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FEATURE - April 2019
Calming the Chaos: Help for anxiety and panic attacks
By Dr. Kat Bowie
Though I would never wish trauma on anyone, having had Panic Attacks and a diagnosis of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) for many decades has helped me in understanding the experiences of my patients and aided me in teaching coping skills to hundreds of students and patients throughout my career.
I attended my first yoga class at around age 15 or 16 and shortly thereafter began using meditation techniques to aid my Chronic Anxiety and Panic Attacks.
Though formal, seated meditation is extremely helpful for anxiety conditions, in a world that is so fast-paced it is difficult for people to carve out the time to do either meditation or yoga. I am going to give you a technique that costs nothing, takes very little time, and can be used anywhere and at any time.
The newest research is validating that yoga actually re-wires the neural pathways effected by PTSD, Trauma, Chronic Stress/Abuse, and Anxiety. Taking the time to calm, listen, and attend to one’s mind, body, and internal needs heals the varied and pervasive effects of trauma.
It all starts with a breath. The very first thing I teach my students and patients is how to breathe. Though this may sound easy, certain types of breathing lead to different results. For the purposes of calming the effects of trauma, breathwork focusing on the extended exhale calms the symptoms and effects of anxiety. It does this by engaging the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). This part of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) informs the entire body/mind/spirit complex that it is time to become calm. It lets the body know that it is safe in this moment. You are going to take another breath anyway (hopefully!), so let’s learn to make it one that is calming, nurturing and healing.
Often when we are engaged in a panic reaction we become confused, angry, and upset. We have difficulty making decisions. We may suffer difficult and uncomfortable physical sensations such as shortness of breath, flushing, sweating, increased heart rate, and tingling sensations. Focusing on the exhale helps to engage the PNS and decrease these sensations and their consequences in the body and mind.
It is very easy to learn the breathwork technique focusing on the exhale specific to calming anxiety symptoms.
To begin, bring your hand to your abdomen.
(All of this breath is done through the nostrils with the mouth closed.)
Briefly be aware of the tension and sensations of the body, the anxious qualities of the mind. Simply take notice without any mental commentary.
Feel your breath begin to move into the body, filling up the abdomen and chest. It is alright if you are not able to fill your lungs up completely. As the breathing continues, the expansion will increase.
Close your eyes.
Imagine that your exhale begins at your tailbone and releases up the spine, with the sensation of elongating each and every vertebra.
Allow your exhale to lengthen the spine all the way up and through the neck and head. Keep your head level and chin parallel with the ground, releasing the back of the neck.
Breathe in again and experience the exhale moving throughout the entire back of the body, gently being released through each vertebra, elongating the spine, the neck, and the head.
Allow the tension to release as this breath continues.
Open your eyes.
Check back in with the sensations of the body and the fluctuations of the mind. Perhaps they have calmed some.
As this breathwork is practiced it becomes more and more effective and helpful.
It is not necessary to close your eyes each and every time. You may practice frequently, as I do, throughout the day. This breath can be done each and every time you breathe. It is not anything that anyone else even needs to know about. It is not a prescription, a medication, and does not cost anything. It can be done in the car, at work, in the grocery store, in conversations with others, while watching TV, while doing the dishes, and while writing articles on breathwork (smile).
Extending the exhale specifically activates the PNS which in turn tells the rest of the body systems to “stand down”. Focusing on the back of the body brings the back into consciousness. The back of the body represents the unconscious mind and its processes. Breathing in this way helps to reconnect our conscious and unconscious self. In our world where we are constantly being pulled forward by computer screens, televisions, and smart phones, the simple act of breathing consciously helps us to reconnect with our whole self.
People frequently think of the term “Yoga” to mean a physical exercise practice, often full of contortions. However, yoga is a life system of reconnecting those parts of ourselves shattered by trauma or simply every day stressors. It involves breathing, self-care, movement, and most importantly paying attention to the parts of ourselves that we have neglected for far too long.
In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali the 2nd and 3rd versus tell us that we do yoga to still the chaos and fluctuations of the mind, and that when we have done that that we will become aware of our True Self. All it takes is one simple breath. Namaste.
Dr. Kat Bowie is a Clinical Psychologist, Reiki Master, and Yoga Teacher. She is the founder and director of Forward Movement, LLC., a Holistic Health facility/Yoga Studio in Kansas City, MO. Dr. Bowie developed, and teaches The Trauma Release Yoga Wellness Program. This extensive and unique course combines yoga, psychology, nutrition, and meditation to heal the varied and pervasive effects of Trauma, Chronic Stress, and Anxiety. For information or to sign up for this and other classes please go to www.DrKatBowie.com.