I was diagnosed with social anxiety in third grade. Our family doctor wrote a prescription for a therapy pet and offered medication, and then a psychiatrist taught me a few pressure techniques to help interrupt public anxiety attacks. Unfortunately, that was the extent of the coping education I was given in the traditional medical world.
20 years later, after what seems like a lifetime of avoiding life, rearranging, and having to ask for special considerations to simply become functional—I have developed a system of coping practices that interrupt anxious thought patterns. These daily practices help me keep anxiety in check and step back into the present whenever I am bombarded by fear or worry of future outcomes.
Many of these practices presented themselves during my yoga teacher training and are closely related to the niyamas or self-care principles found in the Eight Limb Path of yoga. If you wrestle with anxiety, consider participating in a yoga teacher training program—not necessarily to become a teacher—but to be led through an in-depth study of self in a safe environment, and to become aware of what anxiety is from an energetic perspective.
Grounding work is truly a remedy for anxiety. Being overcome or incapacitated by anxiety means that one has predicted the outcome of a particular moment, relationship, or life event in his or her anxious mind (ego), and then consciously or subconsciously reacted to those predictions at the physical or emotional level. To interrupt anxiety, we must lean into the present through grounding work.
Here are a few ways to do so:
1. Cover your self-care basics first thing in the morning.
Brush your teeth, slather your skin with nourishing virgin olive oil, and drink a tall glass of water. I place a glass of water on my nightstand before bed and then commit to the other "basics" after my morning trip to the restroom. The anxious mind sends the message that you don't have time to take care of yourself, so it's important to slow down and make space for self-care practices at the beginning of your day.
2. Express gratitude in your own way.
At first, it may be challenging to thank the universe for guiding you through your day and revealing the greatest good; that's not how the anxious mind works. The anxious mind focuses on what's missing, what's going wrong, and is constantly trying to generate reasons why.
Resetting that tendency to lean into fear and worry before we get deep into our day is a helpful tool in lessening anxiety. In expressing gratitude, we strengthen our ability to lean into the present. After my self-care basics are complete, I give thanks for being alive another day, for my husband and for my children and anything else that comes to mind. On tougher days I'll tune into a guided gratitude meditation to help my anxious mind focus on the present.
3. Make your movement intentional.
If you suffer from anxiety, it is likely that you'll benefit more from decompression-based exercise than compression-based exercise. My exercise routine has evolved quite a bit over the years, and it's quite all right if yours does too. I've learned that for now, heavy lifting and intense workouts leave me feeling drained and anxious, while yoga and nature walking leave me feeling energized and centered.
Consider giving consistent yoga, tai chi, swimming, or outdoor walking a try to see if your body responds in a different way. Notice if the frequency and severity of anxiety lessens.
4. Get grounded.
If I notice the familiar feeling(s) of anxiety start to challenge my focus and decision-making ability, I will stop whatever I'm doing—or trying to do—and take ten minutes for a grounding practice that is available to me in that space.
Here are a few suggestions:
1. Step outside, let the sun hit your face and take a few deep breaths.
Focus on the sounds, colors, and smells of nature around you. A study published by the University of California at Berkeley revealed that moments in nature could improve our health by lowering cytokine levels. Cytokines are small proteins that trigger our body's immune response, thus increasing inflammation. Chronically elevated cytokine levels underwrite anxiety, poor health, disrupted sleep patterns, hormone imbalance, depression, and other chronic diseases.
2. Practice basic aromatherapy.
I keep both grounding and elevating essential oils like cedar, sage, lavender, grapefruit, and frankincense close. It can be a fun experience to browse and smell different essential oils at your local health store, and then to select a few that appeal to you. Your body will naturally be drawn to the scents that will benefit you most. Massage a few drops at your wrists or behind your neck and take a few whiffs to get out of your head and into the present. Stronger essential oils may need to be blended into carrier oil before being applied to your skin.
3. Work through 5 to 10 revolutions of alternate-nostril breathing (nadi shodhana).
Alternate nostril breathing moves breath in one nostril and out the other, bringing centeredness to our body's energy. Nadi shodhana provides the opportunity for us to move away from our anxious mind and into "right thinking." Gently plug one of your nostrils with your thumb and inhale deeply through the opposite nostril. You may notice that you're able to pull a deeper, more intentional breath. When you're ready, exhale through the opposite side and continue the pattern—in the right, out left, in left, out right.
4. Forgive yourself.
There will be days when anxiety seems to get the best of us. Forgive yourself and continue to practice leaning into the present one movement and one meditation at a time. Remember that we are striving for progress, not perfection and that each time we lean into e present and away from fear, our ability to choose is strengthened. Little by little, a little becomes a lot.