cultivate calm podcast

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[00:00:00] Monica: Welcome friend. I’m often asked if yoga will help people with anxiety and as tempted as I am to say yes. Yes. Yoga helps with anxiety. It’s not so straightforward. The truth is that anxiety will often get worse before it gets better.

[00:01:19] And in today’s episode, I’ll explain exactly why that happens and give you some really practical tools to manage your anxiety. But before we begin, let’s take a long, slow exhale together.

[00:01:36] Now the information shared in this podcast is for entertainment purposes and it’s not medical advice. It’s always best to speak with your doctor or health professional. Over the last 10 years of running my yoga studio, I’ve noticed a real shift in people being open and willing to talk about anxiety.

[00:01:56] And many of our yoga clients attend yoga for the main purpose of calming their minds. They just happen to get fit and flexible at the same time. Yoga’s often slated as a natural remedy for stress and anxiety, and while that’s true, it’s not a quick fix, and sometimes anxiety gets worse before it gets better.

[00:02:16] Before we delve into why that might be the case, it’s really important to understand the mechanics of our nervous system. Our nervous system is the link between our mind and body. And when it detects a threat, or it feels stressed, we move into the sympathetic state of our nervous system, the fight or flight response. Here, our heart rate and blood pressure increase. We get a surge of stress hormones into our bloodstream. Our pupils dilate, and the fear center of our brain, the amygdala, takes over, while our calm, logical brain takes a back seat.

[00:02:53] And this is designed to either help us run from the threat or fight the threat. It’s a survival instinct. Most people are familiar with the fight or flight response, but we also have the freeze response, and this occurs when we can’t escape from our stress, and we go into what’s known as a dorsal vagal shutdown, or freeze.

[00:03:15] And the freeze response is designed to numb us physically and mentally from our stress. We can’t escape from the physical threat, so we escape mentally. We dissociate, we zone out, it’s like our body’s here but our mind is somewhere else. And the freeze response makes us procrastinate. We have real trouble doing basic tasks.

[00:03:39] We have no energy or motivation. It’s like we’re going through life on autopilot. Just going through the motions but not really here. Every day feels like Groundhog Day. Every day is hard, and in the freeze response we can experience all sorts of physical ailments, from muscle pain and tension, digestive problems, heart palpitations, dizziness, vertigo, low blood pressure, always feeling cold, and a body that’s just stiff and rigid.

[00:04:15] We feel paralyzed by fear and dread. We feel unsafe, and often we don’t even know why. When we’re in this freeze response, we might be tempted to call ourselves lazy or unmotivated as we procrastinate and struggle to get basic stuff done, but it’s not laziness. of an overwhelmed nervous system.

[00:04:37] Now according to polyvagal theory, there’s a hierarchy to our stress response, and think of this hierarchy like rungs on a ladder. We experience something stressful, our nervous system detects a threat, and we go into the fight or flight response. We take a step up the ladder, but if we can’t escape our stress for whatever reason and it persists and it overwhelms us, we go up a step on the ladder into the freeze response.

[00:05:06] And because we can’t escape our stress, we try to escape mentally. We become withdrawn, dissociated, or generally checked out. We feel numb, we lack motivation, we procrastinate and everything feels hard. And sometimes we can stay stuck in a functional freeze for months or even years. Some of us are still frozen from COVID.

[00:05:29] Now, when the stress finally passes, or we create enough safety in our nervous system, we have to go back down the ladder into the fight or flight state. And this can feel really uncomfortable. We feel a sudden rush of adrenaline that can cause us to feel sick, dread, or panic. As our heart starts racing, our mind starts racing, and our body tenses up.

[00:05:52] And this can feel horrible compared to the freeze response. But it’s how our nervous system works, and if we’re able to calm ourselves by creating safety in our nervous system, we’ll eventually step off the ladder and enter that relaxed parasympathetic state. So when it comes to healing and managing anxiety, it’s so important to understand the role of our nervous system.

[00:06:17] Anxiety isn’t a thinking problem, and we can’t use our thoughts to feel less anxious. Anxiety is a nervous system response, and regulating our nervous system and creating safety in our body is how we can turn down that response. So when we’re in fight, flight, or freeze, the fear center of our brain, the amygdala, is in charge.

[00:06:41] Part of our limbic system, the amygdala is like an alarm bell ringing, and it causes our thoughts to become negative and fear based. It also increases our brainwave frequency, which is why we can feel so caught up in a negative thought spiral. So trying to tell ourselves to think positively or don’t sweat the small stuff won’t work when our amygdala is in charge.

[00:07:04] And it can actually make us feel worse too, which just adds fuel to the anxiety fire. A different approach to managing anxiety is to work with the body and breath as tools to regulate the nervous system. Because when we step off the stress ladder, our amygdala quietens right down. And our prefrontal cortex comes back online.

[00:07:26] This makes our thoughts slower and more positive. And it has the effect of widening our perspective so we can see more clearly, we have more options available to us,

[00:07:38] we can come up with creative solutions to our situation. So now that we understand the role of the nervous system, here are my top five tips to managing anxiety and to think and feel better. Number one is to move our body every day. You know when you watch a wildlife documentary and the deer manages to escape from the lion, and afterwards you see that deer shaking it off?

[00:08:04] Or perhaps your dog gets into a scuffle at the dog park and afterwards you see your dog shaking it off. This is how our body completes the stress cycle. So when we’re stressed we get a surge of energy into our bloodstream to prepare us to either fight and defend ourselves or run away. But because most of our stress is related to relationships, deadlines and bills, we can’t fight or flee.

[00:08:30] We kind of just sit there on the lounge, scrolling our phones and marinating our body in stress hormones. So the energy has nowhere to go. It stays in our body and we feel tense, anxious and exhausted. But if we’re able to discharge that energy in a constructive way, we can complete the stress cycle. And any kind of movement can work, but it needs to be intentional.

[00:08:55] If you have a strong fight energy, then I encourage you to punch a pillow or get a boxing bag. It works wonders. I’m a big fan of punching the crap out of my bolsters. And I don’t care what anyone says, it’s not un yogic or un feminine, it’s healthy. If you have more of a flight energy, you might really like walking, running, cycling, or jumping up and down on the spot, shaking it out, or stomping your feet.

[00:09:23] If you feel frozen, gentle, repetitive, or rocking movements can help to release the charge. You could lie on your side and gently rock yourself. Or you could try progressive muscle relaxation where you tense all the muscles in your body and then release them. The point is we need to move that nervous energy out of our system to feel better.

[00:09:46] We need to complete that stress cycle. And in a recent groundbreaking study on depression and anxiety, the British Journal of Sports Medicine researchers evaluated data from over 120, 000 people. And they found that exercise is just as effective and sometimes more effective than medication for anxiety and depression.

[00:10:10] sometimes we don’t have time to exercise or we have some health challenges that stop us from doing it. But we can all incorporate bite sized movement practices into our day. I’m a big fan of shaking and stomping my feet, and I often do it when I’m waiting for the cattle to boil. And if we approach movement as a way to complete the stress cycle, rather than a chore, we can more easily incorporate it into our day.

[00:10:36] The next tool that’s really helpful for managing anxiety is breath work. Our breath is the interface to our nervous system, and we can influence how we think and feel just with our breath. And despite breathing for all of our lives, Many of us have dysfunctional breathing patterns. No one really taught us how to breathe.

[00:11:48] We tend to hold our breath when we’re stressed, our breath can be quite shallow, and we don’t exhale completely. And all of these things, holding the breath, shallow breathing, and incomplete exhales, keep us stuck in that sympathetic nervous state. They keep us feeling stressed and anxious. When we hold our breath, it signals our nervous system that we’re in danger.

[00:12:15] So if you hold your breath in a yoga pose, or if you hold your breath when you’re stressed, or if you just have a habit of holding your breath, this is aggravating and exacerbating stress and anxiety. Start paying attention to your breathing patterns. Shallow breathing is another culprit. So when we’re stressed, our breath becomes shallow, and we only breathe into the upper lobes of the lungs.

[00:12:42] And this causes us to rely on our chest and neck muscles to breathe, rather than our primary breathing muscle, the diaphragm. Shallow breathing keeps us in the stress response longer, and contributes to a lot of neck and shoulder pain. Diaphragmatic breathing, or breathing into the belly, not only increases our lung capacity, but it sends a signal to our nervous system that we’re safe.

[00:13:07] As we inhale, we want our belly to inflate like a balloon, and on the exhale, we want the belly to soften. It can feel weird or awkward at first, but it’s a powerful way to reduce anxiety. Diaphragmatic breathing activates our vagus nerve. It sends a signal to our brain that we’re safe, that we’re okay, and we can relax.

[00:13:30] Now also, when we’re stressed, we tend to emphasize the inhale over the exhale. We can have a tendency to over breathe. And we don’t exhale completely. And this can keep us stuck in the stress loop. And a really simple technique is to make the exhales longer than the inhales. This brings us into the state, which will lower our heart rate and blood pressure.

[00:13:57] And if you have a health tracker, you’ll see it improve your heart rate variability, which is a measure of the health of your vagus nerve. Learning to breathe better is the key to feeling less anxious, and I’ve got a whole podcast episode on work, so check out episode three. Now something I really love is moving in time to my breath.

[00:14:17] It gives me the best bang for my buck. Synchronizing movement with breath helps me to discharge the energy from my nervous system and my body, and the breath work has that calming effect. And this is what we do in our vinyasa classes. We synchronize movement to breath, and in my opinion, that’s why vinyasa yoga is better than yin yoga for helping us feel less anxious.

[00:14:42] Now, the third tip or technique is sensory awareness. So when we’re stressed or anxious, we tend to dissociate and disconnect from our physical body. All of our attention and focus is in our head and with our overwhelming thoughts. When we bring our attention back to our body and our present moment experience, we re establish that mind body connection.

[00:15:06] And one of the most relaxing places for the mind to be is in the body. So a simple tool to do this is to bring your awareness to all five senses. Our senses are a portal to the present moment and give our mind something to focus on other than thought. So here’s a simple activity that we can do now.

[00:15:28] Become aware of everything you can hear right now. Not just the sound of my voice, but also the sounds in the environment. Just listening to everything going on around you.

[00:15:41] Now bring your awareness to everything you can see. Have a good look around, take it all in.

[00:15:57] Now feel the sensations in your body.

[00:16:08] Feel where your body is in contact with the ground.

[00:16:14] Feel your clothes touching your skin.

[00:16:22] Feel the air on your skin. And

[00:16:35] feel the rise and fall of your breath.

[00:16:37] Now notice anything you can smell. Is there a scent in the air? Or perhaps it’s neutral.

[00:16:54] And then notice any residual taste in your mouth. Maybe you can taste the last thing you ate or drank.

[00:17:05] Now try to become aware of all five senses simultaneously. Hear. See. Feel. Smell. And taste. And when we become aware of all five senses at the same time, we arrive in the present moment.

[00:17:28] So next time you feel anxious, or if you’re having a panic attack, try to focus on your senses. It will help to bring your mind and body back together. The

[00:17:43] fourth thing I want to share is feeling our emotions. And beneath anxiety is often some really uncomfortable emotions. Things like deep anger, grief, shame, guilt or fear. And think of emotions like energy that wants to be expressed and released. But the thing is, no one ever taught us how to safely express and release those uncomfortable emotions.

[00:18:10] So we suppress them in the hope that they would go away, except suppressed emotions don’t go anywhere. They stay in our body and we feel them as tension, anxiety and fatigue. And if you think of anxiety like a smoke alarm alerting us to the fact that something’s not right, then the thing that’s burning beneath the surface is often a big emotion.

[00:18:32] Most of my yoga alchemy clients suffer from chronic anxiety, and almost always beneath the surface were suppressed emotions. And one of the things I teach these clients is how to move what they’re feeling. It gives them a tool to process these emotions and release them in a safe and healthy way. And there’s no such thing as a bad emotion.

[00:18:55] All emotions are valid, and if we shame ourselves for feeling angry, guilty or ashamed, we only push that emotion deeper into our subconscious. But when we give ourselves grace and compassion to feel our big feelings, it makes them much, much easier to deal with. So next time you feel a big emotion, let yourself feel it, let it out.

[00:19:20] Let yourself have a cry, let yourself get angry, because the emotions that we don’t express are suppressed and stored as anxiety. Now emotional healing is a little bit more challenging than breath work, and it’s a lot easier when we have support. But the first step is to become aware that you are feeling an uncomfortable emotion.

[00:19:42] Even if you can’t label it, but it just feels yucky or uncomfortable, this is the first step. Then move it. Jump up and down. Punch a bolster. Go for a run. Let the emotion move through your body. And now the final tip is this. There’s nothing wrong with you if you experience anxiety. And I mean it. Everyone experiences anxiety.

[00:20:07] Anxiety is a natural response of the nervous system. If you feel anxious, it means your nervous system is doing its job. It’s keeping you safe. When we feel anxiety, it’s a signal that part of us feels threatened or unsafe. And sometimes that threat is a present day thing, like a job interview, exams, or work pressure, but often it’s the result of past experiences that overwhelmed us.

[00:20:34] And that those past experiences are being triggered by present day events. So if you feel like you’re hypersensitive, if you feel like you tend to overreact or have a disproportionate response to stress, it’s possible that an old emotional wound has been activated and is causing the anxiety. The good news is that anxiety isn’t permanent.

[00:20:56] Our nervous system and our brains are flexible, they can change. And healing past pain and hurt is possible. So keep going, my friend. You’re on this path for a reason. Your future self is cheering you on right now. Care for your nervous system and you’ll feel a whole lot better. And nervous system work is everyday work.

[00:21:21] It’s not something we just do once at a workshop. It’s not something we just save for the weekend when we have time. The more we do it throughout the day, the more we make it part of our daily self care practice. The better we’ll feel. Keep calm my friends, until next time.

I’m often asked if yoga helps people with anxiety, and as tempted as I am to say that yoga is the cure for everything, it’s not so straightforward. Learning to manage anxiety is a journey so today I’m sharing some practical tools to help you care for your nervous system and feel a whole lot better.

To address anxiety effectively, it’s important to understand the mechanics of our nervous system, which is the link between our mind and body. According to polyvagal theory, there is a hierarchy to our stress response. Think of it like rungs on a ladder. When we experience something stressful, our nervous system detects a threat and we enter the fight or flight response. If we can’t escape the stress and it overwhelms us, we move up a step on the ladder into the freeze response. We become withdrawn, dissociated, or mentally checked out. It can feel like going through life on autopilot.

When the stress finally passes or we create enough safety in our nervous system, we must go back down the ladder into the fight or flight state. This can feel uncomfortable as we experience a rush of adrenaline, racing thoughts, and tensed-up bodies. However, this is how our nervous system works. By creating safety and calming ourselves, we eventually enter a relaxed parasympathetic state.

Anxiety isn’t simply a thinking problem that can be solved through positive thoughts. It is a nervous system response. To turn down the anxiety response, we need to regulate our nervous system and create safety in our bodies. In this episode, I share 5 tools to help you do this and these are tools you can use every day, no matter where you are.

1. Move Your Body Every Day: Physical movement helps discharge the energy from our nervous system, completing the stress cycle. Any intentional movement can work, whether it’s punching a bolster or going for a walk.

2. Harness the Power of Breath: Our breath is the interface to our nervous system. By practising diaphragmatic breathing and extending our exhales, we activate our vagus nerve, signalling safety to our brain.

3. Cultivate Sensory Awareness: When stressed or anxious, we often dissociate and disconnect from our physical bodies. Bringing our attention back to our senses reestablishes the mind-body connection and grounds us in the present moment.

4. Allow Yourself to Feel Emotions: Anxiety is often accompanied by underlying emotions such as anger, grief, shame, guilt, or fear. Allowing ourselves to feel and release these emotions in a safe and healthy way prevents them from manifesting as anxiety.

5. Normalize Anxiety: Anxiety is a natural response of the nervous system, signalling a perceived threat or feeling of unsafety. Understanding that anxiety is not permanent and can be navigated and managed empowers us to care for our nervous system and prioritise daily self-care.

Many people struggle with anxiety but with the right tools and willingness to learn patterns of behaviour, healing is possible. Remember, anxiety doesn’t define you. You are on this path for a reason so keep going and make sure you prioritise taking care of your nervous system every day.