The ancient practice of yoga is an amazing way to alleviate anxiety and depression. If anyone is proof of this, it's Shauna Harrison, a California-based fitness and yoga instructor with a Ph.D. in public health. These days she radiates calm, happy vibes—but that wasn't always the case. When she was a senior in college, Shauna suffered from anxiety attacks every single night. When she swung by the mbg office, she told us how she put an end to her attacks once and for all.
When my first anxiety attack came on, I had no idea what it was.
I was a senior in college, and when the symptoms first came on, I thought I was dying. I couldn't see anything, I thought I was going to pass out, and my heart rate was out of control. I was an RA at the time, and I was responsible for all these people on my floor. I didn't know what to do because I couldn't breathe, so I called an ambulance, and one of the other RAs came by and asked if I was OK. I told him I wasn't, so he stayed with me until the ambulance came.
Once they got there, they said they weren't really sure what was going on. They thought I seemed OK, and they brought me to the ER and ran all these tests, and they still had no idea what it was—but they mentioned something about anxiety.
So I went to the doctor and said, "I think I just had an anxiety attack; what can I do?" So they handed me Klonopin, which is a sedative. And I was like "OK, I'm in my senior year of college. The reason this is happening is because I'm trying to do a ton of things; I can't take a sedative.”
When the anxiety attacks didn't stop, I realized I had to make a serious change.
After my initial anxiety attack, I started having smaller anxiety attacks every night. And anxiety attacks start to become self-perpetuating because you become scared that you're going to have them, and then they just keep happening. My days seemed to go OK, but the second I would walk in the door of my apartment I would have an anxiety attack.
So I went to my family doctor, and she suggested I try an anti-anxiety/antidepressant type of medication and yoga. So I started yoga and Pilates at the same time. I went to a Bikram class first, and I got a Pilates private lesson. I loved them both. I was on medication at the same time, and I started to really, really love both yoga and Pilates because of the breath and the control of the breath.
Once I learned how to use my breath, every time I felt like I was getting an attack I would do this super basic breathing. And I mean, ujjayi breath works for anything. Then I started doing yoga every day and my anxiety was totally under control.
Then I hit a bump in the road.
Right before I went to grad school, I was in a yoga class and someone passed out right in front of me. At my feet. So then I became scared of yoga — and next thing I knew yoga was causing me anxiety. I just kept thinking, what if I pass out? So I didn't do yoga while I was doing my master's program in LA, which was a huge mistake. It caused all these health problems because of the stress, and my body just freaked out. I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and chronic pain, and I was just not connected to my body at all. I had also gone off my medication because the yoga had worked so well, and I had to get back on it.
When I got into a Ph.D. program at Johns Hopkins, I wasn't sure if it was a good idea to go.
When I got a full ride to Hopkins, I was super close to not doing it because my body was not able to function. I was still working out, but it didn't feel right. I was able to function enough to do my job, but when I got to Hopkins, my anxiety was full-fledged during that first month. So I went back on the medication, and that helped, but at the same time, as part of the program, they wanted us to do some kind of health class. So I decided to make that yoga. And it did all the glorious things that yoga does.
It brought me back. It took me a while, but it brought me back, and at that point I was sold on making sure yoga and Pilates were part of my life—so I decided to get my yoga certification. I felt like I was in much more control over the rest of my body and my mind.
I didn't come into yoga for the fad of it. I was initially there for the breath because I didn't have it. And I needed it.
This is my No. 1 tip for anyone suffering from anxiety attacks.
You're not alone. Know that there are a lot of people dealing with anxiety, and you're not crazy. I think even just stopping to breathe can help. Anything you can do that makes you feel whole—gardening, going for a walk, being with your dog. Maybe yoga isn't for you, but regardless, it will have benefits. Find something that will bring you back to who you are and centers you.