Anxious Chatter: Yoga + Mental Health

Warning: this article contains a detailed description of anxiety and depression, which may be triggering. Reader discretion is advised. 

It’s the day before our big move to New York City and, here I am, typing away on my laptop in the Starbucks downstairs. Without WiFi and officially off the grid, we’re knee deep in the middle of what I can only refer to as “urban roughing it.” Our Boston apartment is a mere skeleton of its former self, half of my clothes are in a brightly colored suitcase in my parent’s Upper East Side sanctuary, and I’m not exactly sure where home is anymore.

Don’t get me wrong, this move is exciting and I am incredibly grateful that we have the opportunity to pick up our lives and move to the greatest city in the world at what feels like a moment’s notice. That said, this is hard. Like, really hard. And it is particularly difficult for someone who has suffered from anxiety and depression for the better part of her entire life.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been an anxious person. The terminology has changed over the years – when I was little it was “nerves,” in my teen years it was “stress,” and in law school it was “burnout,” but the feeling has always been the same. Out of nowhere, sometimes without any hints of what’s to come, I am filled with a sense of dread, a deep-rooted feeling that something just isn’t right…that I’m in danger.

I used to think that I was just a worry-wort. You know, that Type A over-achiever that has trouble acknowledging life even has a flow, let alone is willing to go with it. And, for a long time, I fit into that archetype perfectly. I got straight A’s in school, was always the President of some club or organization, and was labeled as unusually mature for my age. Adults rewarded my “damn, she really has it all together” attitude, kids my age teased me relentlessly for it and, over time, it became a defining cornerstone of my personality.

Maybe it was my midwestern upbringing or just a symptom of the times, but the topic of mental health was rarely discussed amongst my close family and friends. Turns out that anxiety and depression aren’t exactly highlighted in an elite, private school education…

When I look back on my teen years, particularly those in high school, I am struck by just how many of us were experiencing some form of mental illness. Although there were only twenty-something people in my high school graduating class, it seemed as though we were all living through the indescribable pain of mental illness at one point or another. And it was almost never addressed by the faculty or administration.

It’s not surprising then that I hid my anxiety and depression from the world for a very long time. Despite the fact that I had been throwing up in school from my “nerves” for nearly a decade, I didn’t step foot in a therapist’s office until college. Those first few sessions were a complete disaster (or at least that’s what I thought back then), and I had made up my mind that therapy just wasn’t for me…that I was above therapy somehow, that I wasn’t weak (just writing that today makes me shutter).

I had completely sworn off therapy and resumed my life as an anxious human. And you know what? I had perfected it to a pretty exact science. To the outside world, I was the perky, cheerful Elizabeth that ran the Women’s Center and was preparing to go to law school; to everyone (and, sometimes, even to myself) it seemed like I had it all.

All of that came to a halt when I was raped. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t hide my anxiety or depression anymore. The feelings of loss, shame, and self-hatred bubbled up in nearly every aspect of my life, no matter how hard I tried to push them away. I spent weeks crying alone in my tiny, off-campus studio apartment. I skipped class. I started drinking. I started sleeping around. I started experimenting with drugs. Anything to escape the warfare that was waging inside my own head.

Very few people know that I’m actually a pretty introverted person. Sure, years and years of pretending has given me the tools to “fake it til’ I make it” but, at my core, I much prefer being alone. I’ve always prided myself on my resiliency and, for better or worse, have always believed that my independence was a force to be reckoned with.

But, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t go it alone anymore. I needed help.

I can still remember the first time I was diagnosed with anxiety. It was a year after my assault and I was (begrudgingly) attending weekly therapy sessions at the college counseling center. Mid-way through my most recent tale of “nerves,” my therapist calmly said, “Elizabeth, it sounds like you’re experiencing a lot of anxiety.”

For the first time in my entire life, I had finally found a word to describe the pain and worry that had plagued my inner-most thoughts for as long as I could remember. For the first time in my life, my mental health was validated.  And you know what? It was an incredibly freeing, almost empowering feeling. I remember thinking, “if there’s a medical term for this, I can’t be alone. And maybe, someday, I can wake up without a knot in my stomach.”

My college therapist was the first person to introduce me to my yoga practice. She was a cool, ex-hippie that whole heartedly believed in the powers of breath work and mindfulness and, admittedly, my former over-achieving self fought her on almost everything that came out of her mouth (after all, before I became a yoga teacher or a Reiki Master, I was a corporate lawyer, remember?).

Ironically enough, my competitive ego – the very source of my anxiety – is what got me to step into my first yoga studio. I was determined to beat my anxiety, and figured a few classes were my ticket to winning this dumb fight once and for all.

Of course, this was absolute bullshit.

Anxious people know that our anxiety is, at its core, a safety net. Sure, it makes us miserable on the inside and causes panic attacks, depression, and other mental illnesses, but it also makes us generally high-achieving people. In many ways, anxiety is rewarded, particularly in the fast-paced nonsense of American living. Being an anxious person is hard, but surrendering to anxiety is even harder. 

And, by far, the hardest thing to surrender to was a daily anti-depressant.

I remember feeling so weak and ashamed that I needed medication. In my mind at the time, the anxiety had won, I had lost, and I was now “one of those people.”

The exact opposite was true, of course. By prioritizing my mental health and surrendering to my own limitations, I was stronger than ever. Each evening when I took that tiny white pill, I was reaffirming a commitment to my own wellbeing…a commitment to myself.

It took a few months but, eventually, the daily panic attacks stopped. For the first time in nearly five years, I could wake up without a surge of panic flowing through my veins. For the first time in my life, I had the tools to really give yoga and meditation a try. For the first time in my life, I had a tiny glimpse of what peace looked like.

If you’ve read my story about finding yoga, you know that the practice didn’t stick right away. Just like I fought my therapist when she suggested meditating or alternate-nostril breathing, I fought the principals of yoga. For a long time. Like, 4 years.

I could get behind the asanas as a cool workout or a way to become the bendy, sensual goddess I’d always imagined myself as, but that was really it. I used to roll my eyes every time a teacher talked about surrendering in pigeon pose and often used savasana as an excuse to mentally comb through the rest of my to-do list. I was practicing yoga, but I was no yogi…yet.

I can’t tell you why or how or even exactly when the shift happened, but come that shift did. Maybe it was the pure exhaustion from pretending for 12 years or my escape from litigation but, a little over a year and a half ago, something changed.

I surrendered.

Yoga has taught me many things, but this is one of my greatest lessons:

“The goal of meditation isn’t to control your thoughts, it is to stop letting them control you.”

For me, yoga is about letting go. Whether it’s letting go of my fear of falling out of a balancing pose, releasing my thoughts of self doubt in an intermediate class, or surrendering to my emotions in hip-openers, this practice has given me permission to shed the perfectionist armor I once wore each day and, instead, give in to the beautifully flawed, whole person I have always been.

By recognizing that I am already whole, I already am, I can release those thoughts that once accompanied my anxiety and depression. By turning inward, I have learned to see the world very differently and, I have to admit, it’s hard for me to lose sleep these days over everyday stressors when I believe that a pure piece of the universe resides inside my heart.

Am I perfect? Absolutely not. If I was, I would be writing this from an ashram in India, clad in some gorgeous flowy garb and seated in perfect posture instead of the busy Starbucks I’m camped out in wearing what I hope are clean clothes, while clinging to the venti mocha frappuccino that’s basically my lifeline at this point.

But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there is no such thing as a perfect yogi. And there is no such thing as a perfect person.

At the end of the day, we’re all just doing the best we can with what we have. I’m fortunate that yoga, meditation, and Reiki have strengthened that arsenal of “what I have” a bit, but it’s still a process. Life is a process.

Have I handled this move flawlessly? Nope. Will I probably lose my cool again at some point today and tomorrow? You betcha. But will I take a few moments, just like this one, to look inward and do something that makes me feel at home in my own body and mind? Yes.

My mental health journey has been just that: a journey. And, as the overly-quoted (but still a personal favorite of mine) Bhagavad Gita excerpt goes:

“Yoga is the journey of the Self, through the Self, to the Self.” 


The Yogi Lawyer

If you or someone you know is suffering from mental illness, you are not alone. Visit the Anxiety and Depression Association of America to connect to resources in your local community, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 to speak with a caring person immediately. #stopthestigma

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