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The Anatomy of Anxiety- How Meditation Can Help

    The subject of anxiety holds a very special place in many of our hearts. Whether you are someone who may experience this in waves or at a constant, this is something that almost everyone can relate to in their own way.

Since we are dealing with something below the surface, an intangible entity, it’s hard at times to understand the true reason or source of these seemingly universal feelings. Which prompts the ultimate question for many; what is anxiety?

What is anxiety?

From a textbook stand point, this is an overwhelming feeling or feelings of fear, worry, stress, etc. that are strong enough to interfere with daily activities. Another perspective frames anxiety with this constant focus on the future while in contrast, depression puts a strong emphasis on the past.

Respectively, the world of yoga and meditation pave a path towards the breath, which helps keep us here in the present moment. While the effects that anxiety has on the physical, mental, and emotional bodies definitely play a major role in our individual experiences, yoga and meditation offer a collective approach to bringing balance back into your entire being. Understanding how anxiety affects our overall well being is a key aspect in making the distinction between controllables and uncontrollables in life. From that comprehensive approach, this further allows us to seek the attention of helpful modalities, such as meditation, which can then give us the necessary tools for navigating through this characterized mental disorder. 

Anxiety as individual struggle

   Although there are many reputable sources offering a textbook understanding of the word anxiety, at times, this is very much so an individual struggle. Which leads us to another question; what does anxiety look like for you?

Many people coming from a background of anxiety suffer from side effects of this condition known as panic attacks. These may look extremely different for each individual but, typically include a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions. This does not necessarily stem from an external danger or threat in the traditional sense, such as someone causing physical harm to the person however, these internal hazards seem very real to the individual who is experiencing them.

Psychical responses

Aside from the projection of these internal feelings as real external threats, some physical responses include increasing heart rate, shakiness, paralysis, hyperventilation, dizziness, fainting, shooting pain in a particular area of the body, as well as many other respective syndromes. For some, when these panic attacks occur, the person may feel as though they are completely losing control, having a heart attack, or even worse: dying.

Yet, these perspectives do offer us a cumulative window for viewing this sometimes crippling condition. Take for instance the mind, which often holds precedence over the body not only in influence but, overall affect. Studies show that long term anxiety or panic attacks may cause the brain to release an excess of stress hormones on a consistent basis. Naturally, the brain does not expel these stress hormones daily therefore, the effects that follow are critical to the overall state of well being for the person. This influx of stress hormones may also impair the person’s judgement or cause them to completely black out all together and forget their present reality. Although many of these affects on the mind may result in other physical components, there are still a plethora of ways that this mental disorder influences our physical body. 

   While many of the physical components of anxiety are actually byproducts of the mental and emotional changes we experience, there is one drastic physicality of this condition that plays a major role in the overall development of the human anatomy. Studies show that due to the short, shallow, and rapid breath that primarily stems from the chest region during many who experience panic attacks, this causes an overgrowth of the muscles surrounding the chest and neck regions within the physical body.

Muscles such as the trapezius, sternocleidomastoid, pectoralis major, and other muscles from the infrahyoid group are just a few found built up in excess among those with anxiety disorders in comparison to those who do not suffer from these conditions. Not only does the breath primarily stemming from the chest and neck regions affect the muscles, this also has a direct connection to the nervous systems. As the breath of someone experiencing anxiety becomes more short, shallow, and ultimately out of control, this begins to amp up the sympathetic nervous system, creating a ripple effect into a downward spiral that may very well look like the onset of a classic panic attack for that person. Since the nervous systems control everything we experience from a sensory perspective, one can imagine how extremely uncomfortable this makes the individual not just in the moment but, within their overall day to day endeavours. Due to the excess build up of muscles within the neck and chest regions, many people suffering from anxiety disorders may also undergo constant pain and tension in these areas. Especially if they are not partaking in any counter movements, such as stretching or even yoga, in order to balance out these spaces. 

What can I do?

    Now that we know how anxiety affects us physically and mentally, this leads us to the next question; what can we do to help? Since extreme states of anxiety tend to send our breath out of control in ways that cause the sympathetic nervous system to constantly respond, anything that centers us around our breath may in turn have a positive effect on whatever experiences arise from your anxiety.

Controlled breath

More specifically, many studies show how meditation may play a major role in redirecting that energy back to a controlled and manageable space. In the world of yoga and meditation, everything centers around the breath. From the way we move to the way we sit with ourselves in stillness, the breath is the most powerful tool readily available to everyone at any given moment of life. It is something that will never leave us and for many, the ultimate saving grace in a moment of sheer panic.

Since we learned above that most people experiencing anxiety are chest breathers and this causes the sympathetic nervous system to constantly respond in a “fight or flight” way, directing your attention and breath to the lower abdominal regions actually displays a positive effect by tapping into the parasympathetic nervous system.

Practice in all forms

As you start to slow down your breath and direct it into the lower belly, this causes a ripple effect of calming your overall mental and physical states and bringing you back into the present moment. One may even find it helpful to close their eyes and redirect their energy inward in a time of potential uncontrollable external influences. Along the path of yoga, meditation actually comes after asana, physical poses. This is because it is deemed the highest form of yoga as you begin to master stillness not only of the body but of the mind as well. We call this a practice in all forms because as you come to your practice of meditation, asana, etc. everyday, you are setting yourself up for success in the moments of life where these practices may serve you most beneficial. 

Belly breathing meditation to combat anxiety

   While there are many affective styles of meditation, one simple approach that may save you in moments of intense anxiety is called belly breathing meditation. If you are looking to cultivate a daily meditation practice in an effort to combat your anxiety, begin with setting yourself up in a comfortable and quiet space. You may sit in a cross leg position or even a chair, whatever comfort looks like for you in a seated form. Close your eyes, place one or both palms on your lower belly, and start taking deep inhales through your nose as you internally direct your breath into the lower abdominal region. Once you expand your belly like a balloon and are full of breath, slowly exhale through your nose and draw your belly button in towards your spine as you empty out completely. Do this as many times as needed and observe how this slow and controlled breath makes you feel. One may experience an overall state of calm and relaxation which can save you in a moment of anxiety or even a full blown panic attack.

As you observe the physical and mental effects of this daily practice, not only are you rewiring your brain with a positive response, you are tapping into the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as “rest and digest,” as opposed to triggering a “fight or flight” response from the sympathetic nervous system. 

Daily meditation as a way to reduce anxiety

   While dealing with a mental disorder such as anxiety may never subside, knowing how this affects your overall state of being can help you understand yourself and this condition a little more. Even though this culprit may stem from the mind, it is clear that anxiety affects the physical body in more ways than we can see on the surface.

While there is no “one size fits all” cure for anxiety, developing a daily meditation practice may just be the medicine you are craving in an effort to combat this seemingly uncontrollable experience. Remember, everything in life stems from intention and with the intention to heal yourself at the forefront of your mind, meditation may just be the key to conquering your anxiety and stepping back into the power of your present energy within your daily life. 

Also read Ayurvedic methods to deal with anxiety here.