn’t have trouble sleeping or not thinking about life problems from time to time? I scored 57 out of 100, equalling “moderate anxiety.” It suggested I seek professional help, and for a mere $6.99 I could get a detailed report of just how worried I should be about how worried I am.
Additionally, there are also many easy tips, tricks and techniques we can do from the comfort of our own homes that can help keep anxiety at bay — and possibly even prevent it from coming back. So if you want to learn how to take that hamster out of your mind and get him back in his cage, read on…
TAKE A LONG, DEEP BREATH
Did you know it is impossible to breathe calmly and have an anxiety attack? One of the main things we notice when we panic is our breath shortening or speeding up — or even feeling breathless. When you feel an attack coming on, or even better, when you know you are entering into a situation that might bring anxiety up (I’m talking to you ‘Meeting the Parents’ or ‘Delivering a Speech’), take a few minutes to pause, close your eyes and focus on a deep inhale through the nose as you count to five. Pause at the top for three and then slowly exhale through the nose, counting to five. This will fill the body with deep breaths and will give you more energy to deal with what’s stressing you out. By focusing on the breath your mind will have something positive to lock on to.
In Kundalini we have a few “fix-alls” (exercises or meditations that cover multiple bases). One of the top ones is Cat/Cow. It is said that if you do this for three minutes your anxiety will be stopped in its tracks. If you have practiced any kind of yoga this will be familiar to you. Get down on your hands and knees, heels of your feet together, toes apart. Breathing through the nose, on the inhale curve your back with the neck stretching and head coming up. On the exhale reverse the arch, head comes down, pushing the ground away, navel to spine, tightening the buttocks (yes, this will also give you good abs and a bum — told you, multiple bases). Repeat this for three minutes, increasing the speed until you are going at a fast pace. The breath should be deep enough that you can hear it and start moving to your own rhythm. You can do this every time you feel an attack coming on — or if it’s already happening, go ahead and drop down in the middle of it. For an added bonus, practice this everyday and enjoy all the other great benefits it can give you!
SOFTEN YOUR SURROUNDINGS
In Ayurveda, anxiety is a result of too much Vata energy and too much Rajastic living. This is directly correlated to the world we live in: moving too fast, too loud, too stimulating, improper sleep, bad eating habits, etc. To counter this, we need to cultivate the awareness to balance ourselves out in an unbalanced situation. Here are some basics you can do without having to study ancient Vedic textbooks.
1 | Pick light colors. Lighten up your wardrobe, fabrics, walls and sheets. Light attracts and reflects light. Dark colors — reds especially — are designed to activate and stimulate, so stay away from them, especially in the bedroom.
2 | Ease up on the caffeine. Coffee may seem like a morning essential, but caffeine triggers upward motion in the body’s system, and that is what we are trying to bring down. Same goes for smoking. Even though it may seem like a thing you do to relax, it is actually very stimulating to the nervous system. So if you’re feeling anxious, or you know you’re heading into a trigger-zone, switch to decaf or green tea.
3 | Listen to music. Think about it. If you feel angry and you throw on some Metallica, is that going to make you feel less angry? There is a tendency for us to compliment our moods with music, but sound is a very powerful tool that can be used to change our moods. When you feel anxious, the best thing to do is listen to something soothing, something that makes you smile, triggers happy thoughts and calms you down. Keep the angry stuff for a workout motivator.
4 | Stop the strenuous workouts. It may seem like a good idea to put the anxiety into a good, long run or an aggressive pump, but all that will really do is heighten your system and make things run even faster… and then suddenly drop. Much more effective would be to go on a long walk, listen to nice music, pay attention to your breathing and fully take in your surroundings. Walk until the anxiety is gone.
All of the above are forms of mediation. If you can incorporate another 10-20 minutes a day of a mediation practice that works for you, you will greatly decrease your chances of succumbing to anxiety in the future as well as reducing the impact it has on your system.
Of course, talking to a professional is recommended if you are suffering to the point where life has become unmanageable. Hopefully the next time you pass a sign that says “Keep Calm, Carry On” you can smile because you now know how to help yourself do that!