Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
How yoga for anxiety helped one woman overcome her panic attacks.
At the onset, one hot summer night, at 2:00 a.m., I thought I had the flu. A strong wave of nausea sat me straight up in bed and brought my awareness to a heavily pounding heart. Sweat beaded upon my upper lip. Fear pounded my bones. I went to the bathroom and spent the rest of the morning sleeping on the cold tile floor.
Each night, for months, this powerful set of symptoms woke me, leaving me boggle-eyed and foggy throughout each day. It’s discombobulating effect sent me to the doctor where I was diagnosed, at the age of 28, with a panic disorder.
Mental health had been an issue since I was in college. Depression and anxiety were no strangers to my life, but this panic disorder diagnosis had me spinning. Daily, I experienced intense episodes of fear coupled with severe nausea. I suffered from ongoing migraines, stress-induced gastritis, and developed a hernia. Medications weren’t helping and—in one doctor’s opinion—making me worse. For months, I was bed-ridden, leaving my children and husband in the shadow of my illness. After two psychiatrists, one psychologist, one counselor, and years of non-change, I needed to set out upon a new path. It started with pranayama.
Ten years prior, at the age of 18, I was married, a mother of two children, and a student at Washington State University. Overwhelmed by stress, I sought therapy. Through counseling services at my University, I met a Psychology Department intern who was studying the effects of breathing on mental health. For three months I participated, meeting with her weekly to work on deep breathing techniques. I wasn’t completely aware of it then, but the breath work was relaxing my muscles and sympathetic nervous system; I was finding stillness and peace where before I had only anxiety. While I relished the soothing effects, after the three months of training—like so often happens—I ignored the thing that was so good for me.
At 28, I recalled these techniques, remembering how it had worked to reduce intense feelings, like fear. I requested my medical records and found out the treatment I had received 10 years prior was called Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). The therapy included training in mindfulness, non-judgment, acceptance, distress tolerance, mantras, and relaxation.
Using these techniques, I practiced and journaled for two years. During this time, I began attending Buddhist gatherings and yoga classes, which echoed many of the topics related to DBT. Soon my dedicated home yoga practice was born.
I saw major improvements. Using my breathing practices, stressful situations no longer pushed me over the edge. Instead of dealing with paralyzing bouts of fear, I now had a way to breathe and reboot. After six months without a panic attack, my doctor took me off all antidepressant medication. I was rising out of my lifelong struggle with anxiety and panic, and my nights on the bathroom floor were getting fewer and farther between.
Since using breathing techniques in combination with my yoga practice for the past four years, I have evolved from an anxiety-ridden insomniac into a well balanced, healthy, and mindful yogini. I am now an active participant in my life—running, practicing yoga, and meditating almost daily. I play with my kids and laugh with my husband. Yoga, and the ancient scriptures connected to it, such as Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, have dialed-in my recovery from the debilitating effects of the panic disorder, now in remission for over a year.
I live in joy, centeredness, and health. I’ve never been happier or lived with such openness—it feels too good to be true. It wasn’t medication or doctors, but an ancient school of thought on the practices of yoga, which lifted me from out of suffering.
See also Yoga for Anxiety and Panic Attacks
Rashel Fitchett is a wife and mother of three. She is a substitute teacher and aspiring yoga teacher in Washington state. For more information, visit her blog, Buddhi Mind.