Breathe Away That Anxiety Forever

You’re standing in your kitchen doing dishes; It’s sunny outside, and you can hear the kids playing in the distance and birds chirping nearby. It’s a lovely morning, you smile to yourself.

And that’s when it hits you.

A crippling sensation of fear moving through your body like an electric shock. For a second, your head feels like it’s filled with lead and your hands and feet get cold while your heart races because of all the norepinephrine binding to it. Ten seconds later, you’re back to normal. But you’re left feeling tired, scared and upset. The lovely morning doesn’t seem so wonderful anymore.

This is an anxiety attack.

I recently was diagnosed with a mild case of hyperadrenergic pots, which is an autonomic condition precipitated after an illness, where your heart races and you get dizzy whenever you stand up. Because it is partly caused by an excess norepinephrine in your blood, this condition naturally makes you prone to anxiety attacks. POTS [Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome]is very poorly understood and it can take months to get the right diagnosis.

Luckily, being a doctor, I diagnosed myself early on and was able to control my symptoms, but the one thing that really shook me was the anxiety. It was something I had never experienced before. It shattered my confidence! But I wasn’t going to let this anxiety get to me. I wasn’t going to give in to this fear. It was my mind and my body. Mine. And only I could control it. So, I got to work.

The first thing I had to understand was that anxiety is an inappropriately massive reaction by our brain and body to a stressor. In a normal situation, if you see a tiger approaching you, your brain (your pre-frontal cortex, to be exact) will interpret that visual stimulus as dangerous and activate the amygdala, which is the fear and emotional processing region of the brain. Your amygdala releases a series of stress hormones and your “fight or flight” mode gets activated. Your heart quickly pumps the blood to the muscles of your legs so you can run away from the stressor, in this case, the tiger. You’re panting, your heart is racing, and you’re scared. But you’re safe. The fight or flight response just saved your life.

But what if you get the same reaction every time you have to go out in public, or every time you see blood or just while you’re standing in line at the supermarket? That’s when the fight or flight response becomes a dangerous nuisance, a disabling affliction that is no longer useful.

How do we control anxiety? In my own experience, I have learned two things that had a lot to do with anxiety: (1) the way I interpret situations and how my thought processes work and (2) the overactivation of the sympathetic (fight or flight) responses that led to an imbalance and a reduced parasympathetic (relaxed) state.

Before I explain how I fought my own anxiety, I want to bring your attention to a very important theory about our cognition and our anxiety. The issue is what we think is totally in our control. When I found myself struggling with anxiety, I came to more clearly see the thought process that went on in my mind every time I felt anxious. I learned that my anxiety was associated with an incident where I had passed out in public, so whenever I was in a public place, that’s all I would think about. I was feeding my mind with worry. Even though my heart rate was normal and I felt healthy, my mind was still convinced I would pass out and by constantly worrying about it, I was reinforcing my mind’s concern.

You see what this is? A vicious circle.

That was my problem. But changing my distorted and illogical thoughts (which seemed completely valid to me at the time) wasn’t easy. At least not immediately.

I knew I also wanted my mind to get back the parasympathetic control, to increase the threshold for stressors so they wouldn’t get to me in such a strong manner every time. And so I took a flight from California to my small hometown in India, where my parents still live. I already knew there was one thing that could help me. This is Anulom Vilom, or alternate nostril breathing. My dad, who has been practicing meditation and breathing exercises for the last thirty years, became my teacher, and together we started meditating and practicing this every day.

After just a few weeks, I started feeling more relaxed, happier and so much more in control. After two months, I could safely say that I had conquered my anxiety.

Anulom Vilom basically creates a peaceful balance and leads us to the parasympathetic mode. Over time, our anxiety responses decrease in intensity. Let me lead you through this technique.

First, find a quiet, relaxed place. Sit in your most comfortable position and cover your left nostril with your thumb and place your index and the second fingers on the area between your eyebrows. Close your eyes and  breathe in slowly through your right nostril. After you inhale, use your ring finger to cover your right nostril. Hold the inhaled breath for a few seconds, then lift your thumb from your left nostril and slowly breathe out. Now inhale through your left nostril and hold the breath. Repeat the breathing through alternate nostrils.

Do this initially for as many minutes as you’re comfortable with, but work to increase the practice to about fifteen-twenty minutes a day.

Another practice that has a strong anti-anxiety effect is Mindfulness Meditation, which I always practice right after Anulom Vilom, because at that point, I am the most relaxed.

In Mindfulness Meditation, you just sit with your eyes closed and breathe normally. Observe your own breathing, the way your diaphragm lifts and comes down, and let thoughts enter your mind without focusing too much on them. Every time you find yourself getting too involved in a thought, avoid labeling that thought as good or bad and bring your attention back to your breathing. After all, anxiety results from thoughts we subconsciously label as bad.

These practices may seem hard at first, but I have read somewhere that meditation is a purely simple process. What makes it hard are our expectations from of it. But I am sure that after a while meditation will become second nature to you.

Doing these two practices everyday has helped me fight not only anxiety but also fatigue and frequent tension headaches. How does this work? It has to have some logical foundation. Something tangible that I can explain to myself.

It’s so simple that it seems impossible.

But let me ask you: what happens when you breathe systematically and deeply every now and then? What happens when you let every possible thought flow into your mind, without judging it, without critiquing it? You enter a state where you and your mind are most relaxed. You enter the parasympathetic state, and when your mind is relaxed, your body follows. Your heart rate slows down, your lungs extract more oxygen from the air you breathe in, and your muscles relax. This can only be a good thing.

Think about it. When you are in a sustained parasympathetic state, your mind will have no choice but to raise the threshold for the stressors. In other words, your stressors will need to become larger and possibly more threatening to be able to get to you. And if the stressors cannot easily arouse you, then your need for amygdala’s firing of hormones will decrease.

Feeling anxious is unavoidable these days. We live in the 21st century, where the world is too competitive and brutal and we might not have any control over much that happens in the world. What we can control, however, is the way we interpret situations and the way we elevate our minds to a level of parasympathetic bliss so that every time we encounter a stressful affair, we can power through it. We can do that. One deep breath at a time.