Yoga for…. Fear and Anxiety

#LiftTheSpirits Lockdown Campaign, Week 4

Fear may be as old as life on Earth. It is a fundamental, deeply wired reaction, evolved over the history of biology, to protect organisms against perceived threat to their integrity or existence.

Fear and anxiety are two emotions that I see as interchangeable. Anxiety is ultimately fear projected onto a future event, often as a result of a negative experience in the past. The two are also self perpetuating — the more you fear, the greater the anxiety. Our brains are staggeringly intelligent. They also protect us against all costs. They are therefore tuned to be biased towards the negative, over the positive. If we have a negative experience, the older mammalian part of our brains, the limbic system, registers that fear and takes note for future.

Studies and clinical interactions, as well as those of others, suggest that a major factor in how we experience fear has to do with the context. When our “thinking” brain gives feedback to our “emotional” brain and we perceive ourselves as being in a safe space, we can then quickly shift the way we experience that high arousal state, going from one of fear to one of enjoyment or excitement.

However, sometimes our brains are unable to tell the difference between perceived and real threat. This borders on my conversations around PTSD, which will follow in an upcoming blog. But there are similarities. As I said above, when we have a negative experience, our limbic system (principally our amygdala) registers the experience, from the associated bio feedback sensations. For example, you are attacked by a dog. Any interaction with a dog in the future is going to trigger a fear and protection response.

Fear is composed of two primary reactions to some type of perceived threat: biochemical and emotional.

Our brains are unable to un-learn fear, however there is good news. This is where our own superpowers come into play. We can create new positive thinking, experiences and consequentially new neural pathways, which can overpower the negative. After all what wires together, fires together. By having lots of experiences with a particular fear, where we realise we are safe, the fear dissipates. It is through overcoming fear that we can discover the truest freedom, the simplest joy and wisdom.

A part of the brain called the hippocampus is closely connected with the amygdala. The hippocampus and prefrontal cortex help the brain interpret the perceived threat. They are involved in a higher-level processing of context, which helps a person know whether a perceived threat is real.

For instance, seeing a lion in the wild can trigger a strong fear reaction, but the response to a view of the same lion at a zoo is more of curiosity and thinking that the lion is cute. This is because the hippocampus and the frontal cortex process contextual information, and inhibitory pathways dampen the amygdala fear response and its downstream results. Basically, our “thinking” circuitry of brain reassures our “emotional” areas that we are, in fact, OK.

How to Overcome Fear:

Overcoming fear is three fold. The first part of dealing with fear and anxiety, is acceptance. Acknowledge it, observe it, sit with it, trust that it will pass. This is the cognitive shift. The second is relaxation. Allowing our bodies to be in the present and in a place of safety, then feeling the sensations associated with a fear. This is the physical change. The third is approaching and confronting what frightens you and learning to better cope with it, understand it and re-frame it. This is the behavioural change. The only thing providing the fear sustenance is ourselves. There are two people in every conversation we have — our chimp (limbic system) and our executive function (pre frontal cortex).

If you can sense and appreciate your fear — be if of flying, illness or social rejection — as merely your amygdala’s request for more information rather than a signal of impending doom, then you are on your way to calming down and engaging more conscious, logic dominated parts of your brain. “The more you try to suppress fear, either by ignoring it or doing something else to displace it, the more you will actually experience it.” Kristy Dalrymple, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and human behaviour at Alpert Medical School, Brown University.

Notice, Shift, Re-Wire

We can hold the reigns to our thoughts. Jay Shetty references a simple technique he uses…. spot, stop and swap. Although I very much the benefit in this, I prefer to bring a little compassion and kindness into the practice, by slightly adapting the words to notice, shift, re-wire. By noticing rather than stopping, we are allowing it to come into our consciousness, but from a safe distance. We are not embracing it, and we are not giving it attention, thus preventing the spark from becoming a fire. Then by shifting, we are consciously making the decision to move our thinking into a different sphere. We are taking control. Our brains are muscles after all — they too need training. Through repeated practice of notice and shift, we will start to re-wire our thinking, and so our physical reactions, and then our behaviour. We are not our thoughts. Fear is an imagined narrative.

How does Yoga Play a Part?

If we are “out of our body”, not in the present moment, and existing in a state of high anxiety, we will not be able to process experiences, or trust out bodies and cultivate sensory awareness. Yoga allows us to foster emotional regulation and “helps you to stop trying to ignore what is going on inside you.” Noticing is a big part of a yoga practice and helps to re-build the mind body connection which is vital for our sense of self. Yoga also helps us to relax, through lowering our cortisol levels and triggering the rest and digest function of the vagus nerve. This sense of relaxation along with the creation of a sense of safety, provides the optimum environment for a curiosity rather than fear — the shift in thinking can start. Last but not least, the practice of yoga has proven to strengthen the communication between the rational, decision making pre frontal cortex, and the at times, hyper vigilant limbic system. Our alarm system, the amygdala shrinks, our memory centre, the hippocampus grows, and we become less predisposed to fear. Yoga brings our body into a place of safety, grounds the nervous system, brings you back into homeostasis, a place where you can better manage difficult emotions and sensations.

Yoga Sequence for Fear and Anxiety (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ucDw18lBoe8):

Intentional breath

Supported Childs pose

Gentle Chest opener

Half moon modified with block

Forward fold + supported Forward Fold

Tree pose

Janu Sirasana + supported Janu Sirasana

Caterpillar

Savasana + supported Savasana

This sequence will be uploaded onto my Youtube Channel in the coming weeks.

References:

The Body Keeps The Score, Bessel Van Der Kolk

A consultancy with community and wellbeing at its heart.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store