The Anxiety Paradox – Turning Off Our Survival Instinct

Breath work, meditation, yoga, grounding techniques, etc. all of these things are very familiar to me. I practice them all daily. For a long time now I’ve also unfortunately been practicing “toxic positivity” by beating myself up when I’m unable to utilize these practices when it really matters. I often find myself feeling like a hypocrite, a phony, or a failure because of the frequency and intensity of my chronic anxiety. Why can’t I overcome this? Why can’t I practice the things I preach every Saturday morning to my yoga students? Why hasn’t any of this spiritual work helped me find my way back to inner peace when I need it the most? These are the questions I beat myself over the head with when I’m already in a state of anxious distress.

The other day, it was almost as if in the midst of my panic, I could hear this inner battle going on inside of me. Each time I tried to soothe my agitated mind, it lashed out and resisted that comfort. No! It seemed to be saying. Don’t you understand! These feelings, this fear, is important! You have to stay vigilant. You have to stay alert, or you won’t survive. This is serious!

Regardless of what you’re anxious about, this is what your body and those lower parts of your brain truly believe. The nervous system is on high alert. In the majority of human history, this would only occur in possibly life threatening situations. Our bodies and minds aren’t able to differentiate being chased by a predator and being afraid to make a phone call. No matter how many times we try to calm ourselves down or how many different methods we use to do so, our deeply ingrained survival mechanisms are resisting it with everything they’ve got.

I really don’t know how to overcome this. It seems like if we can practice talking ourselves down, so to speak, enough times that we will learn that certain experiences aren’t really life or death. However, there are so many complex variables that trigger my anxiety. It’s not always something as straight forward as making a phone call or meeting someone new. In addition to that, it’s not usually in response to something that happens regularly in the same way. Anxiety seems to be lurking behind every corner for me just waiting to pop out at the worst moment. Sometimes I genuinely can’t even pinpoint what’s causing it. So how can I reassure myself when I’m so afraid?

The strongest thing any living thing has is its instinct to avoid danger and stay alive, so how can we possibly override that powerful urge? How can we teach it that it’s okay in some situations but an overreaction in others? These are the questions that leave me doubtful that I’ll ever truly be able to make peace with anxiety. It feels so pressing, so urgent, and the mere thought of letting it go when it’s gripping me in that moment feels the same as accepting death.


The Mind-Body Connection

I’ve learned a ton of useful information in my psychology undergrad studies and yoga teacher training. I now try to use the amalgamation of that knowledge to help myself in my day to day life. I have always been a strong believer in the old adage “knowledge is power.” So I am happy to have an outlet where I am able to share this empowerment with others.

Over the years I’ve come to honor the fact that the mind and the body are intimately intertwined. When we are feeling stressed and our minds are racing, the body responds to this as if we were in physical danger. Our muscles tense (often our shoulders, hips, and jaw), our heart rate increases, our breath becomes quick and shallow. Exactly the things any other animal’s body does to prepare for a real or perceived threat.

The only difference is that unlike other animals, humans have the tendency to get stuck in this fight or flight response for far longer than nature ever intended. This is extremely taxing on the body, causing all sorts of medical issues eventually. While it can be difficult to figure out a way to make the mind calm itself, we can use this mind-body connection to our advantage.

The mind is able to send signals to change the state of our bodies, but the body is equally able to effect our mental state depending on what we do with it. If we think about the ways the body reacts when the mind is calm, we are able to consciously create that state in our bodies even when the mind is feeling agitated. Taking mindful deep breaths and scanning our bodies and relaxing each muscle sends signals to a worried brain that we are safe. It is impossible for opposite states to exist in the mind and body simultaneously.

It can be difficult to stay grounded in the body and apply these mindful physical changes when we are distressed. But with practice, it becomes easier to return to the body when the mind feels frantic. Make yourself comfortable, breathe deeply, relax your shoulders, un-clench your jaw, let the body’s wisdom quiet the storm in your head. I hope you will remember this the next time anxiety emerges in the mind.

Take care of yourselves, dear ones.