When Anxiety Takes Hold

As I get older I seem to identify with anxiety more frequently than when I was younger. Maybe it’s because I am a wife and a mother now and I am acutely sensitive to how my patterns and behaviors affect my relationships, especially with my two daughters. That reality alone is enough to make me anxious!

The more anxiety creeps in, however, the more I want to understand it. After all, that painful feeling is not productive. It neither improves nor resolves anything. Instead, it paralyzes and traps.

Interrupt the “Anxiety Script”

In my personal work as a woman in recovery from an eating disorder and my professional work as a yoga therapist, I use yoga and mindfulness practices to interrupt the “anxiety script,” that spiral of habitual self-doubting and panic-riddled thoughts and reactions. You know as well as I how ferociously persistent these thoughts can be. We become buried under their weight, paralyzed by the fear that anxiety triggers.

By purposefully pausing or interrupting the “anxiety script” we create the space to redirect our energy and essentially break the habitual thought patterns and behaviors that come from feeling anxious.

Emotional Counterposes

Yoga and mindfulness practices are powerfully effective tools for creating a purposeful pause in such moments. One practice that I find resonates with my clients is what I like to call emotional counterposes. The idea is to embody a pose or position that evokes the opposite feeling to anxiety.

By using our bodies in this way, we can literally embody a more empowering sensation and cultivate a calmer state of mind. We lighten the load, so to speak. This is also an effective practice for moments of shame, fear, and doubt.  

Here’s how to do it.

First, identify what anxiety feels like in your body. How do you embody anxiety? For many people, anxiety feels and looks closed down. We tend to embody “closed down” by hunching our shoulders or looking down, anything we can do to hide. We might clench our jaw, hold our hands as fists, or harden our gaze. The longer we hold these closed down expressions or “poses,” the longer we embody, feel, and think anxiety.

Next, ask yourself what the opposite feeling of anxiety is. Let’s say your answer is confidence, which has a very different vibe than “closed down,” right? Confidence is open, expansive, strong.

Countering anxiety with a sense of confidence might look something like this: roll your shoulders back, ground your feet on the floor, unclench your jaw, and gaze forward with a soft determination. Stand up tall like mountain pose or do Warrior 2 or Tree pose, both of which are beautiful expressions of confidence.

Remember, the goal is to shift your body to a position that counters what anxiety feels like so that you literally embody a different attitude or sensation. Simply sitting taller and wrapping your shoulders back can create that effect. The “pose” doesn’t have to be big, perfect, or have a name. Simply softening your eyes and relaxing your jaw can do wonders for changing your demeanor and slowing down or interrupting the “anxiety script.”

Once in the counterpose, take several purposeful deep breaths and allow your whole body to soften. Continue to breathe deeply until the spiral of thoughts calms down or stops. Notice the difference in your body language and the quality of your thoughts. Just notice. Try to avoid analyzing too much, or you might set off another spiral of anxious thoughts!  

The Real Work

I understand that the real hard work is remembering to do some or any of this practice in the first place. We have carried anxiety and other scripts for so long. It takes persistent effort to rewire habitual thoughts and behaviors. I encourage you to use emotional counterposes as a practice or tool to help you manage anxiety and others heavy feelings when they come on. It’s not a cure and it won’t prevent anxious feelings from coming back. And sometimes it will be harder than others to embody a different attitude. But practice it enough and you will train yourself to cut off anxiety before it pulls you under.