Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Defeating and Decoding Anxiety

I am writing this in the earnest hope that the content of this piece comes of use to those out there who have faced or continue to face the onslaught of anxiety and related disorders.  
People who suffer from anxiety do not have it easy. Anxiety disorder may take many forms, from mild to severe in intensity . Anxiety disorders plague an increasingly huge percentage of the world's population today and take forms such as generalised anxiety disorder, specific phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder and panic attacks. These manifestations sometimes severely damage a person's ability to lead a normal life.
Anxiety and its many forms debilitate in ways that can cripple the sufferer and condemn him to a very restricted and confined existence in more ways than one.   In order to overcome anxiety, we need to first understand how it works.... physiologically and physiologically. Then we must understand our unique brand of anxiety - the unique way anxiety manifests in each of us, including the triggers, the way our mind and body react, signs and symptoms etc. Then we must formulate our strategy based on our general understanding of anxiety and how it works. Lastly, we must implement the strategy with will-power, persistence and commitment.   

How it all began
Anxiety is actually a healthy human instinct. It was designed by nature to protect us from danger and threat to our lives.... conditions that existed when we were apes, living in caves and constantly facing the threat of a wild animal attack or of an unexpected natural calamity. These were conditions over which we didn't have control. What we mean by anxiety is nothing but a set of signals that our brain, the amygdala to be more precise, sends to our body when it senses danger of any sort. When these signalsare received by the body, a set of physiological changes kick in, roughly referred to as the 'fight or flight' response. Again, this response was designed to help us fight the attacking wild animal, or flee from the place of danger. On release of adrenalin, the heart starts to pump faster, getting ready to supply more blood for the fight or the run; the lungs breathe in more air, our muscles become tense and our digestion slows as blood is diverted away from the stomach to the large muscles and the brain. All these responses were apt and necessary in the ape age.  
But things are different today. Anxiety has fast arisen as a psychological and partly physiological condition needing treatment in many of us today, sometimes unfortunately with medication. The reason is that the anxiety response mechanism that was appropriate earlier is now experienced by us today, in a day and age when there are no wild animals chasing us and we have safe, secure homes protecting us from a storm or any such danger. Our anxieties today arise from things unrelated to raw survival and have been sublimated into anxieties of the workplace, of time deadlines and family pressures. These trigger off our outdated anxiety response.

What makes it difficult
Unfortunately, this is not a simple problem. Since the anxiety response of the brain is so deeply ingrained and is intertwined so closely with our survival instinct, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to shut it off at will. The switch on switch off mechanism of the anxiety response is instinctive, and worse still, gets reinforced with habit. So people suffering from anxiety disorders feel helpless and resort to medication.   But the problem with medication is that the body gets addicted to artificial chemicals to keep calm and reverts to its anxious behaviour soon after medication is discontinued. So, resorting to medication is only a temporary relief, not a lasting cure for the problem.
I have myself been through extremely anxious phases in my life which triggered a temporary but debilitating anxiety disorder characterised by panic attacks, food addictions and agoraphobia. I have known people who have chronic anxiety too.   Anxiety disorder manifests in each sufferer very differently. Some people develop phobias of specific things, like open spaces or closed spaces, of crowds, of darkness etc. Some others develop obsessive habits like repeating a ritual many times before they leave their homes. Some others resort to food as a comforting factor and become addicted to sugars or carbohydrates. Some others have phobia of social situations, some take to addictions. These are just coping strategies for intense fears triggered deep within.

The path to defeating Anxiety
In an effort to find a medication-free solution to this problem, I researched for many years and myself experimented with many techniques. I was very heartened to discover for myself that there is a way to reverse the inappropriate anxiety response pattern characterising anxiety disorders. Without medication! It worked for me and has, as I have come to understand now, helped countless anxiety sufferers out there in the world. Simple techniques that are powerful and effective and when followed with persistence and effort, can slowly and surely change the mechanism of anxiety response in our minds and eventually our brain.
Given below are what I believe to be extremely effective means to overcome and defeat our anxiety disorder ourselves!

Step 1
Understand your anxiety response. Put them down in a diary. What triggers your anxiety? How does it manifest? Do stressful situations at work set off the anxiety response? Or is it certain specific situations or interaction with certain people? Is it being in a certain kind of place - for example crowded places, lifts, open spaces etc? What are the manifestations of your anxiety - what are the physical sensations you feel? Does your heart race? Do you feel the need to vomit? Do you feel faint? How about emotional manifestations - do you feel vulnerable, sensitive and touchy? Do you feel like avoiding crowds? Do you express your anxiety through nervous and fidgety body behaviour? Do you feel easily suspicious? Do you feel a sense of impending doom? Do you feel suicidal? Do you become obsessive? Do you stuff yourself with food or go hungry for long periods? Do you have surreal experiences like feeling detached from your body or a dream-like floating feeling? What fears do you have about your body and your safety? Do you become hypochondriacal?   No matter what you feel , however weird or bizarre your symptoms may seem to you, watch them and try your best to not judge! Accept it and understand that you are a normal human being whose anxiety response has become a bit hypersensitive... That's all! KEEP TELLING YOURSELF THAT! You can develop an ability to understand your anxiety response better if you meditate, or at least spend some time in silence just observing yourself. Some people take the help of an external party like a friend or a counsellor to help them with this.  

Step 2
Once you've identified how your anxiety manifests, you can begin the work of reversing your mind's, and consequently your brain's,behavior pattern. Take a notepad and note down how your anxiety is debilitating you and how different you would want your life to be from what it is? For example if you have agoraphobia or fear of open spaces, you may write 'My fear of open spaces stops me from enjoying going out with my friends to the beach'. Follow this up with a powerfully positive statement expressing your desire. For example ' I would like to be able to go a pristine beach and lie down and enjoy the vastness of the sky'. What this exercise does is shows you two points - the point where you are at and the point where you want to be. It gives you a clear goal and clear aim. What it also does is that it turns something currently negative to something positive in the future. Like they say, darkness can be removed only with light. Similarly negative forces can be nullified only by positive ones.  

Step 3
 Resolve to challenge each of your anxious behaviour patterns one by one, slowly and surely. Remember that while doing this, you need to keep you goals small and achievable initially. And celebrate every time you succeed. For example, a person who feels dizzy every time he has to take a flight has to first tell himself, “This is just a symptom of inappropriate anxiety. This time, when I fly, I will ignore the dizziness, and the moment I feel better, I will find one thing I can do on the plane that gives me pleasure.' The pleasurable thing can be as simple a thing as eating your favorite snack or solving a puzzle or playing a game on your laptop or phone. If you are a person who gets a panic attack in crowded places, say to yourself, “I am brave for facing my fear of crowded places.I am not alone in my fears, and anxiety is something many people in the world are familiar with. Instead of feeling defeated, I will smile and go on to have a great day after my panic attack!”And when you manage to do this, celebrate by telling yourself “I am a step closer to getting rid of my anxiety!”. When you habituate your mind in small doses to what it fears, the hold of the fear loosens. Also remember to motivate yourself with some reward for facing your fears. But remember to take it slow and easy and do this in small steps.  

 Step 4
 Learn healthy coping techniques. Your anxiety symptoms are just inappropriate, ineffective coping mechanisms of your mind. Teach your mind and body better ways to cope. Some effective techniques of coping with symptoms of anxiety are listed below.  
 1. Diversion .... Use powerful diversion techniques to draw your mind away from anxiety. A compelling game, a movie, talking to a friend, shopping, and so on. Identify what distracts you most effectively when you are panicking or are anxious and use that technique. Remember that the technique should be one that draws you FULLY into it and COMPLETELY distracts your mind. Half hearted distractions will not do the trick.  
2. Exercise .... Exercise is a great way to tackle anxiety both physically and mentally. Physically, it uses up the excess adrenalin produced and releases muscle tension. Mentally, during exercise, the brain releases feel-good chemicals like dopamine and endorphins that remove pain and give you feelings of pleasure - a very welcome change from the nerves of an anxiety attack. You could also take dancing lessons and dance away your anxiety!  
3. Music.... Singing, playing an instrument or even listening to your favorite music can be a powerfully effective anti-anxiety technique. Sincewe become self involved and inward-looking during an anxiety spell, music helps you engage with something outside of yourself. While singing or listening to familiar favorite songs, one is drawn into the music and away from anxiety. Familiar songs also trigger happy memories which in turn release feel-good hormones.  
4. People .... Having people around, family, friends, even close colleagues or any group of people you like and trust, has an ability to make you feel secure and protected, even if it is not a conscious feeling. To take an analogy from the animal world, it is what a cub or a baby elephant feels when it is with its pride or herd. Since we feel vulnerable and unprotected like babies, when we are anxious, being around people instills a feeling of comfort and security. Of course, sometimes it can feel claustrophobic to be around people when one is having a panicor an anxiety attack. Nevertheless, as a general rule, try to develop a circle of people who know your problem and who you can trust - people who know you enough to give you the space you need while still providing comfort and security from a distance. In the long term, the security of loving people goes a long way in reducing the anxiety response.  
5. Healthy food.... Treat your body to a sumptuous and a healthy meal with lots of fruits, vegetables, proteins and the appropriate amount of fats and carbohydrates. Drink copious amounts of water. Don't go hungry for long periods, since some physiological conditions like hypoglycemia and dehydration worsen feelings of anxiety. Hormonal imbalances can also give you anxious feelings. So keep your health in check and make sure you get treated in case you have any physiological factor exacerbating your anxiety condition.
  6. Meditation.... Meditation is an excellent way to both still and calm your mind and body and also do some powerful observing and introspection at the same time. It might be difficult to meditate at the same time you're having an anxiety or panic attack, in which case, you can allow the panic to settle using one of the other techniques listed above and then sit to meditate. The insights you will learn about yourself in a meditative state will go a long way in understanding your anxiety intelligently, tackling it and finally defeating it.  

Never Forget!

 While following the above steps towards recovery from anxiety disorders, keep the following in mind always!  
1. Anxiety disorder in most cases is not a disease... It is just a hypersensitive survival instinct manifesting as a psychological and physiological response. Repeating anxious behavior becomes a habit of your brain and mind.
 2. Panic attacks and anxiety bouts, however intense they may feel, cannot harm you or kill you! They are just natural defence mechanisms of the mind which have been reset to a lower than average threshold levels.
3. Anxiety cannot really be cured with medication. Medication may only temporarily control the chemical imbalance in the brain resulting from anxious behavior. True recovery can happen only with the person's desire, will and persistence.
4. Anxiety disorder CAN be reversed with conscious, powerful behavioural change.
5. Even though reversing the anxiety response of the mind and brain takes time and persistence, such an effort is richly rewarded with an almost complete, and in many cases permanent, freedom from anxiety disorder.
6. Behaviour patterns and thoughts that feed anxiety make it more deeply entrenched. Overindulging anxiety by over-analysing and over-researching your condition can derail or slow down your recovery.
 7. Anything negative can be removed only something powerfully positive. Anxiety disorder can be corrected only with the positive forces of hope, laughter, happiness, love, acceptance and inspiration.  
What I have said above has proved very effective in tackling and even reversing anxiety for myself and also, as I have discovered, for countless others. These are people who have, in one way or the other, knowingly or unknowingly, used the above techniques to tackle and defeat their anxiety condition.  
Do not consider your fight against anxiety a dreary journey but rather a journey towards a fuller and a happier life! Good luck!

Chipping Away (Appeared in the October 2013 issue of 'Life Positive' , a wellness magazine)

We've all heard of the tortoise and hare story and so did I when I was a kid. While it is not possible for such a story to have a particularly profound impact on a 5 yr old, it is still a story among those that none of us can forget. It is now almost decades later and now the powerful wisdom behind this story is beginning to unravel itself to me.

 I was quite lazy as a kid. Never liked school, hated homework, loved to play and had loads of friends. I always studied for my exams just days before and managed a decent percentage, that's all. Never had a fascination for ranks and grades. My report card every year had the same comment... 'intelligent but disorganised. Needs to learn to be consistent and work hard'. I could never relate to students who could put in disciplined work every single day just to make that 1st rank or to top a particular subject. My days seemed blissful when I kept myself innured from tension, worry and the hard work that achievement required.

It was not until years later that a sudden sadness started to creep in. I couldn't explain it. It would hit me every morning in the wee hours and would either keep me awake or spoil the quality of my sleep. The reason I would tell myself was something mundane like the stress of a meeting coming up or fear that my boss would yell at something. But over time I began to realise it might be to do with something specific and something deep. The sadness and heaviness,  I came to realise , had a lot more to it. One of the facets of the sadness I came to understand, was a lurking feeling of guilt along with a feeling of envy at others who managed to achieve things I knew I was capable of but didn't care enough to strive towards in my younger years.

 Guilt is a devilish thing you know, especially if it concerns something you've done to yourself. It eats away like acid , burning and devouring all that feels good. Over time, it pervades everything inside and turns like undigested food into a feeling of queasiness, unease and anxiety. It simultaneously turns outward becoming jealousy, anger, unhealthy  introvertedness. worst of all, to protect our ego and falling self concept, we create within ourselves, an illusion of ourselves as perfect human beings and take it upon ourselves to judge and belittle others and trivialize success and achievements of people we envy inside. I am thankful that I caught myself well before things deteriorated so much but it is important to know how bad things can get.

 The moment of realisation came to me thanks to a simple incident that happened years ago. Music was a part of my life from my age of five. It runs in my family and I was spotted quite young by my school as a child who had talent. My parents and my school gave me immense encouragement. I won many prizes and scholarships through my early years. But as with studies and most other things at that time, the same lackadaisical attitude pervaded music too.I would sit for riyaz very reluctantly and after much coercing by my mother. While I never ever abandoned music learning, there were long periods of disconnect with my classes. I would be put off for months before I could muster up the will to resume. Since, music, as  I have come to believe, is so deeply entrenched in me, I couldn't ever abandon it fully, and I thank providence for that. Anyway, years passed and I kept chugging along with my classes and concerts and competitions but never really achieving what I could've by that age. I would always look at achievements as huge mountains to climb and somehow all that seemed too much of an effort. I felt I didn't have it in me to climb that high or that steep. I felt defeated far before even trying.

A turning point came  when I moved cities after marriage. I had the good fortune of meeting my guru. It was one of those classes to which I had gone in with the same reluctance to learn. Within minutes of starting the session, I got talking heart to heart with her. I knew i couldn't disguise my mood for too long. During the course of the conversation my guru began to understand that I had not given music what I ought to have and I was far from where I could be. After the class, I went back home and continued with my day's routine. Not long after, I received a message from my guru, a message that was to change my life. It said 'Nithya, remember this, if you don't do what you have to do with your music, there will be a day when you will feel a sharp dagger in your heart!'

 Something about that message both scared me and made me thankful at the same time. It scared me because somewhere deep inside I knew the truth behind that message. I was thankful because it seemed to have come at the right time. Any earlier, it wouldn't have had an impact, any later would've been too late.

 It is then, that I embarked on a self realisation and improvement journey. One by one, I began to undo old bad habits. I would challenge every lazy bone inside me. I would drag myself to classes and enforced strict disciple on myself with Riyaz. I chipped away at every aspect of my personality that held me back, that threatened to destroy me, to make me incompetent and mediocre. Every fear, every anxiety that held me back was not allowed to have its way without a war inside, which I eventually started winning more often than losing. Slowly and surely my Riyaz started getting more disciplined and more focussed, I started treating myself and others more gently, becoming less critical and more compassionate. I kept small targets and taught myself to celebrate small successes. I started taking every big task just by the day and sometimes by the hour.

 Over time, I realised it actually just takes small bits and chips done every day with commitment and discipline to build anything big.  When i think about this even on hindsight, it seems to prove true. Even though i had done it unknowingly, the fact that I had kept music going despite not giving it active attention has over the years made a huge difference to my musical ability and I feel reflects in my music today. Big things actually start small. Things like career, marriage, a home, a life seem like huge tasks But, it is chipping away with active persistence, diligence at the small things every day, along with an ability to be patient and compassionate that can take us miles and help us climb very high.

 I started realising that I was beginning to have what people will define today as a successful life. And it all seemed to happen relatively effortlessly.  A career that I am passionate about, a happy marriage, a wonderful relationship with my parents and in laws to name a few. The funny thing is that I realise. is that things seem to happen when you're busy not focussing on the outcome.....it's quite amazing how deeply powerful the words in bhagavat gita are 'karmanye vadhika raste ma phaleshu kadachana' translating to' one has right only over one's efforts not over its fruits'.

When one understands this fully and from the heart one begins to shift focus from desire for a particular type of outcome. He or she learns to just live in the present, live by the day. He learns that fruits will come effortlessly if the focus is on what has to be done.

I've learnt an invaluable lesson thanks to that life changing message. For that I'll be ever grateful to my guru. Making something out of one's life doesn't have to be painful. It will certainly be effortful. But the trick in making it as effortless as possible is to learn the art of doing small things little by little , day by day and learning the art of celebrating.

 Great things I realised happen when...

 You're busy chipping away!

The Role of Pain (appeared in the Nov 2013 issue of 'Life Positive' a wellness magazine)

The word pain is so all encompassing. When we hear the word 'Pain', it evokes in our minds a whole gamut of unpleasant associations, right from physical pain to the poetic 'pain of living' , also referred to by some poets and writers as 'existential angst'. Whatever the association we choose at any point in time, it kindles in our minds and bodies, myriad uneasy sensations. ‘Pain’ in any form,  is something we would rather do without. Something we avoid like the plague. And yet, deep inside we know, it is a profound life reality we cannot wish away.

Our first exposure to pain happens when, as infants, we feel hunger and thirst. As we grow, pain morphs into subtler forms. The pain of losing parents' attention to a sibling, losing a school competition, bewildering separation and pain experienced after death of a grandparent, and many such. As we move along into early adulthood, the confusing pain of separation from parents, asserting itself as temper tantrums, rebelliousness and sexual curiosity, kicks in. Then, the grueling pains of adult life start making their grand entry  with the anxiety of finding our first job or starting our careers and surviving the pressures of competition and performance to earn our living. For some people, pain could enter earlier, with having to fend for ailing and poor parents or family. It could enter with having to deal with more complex problems like abuse or rape.  In some unfortunate extreme cases,  pain can unfairly hit children in a manner that damages irreversibly, their ability to lead normal lives. Aas life goes on, pain just keeps getting more and more complex and sometimes comes in power packed doses leaving us feeling completely sapped and drained not to mention defeated, singled out, alone, helpless and vulnerable.

 Most people deal with pain, either by trying their best to avoid it, and if they cannot, by drowning it in disproportionate and crude forms of pleasure. Unfortunately, these temporary solutions only bury pain. Buried pain festers inside until much later, it regurgitates and surfaces, this time far more difficult to deal with.  Ask alcoholics anonymous or the ex drug addict whether their addiction truly helped them. Ask people suffering from uncontrolled promiscuity whether they are deeply fulfilled or happy. AllIn all these cases one thing is common, they have not dealt with pain… not really. They have avoided it or tried to suppress it . We all have this tendency! It is only a matter of degree that separates us.

 So how does one understand and come to terms with Pain? How does one make peace with the effect it has on us? Do we go about trying to minimise it, or is does the solution lie in trying to look at it differently?  
Let me explore the answer with some personal experiences.

Pain has come to me in forms less severe than what I sometimes see around. But since we are dealing with the nature of pain and not its intensity or form, I will use my example. The way pain first came into my life is quite paradoxical. I'll start by saying that till early adulthood, I could never recall instances of having ever felt pain! It didn't strike me as strange till much later. It was strange because it is impossible for a human being to not remember any painful episodes from childhood or early adulthood. It is impossible, because one cannot pass through life and get to adulthood without ever feeling the pinch of some form of difficulty or the other. Growing up is always painful. So why did I remember things differently? To find my answers I embarked on a quest.  I began with exploring my childhood. With my parents' help,  I tried to get colour of how my childhood was. I wanted to see if I had had a particularly trouble-free childhood. But on digging, I realised that I had gone through the typical pains of childhood, physically for sure, with measles, mumps, typhoid and malaria doing their rounds interspersed with viral fevers and flus. So there was definitely physical pain.
What about emotional?  Well, I did seem to have been spared the pain of sibling difficulties being a single child but other pains should've have been there. I went to a competitive school with a lot of classmates and peers, so it can't have been without its share of downs. My parents hailed from a typical middle-class economic background so there was a restraint on the finances. We lived in a modest home with the usual banes of middle class living. So, nothing there. My life seemed to have been a normal one which must've meant normal pains of life and growing up. But why didn't I remember feeling anything?

The answer to this came to me much later in life. It was when marriage, relocation and career change brought me to a point from where, the experience of pain was to start presenting itself to me the very first time. (Do notice I used the phrase 'experience of pain' rather than the word 'pain' itself). It came in a bad way. I started to have severe bouts of anxiety and panic and developed agoraphobia (an extreme fear of exposure to the outside world). My life was looking dreary at that point. My career shattered and my health ruined. With come external help and a steely determination  to not allow my life to go down this path, I began to put effort into understanding what I was going through. My introspection and exploration led me to a gold mine! I came to understand that my condition had occurred because of having avoided and turned away from the healthy pains of growing up. A powerful understanding of our  reaction and response to pain dawned on me!

   Since pain in any form is unpleasant, we don't like it. We don't welcome it and sometimes, like I realized was true in my case, we don't allow ourselves to experience it or feel it. We live in denial of it and try and minimize any event or circumstance that might bring us close to it. It then ends up accumulating till when it piles up so much that you can't run away from it anymore. This tendency to avert pain, even constructive pain is so common that you don't have to go very far from home to find it.
In my eagerness to understand this better, I started to observe people closely. The more I looked, the more of this phenomenon I found.
 It starts with simple things. People know exercise is good for the body but don't want to take the pain and effort to be healthy and end up with serious diseases later in life. Diabetics would much rather take dessert followed by an extra dose of medication rather than go through the effort and pain of restraint. People would much rather hold on to their ego rather than pursue compassion or truth because giving up one's ego is much too painful. Overgrown adults who live off parents would much rather not face the pain of separation and independence. We'd much rather follow the herd than give vent to our individuality because we cannot risk the pain of judgment or rejection.

Pain actually, I've come to realise, unpleasant as it might be, usually masks an opportunity to grow.... in body, mind and spirit. It is an opportunity to overcome those obstacles that actually stand in the way of us finding a truly fulfilling and happy life. Even more serious forms of pain that visit us uninvited like a sickness, financial difficulty or emotional loss usually leave us wiser, humbled and thankful. We've heard copious stories of people who've come back from near-death experiences, more capable of genuinely living life than others. Peace, contentment and happiness cannot be found in the absence of pain . It is in fact learnt through pain. In facing, dealing with and learning from pain we become stronger, resilient, independent and creative. We become compassionate and centered and most importantly, happy!

We must start with, accepting and feeling pain when it enters our lives. Then, keenly observe what it does. What feelings does it evoke? Anger, resentment, envy, helplessness or vulnerability? What is our pattern of dealing with these feelings when they surface? Do we use a subordinate, spouse or maid as a pin cushion or a projecting screen? How does our self image change when we face pain?  Do we see ourselves as weak, cowardly and helpless or do we hide behind a facade of perfection . Do we become hyper critical or cynical? ..... The important thing through this process is not to judge but just observe and develop awareness. When we are aware, we are creating a filter between our feelings and ourselves and also between our feelings and our actions.

As we become progressively  more aware, we become more empowered and less helpless. We find the strength to use the objective part of our minds to find the best solution possible and we also develop the ability to feel a sense of control and stoic calm through the pain. As we achieve all this, slowly and surely, we start to see that our personality has gained new facets.... Strength, resilience, self control, will power, gratitude, humor, compassion and discipline. All, ingredients we need in ourselves, to build a happy contented life.

The take away from all this is not to solicit pain and condone oneself to a masochistic existence. But nevertheless, learning to welcome pain when it comes and knowing in our hearts, that experiencing it will leave us better off than before, is a skill we will definitely benefit from cultivating.

The role of pain is to teach, to instruct to train our body, mind and spirit to live fuller, live better and live richer