5 Ways To Deal with Long-Term Anxiety (and a Prolonged Pandemic) - Yoga Journal

5 Ways To Deal with Long-Term Anxiety (and a Prolonged Pandemic)

These meditations and breathing practices can help you reduce stress and protect your mental health through trying times, including an enduring wave of COVID-19.
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When the coronavirus pandemic started, we had no idea what life would look like after lockdown. But COVID-19 has turned out to be one sustained test of our physical and mental limits as we work through extended uncertainty, isolation, anxiety, and fear. For many of us, the calming practices of yoga have been beacons of light during this time, but even the most mindful among us aren’t as calm as we used to be.

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According to psychiatrist Judson Brewer, MD, the director of research at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center and a faculty member at Omega Institute, the number one mental health issue that people are facing now is anxiety.

Our brains hate uncertainty, and we’ve never been in a more uncertain time,” he explains. “Our prefrontal cortices are set up to help us review previous experiences, extrapolate information from them, and plan for the future. But we don’t have a previous experience like COVID-19, and we also don’t have enough accurate information, so that’s making our anxiety even worse.”

So what are the top things people should be aware of—and doing—as the pandemic continues? Brewer has recommended that, in order to break cycles of anxiety (and its “close cousin,” panic), we practice mindfulness. This will help us “see if our behavior is actually helping us survive, or in fact moving us in the opposite direction,” Brewer wrote in a New York Times article in March. Once we start to see how harmful anxiety, especially long-term anxiety, can be to our health and wellbeing, it becomes easier to replace habitual reactions such as panic or worry with ones that are more beneficial, including mindfulness and breath awareness, he explains.

see also 3 Truths About Anxiety That Will Help You Feel Better, Fast

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5 Yoga Strategies for Beating Long-Term Anxiety

Here are five anxiety-busting practices—from yoga teachers at top retreat centers—that you can turn to when you’re coming undone. By Brewer’s logic, if you make even one of them into a daily habit, you may start to change the way your body and mind respond to prolonged and overwhelming stress.

1. Strike A Stress-Busting Yoga Pose

The Teacher: Shari Friedrichsen, senior faculty and teacher trainer at the Himalayan Institute 

The Practice: Makarasana (Crocodile Pose)

The Benefits: This pose helps train your body to breathe diaphragmatically, so you can be nourished by your breath and a continuous flow of prana (life force). As your abdomen expands on each inhalation, you’re stimulating your vagus nerve—a major component of the autonomic nervous system. Stimulating the vagus nerve activates your relaxation response, lowering your blood pressure and heart rate while reducing stress and anxiety. When you practice Crocodile Pose, you also turn inward, so you can connect to the calm, quiet, and luminous part of yourself that is always within reach.

Instructions: Lie on your belly with your legs a comfortable distance apart and your toes turned out. Stack your forearms on top of each other and draw them inward until your chest is lifted and only your lower ribs are pressing into the floor.

Take deep belly breaths for a few minutes. Then begin to observe: Are your inhalations and exhalations even in quality, as well as duration? If not, begin gently working toward that goal. Once you’ve established this baseline, look at the transitions between breaths. If there’s a pause at the end of the exhalation, begin to relax there. Then notice the inhalation. If there’s a place where you gasp or hold your breath at the beginning or end of the inhalation, relax to the best of your ability. Eventually, with practice, the breath will become seamless and prana will flow freely. Stay in this grounding pose for as long as you like. (And check out this video from the Himalayan Institute if you’d like to hone your skills.) 

see also How Yoga Calms Anxiety Holistically

2. Try A Neuroscientist’s Brain Hack for Anxiety 


The Teacher:
Judson Brewer, Omega faculty and director of research at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center

The Practice: Five Finger Breathing

The Benefits: This practice crowds out worried thoughts in the brain so that you can be calm and focused in the present moment. Try it when you’re so anxious or stressed that regular breathing exercises don’t calm you down.

During the practice, you watch and feel your fingers at the same time that you’re paying attention to your breath. Because this technique is multisensory and requires awareness of multiple locations, it takes up a lot of your brain’s RAM and can help you forget what you were worrying about for a moment. You also calm down your stress response, so that if worry does comes back, it becomes easier to defuse or let go.

Instructions: Start by placing the index finger of your left hand on the outer base of your pinkie on the right hand. As you breathe in, trace up the outside of your pinkie until you reach the tip. As you breath out, trace down the inside of your pinkie. As you breathe in, trace up the outside of your ring finger. As you breathe out, trace down the inside of your ring finger. Continue tracing up and down the rest of your fingers one at a time. Then reverse the process, from your thumb to your pinkie. For more information, check out Brewer’s video below. 

see also How to Form a New Relationship with Your Anxiety

3. Find Your Fearlessness—And Your Compassion


The Teacher:
Elizabeth Lesser, Co-Founder of Omega, Author of Broken Open and Cassandra Speaks

The Practice: A Buddhist mudra meditation

The Benefits: If you’re feeling oversensitive or depleted, this practice can give you a hit of strength, dignity, and courage. If you find yourself getting hardened or impatient, you can use this practice to cultivate self-compassion and inner strength and extend compassion to those around you.

Instructions: Sit in a meditation posture with a strong back and a soft front. Place your left hand on your heart, close your eyes, and breathe deeply for a few minutes.

Whatever you feel in the well of your heart—unmetabolized grief, glorious gratitude, love, anger, outrage, fear, optimism—let it all be.

Now, take your left hand, palm upward, and hold it out in front of you. This is the mudra of empathy. Feel the tenderness of this gesture, the willingness to stay open, the ability to hold the world in the cup of your palm, and the commitment to compassion—toward yourself and others.

Put that hand down. Stretch your right arm out in front of you and make a “stop sign” gesture with your hand. This is the mudra of fearlessness. Feel the power, determination, and dignity of this gesture.

Now, do both of these mudras together and experience a state of balance: compassion with strength, yes with no, openness with boundaries, humility with convictions. Feel this balance within for several minutes and try to maintain it as you go back out into the world.

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4. Stay Calm In The Face of Any Storm


The Teacher: 
Shari Friedrichsen, senior faculty and teacher trainer at the Himalayan Institute

The Practice: Sandbag Breathing

The Benefits: This practice—a resiliency-building form of breath training—softens the unconscious restrictions that you’ve placed on your breath through your habits, fears, sorrows, grief, and anger. It also helps you strengthen your diaphragm muscle and shift the nervous system from fight-flight-freeze mode into relaxation mode. Try it when you catch yourself worrying. Or, even better, as a daily practice, so that in times of stress, you’re already breathing deeply and can stay calm.

Instructions: Place a breath pillow (or a substitute prop, such as a meditation cushion or a five-pound bag of rice) within reach. Relax in Savasana (Corpse Pose), letting your breath flow through the nose without pause for a few minutes.

Now place the pillow on the soft part of your upper abdomen. Let the weight rise organically as you inhale and fall as you exhale. (This will require some degree of effort, but if you feel any strain or if your breath becomes irregular, stop or use a lighter weight.)

Continue breathing like this for several minutes, gradually allowing your breath to become deep, smooth, and even. When you’re ready, slip the weight off of your tummy. Notice the freedom of your breath now. (This video from the Himalayan Institute gives a demonstration.) 

see also 11 Yoga Practices for Working Through Stress and Anxiety

5. Build Resilience With a Relaxation Practice


The Teacher: Rolf Sovik, clinical psychologist and president of the Himalayan Institute

The Practice: Point to Point Breathing

The Benefits: This systematic relaxation method calms the autonomic nervous system. Drawn from the scriptures and teachings of Himalayan Masters, it can be used as a stand-alone practice or as a preparation for meditation.

COVID-19 requires that each of us develop patience, sensitivity, and emotional resilience. Point to Point Breathing is particularly suited for the refinement of these qualities. It provides a daily dose of relaxation and helps you tap into the peace and quiet that are always inside you but often get drowned out by anxiety. As you continue practicing, you’ll learn how to respond to life’s challenges with more balance and ease.

Instructions: Lie in Savasana and let your body become still. Then begin to let each breath flow smoothly from one to the next—deep, smooth, and even, without sound and without pause.

In this practice, you’ll imagine that your breath is a wave flowing from the crown of your head down to a series of points in your body and back up to the crown. 

With your next exhalation, imagine that your breath is a wave flowing down to your toes. With the inhalation, the wave is flowing back to the crown of your head. Exhale down to your toes and up to the crown of your head. 

Next, exhale down to your ankle joints. Inhale back to the crown. Repeat. Then, exhaling from the crown, take two full breaths each in the following sequence:

  • Exhale to knees; Inhale to crown
  • Exhale to hip joints and base of the spine; Inhale to crown
  • Exhale to navel center; Inhale to crown
  • Exhale to heart center; Inhale to crown
  • Exhale to throat center; Inhale to crown
  • Exhale to eyebrow center; Inhale to crown

Now reverse the process. From the crown:

  • Exhale to throat center; Inhale to crown
  • Exhale to heart center; Inhale to crown
  • Exhale to navel center; Inhale to crown
  • Exhale to base of the spine and hip joints; Inhale to crown
  • Exhale to knees; Inhale to crown
  • Exhale to ankle joints to crown; Inhale to crown
  • Exhale to toes to crown; Inhale to crown

Next, imagine that your breath is a wave, flowing through the soles of the feet down to infinity. That your inhalation is a wave flowing through the crown of your head upward into infinity. As you lie resting, in the center of this infinite wave of breathing—you, the finite, rest in the infinite. Stay here as long as you like. 

Here’s a 9-minute guide you can listen to, drawn from Guided Yoga Relaxations by Rolf Sovik.

see also Yoga for Anxiety and Panic Attacks