Staying present with anxiety

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Teaching yoga does not immunize me from the need to learn

I have a confession to make. I struggle with anxiety of the hypochondriac variety. For my entire adult life, I’ve lived with chronic migraines, a condition that has made me acutely aware of my body and its micro-sensations. The neurological condition that people equate to a really bad headache is far more than headache for me. In fact, headache pain is the least of my worries. The other feelings that present when I’m experiencing a migraine are much more troubling to me.

I gaze out the window to marvel at the progress of spring in my backyard and feel my eyes squint in response, a telltale twinge of pain caused by light sensitivity. I’ve been known to wear Ray Bans at my desk despite the questioning looks of colleagues in the confines of corporate Canada. Dizziness is another run of the mill day for me. With it comes a general feeling of fogginess like I’m operating from behind thick panes of glass, my head on display in an aquarium, some exotic species of fish swimming about and somehow able to put sentences together, to craft memos and Q&As for my clients.

There can also be an accompanying tightening of my sinuses, a slowing down of my breath, which only causes me to watch my breath ever more closely. Is it in my chest? Is that pressure? Am I unable to breathe? Do I need oxygen? Questions which in turn raise my heart rate and send my mind into a spin.

I once ended up in an emergency room – in a foreign country no less – because I lost feeling in my hand and arm. When the numbness dissipated, in its place were unseen pins and needles being pricked into my arm and hand, up into my left cheek and face. I was sure I was having a stroke. I spoke out loud to my partner, instructing him to listen and notice if I was slurring my speech or not. I knew all the things to watch out for. The doctors checked my heart and watched me a while, ultimately convinced that it was just a new (yay!) symptom of migraine showing up.

Every once in a blue moon I get what is dubbed aura migraine, which includes a temporary blurring of vision. For roughly twenty to thirty minutes, I look out at the world as though through the fuzz on a TV set with wonky cable. The crystallized edges of my gaze making every action more dangerous. No car driving, no walking, no cleaning dishes for the possibility of grabbing the knife’s blade.

And because these symptoms are so random and non-specific, I imagine them as my diagnosis of other illnesses. You name it, I’ve considered it a possibility. So, layer into this COVID-19 and the rush to vaccinate and I’m a panicky mess. I believe in medicine and the need for vaccines. I generally trust people to do their best and especially those considered our leaders. I’m a rule follower. So, I did as I was told and I got the AstraZeneca vaccine, knowing that there is an infinitesimal risk of developing blood clots, and knowing that my knowledge of this risk might mean a lot of wasted time catastrophizing. A day after I rolled up my sleeve for the shot, the Ontario government paused its use of the vaccine citing the increased risk of this serious side effect. Begin tail spin.

Breathing my way through the moment

In the week since I’ve had the vaccine, I go through a predictable cycle of feeling good, of avoiding all news related to the vaccine, of moving forward with life, and then of being consumed by crippling panic, in which every minute sensation in my body is cause for alarm. I can spend hours internally debating whether to call my doctor, show up in the ER, or just ride it out and hope I wake up the next day. This cycle takes place over the course of days or sometimes within one hour. It’s exhausting and scary and extremely lonely. It’s lonely because it causes me such a sense of shame that I don’t dare tell anyone about it (hence the confessional here). I expect to be laughed at, to be chided for my irrationality, to be labelled as that anxious, crazy woman who wastes the time of doctors and nurses, who causes her family and friends to worry needlessly about her.

Yoga and meditation have been both a blessing and a curse for me and my worry. At times, the stillness and direction to watch and feel my body, to stay with anxiety, just provides further proof that I’m on the edge. That with one more strange tingle in my chest, I’m about to go into cardiac arrest. And then I belch and recall the feeling is benign. I just drank carbonated water.

And then there are the times yoga provides a much-needed distraction and reconnection to my breath, to the universe, to the faith that everything is as it should be. It brings my spinning mind, as it hurries into the unknown future creating stories and scenarios and worst-case planning, back to the present where, although I may feel funny and a little off, I am OK. I am able to stand on solid ground. I am stringing together sentences. I am considered a valued partner, teacher, consultant. I appear to be fine, to be thriving, to all those around me. I am continuing to live as I have the last 20+ years.

I’ve made it through 7 of the 30 days that are deemed to be the period when this rare reaction might present itself. The only option I have is to keep going, one day at a time, one breath at a time. Now more than ever, I turn to my yoga practice for guidance and instruction on how to sit with this discomfort. Staying with the anxiety is the thing that shifts it. It reminds me that I know my mind. I see what my brain is doing – trying to keep me safe in the only way that it knows how, but that what it says is not fact or truth.

Yoga helps me see my suffering and let it be. Yoga reminds me that I can trust myself and my body to know what is real and when I need to seek help. Yoga gives me the compassion to realize that this is hard, and I can only do my best at any given moment. That might mean taking a break for a nap or hunkering down for some steady work. So as the days tick by, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, I will continue to breathe in the ways that I know help. I will continue to share what I’ve learned and what I keep trying to learn with those who need to learn it too. Learning doesn’t stop once you know something. You keep doing, acting, practicing, imprinting it in your body and soul. In this way, my mess is also my message. I tell myself, keep going. I say to you, keep going.

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