What I’ve learnt about anxiety

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I was experiencing a strange kind of shortness of breath. Breathing difficulties were not new to me, having lived with asthma and anaemia for many years. But this time it felt a bit different. This was September 2019, COVID had not yet been identified.

My inability to take full breaths got fairly bad and concerned loved ones took me to a hospital in Delhi. I had an old schoolmate working there and she ensured I saw a medical specialist immediately. She consulted a cardiologist and pulmonologist on my behalf. None of them could explain the shortness of breath, but all of them agreed I suffered from anxiety.

“What nonsense,” I retorted then. “I am a happy go lucky kind of a person; I don’t do anxiety.” My doctor friend remained quiet. A combination of denial and the fact that I was already averse to taking any pills, made me put away the anti-anxiety pills I was prescribed. My shortness of breath continued for another month and then subsided.

“Generalized anxiety is what I have Rupi,” a friend once confessed. “I worry about everything and anything,” she elaborated. Up until that day, I had not noticed how she constantly touched her fingertips to each other, drawing patterns on her hands. It calmed her down she said. I didn’t do this. I just talked too much and felt restless.

Anxiety represents itself differently in all of us, I have learnt. Even those who look very calm on the outside, like the friend above, can be highly anxious on the inside. Being anxious for me has meant being reactive, being impatient, rushing through things. My kind of anxiety is also the most obvious because its outer manifestations are easy to observe fast talking, rushing through tasks, physical hyperactivity.

As I connected more with my body and mind, I noticed that I have a somewhat hyper limbic system. Limbic brain, the primitive, reptile brain as it is called, is more instinctive that the cognitive/thinking brain.

In my case it made me react to a stimuli even before a thought had formed in my head. My friend would laugh when I would tell her that I wish I could think first and react after. Her system did not work like this, so she couldn’t understand, just like I didn’t understand how she can be anxious most of the time, but not reactive. There are so many reasons that help explain why we are all wired differently and taking the time to understand our wiring, is time well spent.

Given our different wiring, anxiety manifests differently in each of us. Over these last few years, once I accepted that I was indeed very anxious with a hyper- active limbic brain, I tried various techniques to stay calm. The following 3 have proven most useful:

1. Grounding

As I am learning more about disturbances of the nervous system, I find it helpful to think of the nervous system as a big battery which can encounter short circuits and get  wrongly charged: under-charged or over charged/over-heated. The best way to deal with this is to put one’s feet bare on the ground. Standing barefoot for 20 minutes or so on slightly moist mud especially under trees in gardens is best. If you do yoga, then it is best to do standing yoga asanas barefoot without any mat, feet touching the ground. Staying still is important, because the discharge of current does not happen if we are moving about, so walking or running does not do it. Following is a chinese technique that I find most grounding. Stand barefoot with your feet 1 feet apart , kness slightly bend. Chin parallel to ground, keep spine straight and let your hands hang loosely on the sides. Close your eyes. No take all your focus to your feet. Feel the outline of your feet, your sole, your heels. Notice how each toe touches and feels on the ground, feel the entire weight of your body sinking into the earth through your feet. Sway gently shifting the weight from your toes to the heels and vice versa. Stop after doing this 4-5 times and notice any difference in sensations across your body. Now shift gently from left to right, shifting the weight to one foot while you do this. Again, do this 4-5 times and notice any sensations. After 15-20 minutes, sit down on the ground for a few minutes keeping your eyes closed and feel all the sensations.

Source: The Tao of Natural Breathing by Dennis Lewis

2. Cold Bath

Take a cold bath, where you start with the head, then neck, followed by back and then rest of the body. Keep water running on your head, neck and back for atleast 5-7 minutes. This moves the blood circulation downwards and relaxes an anxious mind. How cold should the water be? As cold as you can tolerate. If you live in North India where summer temperatures touch 40 degree Celsius, then you may need to add ice to cool the water a bit but otherwise room temperature water is good enough. This is assuming your overall general health is fine and you do not suffer from colds or nerve inflammations. I will be writing a separate post on cold baths.

3. Halasana followed by Savasana

Halasana, also known as the plough position, helps one learn how to breathe and relax while there is pressure on the front of one’s body. This can help us cope with feelings of claustrophobia, stress, or sense of being overwhelmed by lack of space when they arise in daily life. I could only hold the position for 30 seconds and my legs wouldn’t touch the ground initially but have gradually built it up to 3 minutes. Please do as per your ability and stop whenever there is too much discomfort.

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7LJLCxo5bBk)

Follow this up with savasana, also known as the corpse position for another 3 minutes.

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