Anxiety is a complex process that manifests in different ways in different people. Some people fear being robbed, losing a job, making a mistake, or losing a loved-one, while others fear heights, insects, swimming in the ocean, the dark, or driving a car.
Anxiety is a permanent state of arousal of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The SNS response is necessary for survival. When we face danger, the SNS takes over. Our heart beat becomes faster, our mind becomes alert, and the faculties of thinking are inhibited. Our biochemistry prepares our body for fighting or fleeing. We are flooded with adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol which places us in a state of heightened arousal and stress. Unfortunately, not only life-threatening situations cause a predominant activation of the SNS. Any situation that is subjectively perceived as challenging, frightening, or stressful causes a sympathetic predominance. Giving a presentation, an argument with your boss, jealousy, non-specific anxiety, fear, anger, … they all activate our SNS.
While it is important that we are well-adapted to react immediately to dangerous situations, a constant activation of the SNS is damaging in the long run. When the body is prepared to fight or flight, important functions for our well-being are suppressed. The inherent healing mechanisms of the body only work when we are relaxed, and the body can only recuperate when we find ourselves in a predominant parasympathetic activation. A chronic predominant activation of the SNS can cause severe health problems. The functioning of the immune system is supressed, and the body is not able to recover itself.
Taking care of your health means becoming aware of what activates your SNS ‘unnecessarily’ on a daily basis. You might be surprised to find that some things are causing you stress that you weren’t aware of. Perhaps it is a job, jealousy, the fear of your partner leaving you, financial insecurity, or a lack of clear vision of the future. If you are feeling anxious about a relationship, this could keep you in a permanent fight-or-flight mode, and in the long run affect your health and emotional well-being. Whatever it is, it is important to identify how life events are influencing you on a daily basis.
Unfortunately, we find that many people lack the skills of bringing harmony into their bodies in spite of developing an awareness of their problems. Perhaps you are working on a job. You know that it doesn’t matter whether you finish your project today or next week, yet you put pressure on yourself and experience stress. Perhaps you are feeling jealous. You know that there is no need to feel jealous because you have an amazing and trustworthy partner. Your mind is telling you that you are being irrational and that everything is ok, yet you feel adrenalin in your veins and your body is in fear. These are examples of situations where there is a dissociation between the rational mind and the embodied mind.
The embodied mind is fed by physiological data and can sometimes have a mind of its own. In such a situation, it doesn’t matter how much you try to convince yourself that everything is ok. The knowledge of your body is telling you that you aren’t safe. While the origin of this dissociation can lie in trauma, negative experiences, or a lack of awareness, it is often hard to change the problem at the mental level. The mind already knows that everything is ok, the problem lies in the physiology.
If there is a problem in the thinking process, it can be helpful to address the mind and do psychological work. However, when the problem lies in the physiological response, like in the situations above, yoga gives us practical tools to change our physiological response. The right therapeutic yoga practices give us an approach from down-up. We start with altering the biochemistry of the body to alter our nervous system, brain, and mind.
A dissociation between the rational and physiological response can leave us in unnecessary and extended periods of sympathetic arousal that over time suppress our immune system and damage our health. If you recognize yourself in this, know that you can use specific therapeutic yoga practices to balance your nervous system. Training the autonomous nervous system educates our bodies in how to appropriately respond to the daily life challenges. A well-trained nervous system is able to recognize danger and react appropriately, and able to relax when there is no danger.
A very simple way to train your nervous system is by choosing a relatively easy asana and to hold it for a long period of time. Sooner or later you will get very uncomfortable and perhaps even feel angry. In that moment, breathe deeply and focus on your exhalations. Continue to hold the posture until you get your ‘second wind’ and become entirely comfortable again. If you are able to move through this challenge and suddenly feel like you could hold the posture forever, your body trains itself to feel perfectly at ease in stressful situations.