Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Age of Anxiety

You are not alone.

It's estimated that 19.1 million people in the United States suffer from some form of anxiety, be it panic attacks, obsessive compulsive disorder, phobias or generalized anxiety. World-wide one in four people are likely to suffer some form of anxiety at some point in there lives. Approximately $42.3 billion, or nearly one-third of all mental healthcare costs, is spent annually to treat anxiety.

As a society we are more anxious than we've ever been at any point in history and yet we are the safest we've ever been. So why are we so anxious?

Because we are surrounded by a constant stream of information via the internet, television, radio, friends, and family. We are subjected to more stories about mishaps, accidents and illnesses in one week than our great-grandparents were in their entire lives or there about.

With all of us running around scared why are we still ashamed and embarrassed about it? We do we go to such great lengths to pretend we're OK when we're not?

Not too long ago, a student came to me for yoga to relieve her back pain but it turned out she had much more going on than just her back. She had spent many years cooped up at home due to debilitating anxiety she didn't want anyone to see. Years of her life had been spent away from other people because she was too afraid of what other people would think if they knew about her condition. While yoga eased her back pain some, it did more to help ease her anxiety.

Lately, I've had similar conversations with other students suffering from anxiety who find it hard to open-up and share their stories. The more stories I hear, the more they all start to sound the same. Worse than fear itself, we're afraid of others seeing it.

Our culture values the person who doesn't even break a sweat when confronted with knee-knocking, gut-churning circumstances. Maybe that's why extreme sports are so popular. Everyone wants to prove how brave they are by jumping off bridges with giant rubber-bands tied to their ankles or surf the waves using a kite.

Anxiety disorders are near and dear to me because I've suffered from one or another kind for the last 14 years of my life. In fact it was anxiety that lead me to become a yoga teacher. I thought that if I just immersed myself in a calm and relaxed atmosphere I could rid myself of it. Turns out that there's no way to completely eliminate stress from life. Anxiety will always follow you even into the calmest most serene environments if you try to run from it.

Since we live in an age of anxiety it's impossible to run away from anxiety but there are ways to manage it. Yoga is one of the best methods I've found. Study after study confirms this finding.

Yoga teaches you calming breathing techniques, how to relax in uncomfortable situations instead of resisting or running, and releases physical tension through stretching. It also teaches you how to calm and quiet your mind and listen to your body.

More specifically, many yoga poses stretch the psoas muscle which is considered the second most emotional muscle in the body next to the heart. The psoas is innervated by the Vagus nerve which controls the fight or flight mechanism in the body. By relaxing the psoas you are able to relax the rest of the body. 

The biggest lesson practicing yoga taught me, wasn't how to get rid of my anxiety but how to accept it and even befriend it. I learned that my happiness didn't depend on how calm I was or how calm I could pretend to be. Instead I realized how capable I was of managing it and it became a much less intimidating. Learn to manage it instead of fleeing from it and it won't be as big of a monster.

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