Recently my daily morning meditation has brought me face to face with tightness in my chest, a feeling of unrest, a racing mind, and difficulty settling into my seat. For years, I’ve known that I don’t do well in Fall and my meditation practice reflects this. I get more irritable and restless. I don’t sleep well. I beat myself up. And for years I’ve also tried to “figure out” the source of my angst. Perhaps a new school year? Less light? More stress? Football?
Only recently through the study of Ayurveda have I realized that my perpetual pattern of increased unease and agitation in the Fall were not due to any “problem” in my life per se, but rather the natural course of seasons.
Maybe you think of Fall as crisp days, apples, changing colors, football games, and warm sweaters. But Fall also is the season of death. The fields are drying up, the leaves are falling, and the natural world is pulling her energy inward. And, what is the deepest fear of all human beings? Death. So naturally, anxiety spikes for many of us with the onset of this season.
Luckily, as I’ve become aware of my pattern of Fall agitation, I’ve been able to lessen it significantly with steady practices coming out of yoga and Ayurveda. Additionally, I get less worked up by my change in mood and less driven to analyze and “fix” it when I realize it is just par for the course this time of year, and will ease up with time.
Western psychology prescribes cognitive techniques like thought stopping and awareness of negative self talk, as well as behavioral techniques like relaxation training and diaphragmatic breathing to combat anxiety. The science of yoga also suggests we relax our body and focus on our breath, but provides additional ideas for managing anxiety. Yoga conceptualizes that we not only have physical bodies but also energetic bodies, and that anxiety is simply an overabundance or imbalance of excessive energy in our head. The racing thoughts, persistent worry, and perseveration pulls our energy upward, also making us feel ungrounded, out of touch with reality, unsafe, and devoid of pleasure.
So how to work with anxiety in the Fall? Here are my top 7 tips.
- Give up the salads. It’s likely that salads and chilled foods have tasted great all summer long. But with the cooler temperatures, consuming cold and uncooked foods can be more challenging to digest. Warm foods, cooked vegetables, and soups and stews are all a good choice now, and feel more nourishing and grounding to the body than cold, airy foods like salad. Raw greens will taste great again come Spring.
- Lessen stimulants. Over the summer, we can have a tendency to increase our caffeine consumption….iced tea, iced coffee. But if you have anxiety, now is the time to cut back or completely stop with the caffeine. Choose herbal teas or drink hot water with lemon and ginger in the mornings.
- Work with your breath. The breath is considered the bridge between the body and mind, and typically we move through the day completely unaware of how we are breathing. When we are anxious, the breath becomes more shallow, ragged, and chest breathing dominates. To ground our energy, breathing deep down into the belly, even the pelvis, can help stimulate the parasympathethic nervous system, or our rest and digest response. Try the following 2 breath exercises:
- Breathe on a 4:2:8 ratio. Inhale over the count of 4, hold the breath in for a count of 2, and exhale over the count of 8. Do 5 rounds.
- Practice Nadi Shodna, or alternative nostril breathing. Using your right hand, close your right nostril with your thumb and take a deep inhale up the left nostril. At the top of the breath, pause with the breath held in for a moment as you open the right nostril and close your left nostril with your ring finger. Exhale down the right nostril. Inhale up the right nostril and pause at the top as you now close the right nostril with your thumb and exhale down the left nostril. This constitutes one round (up the left nostril, down the right, up the right, down the left). Do 5 rounds.
- Meditate regularly. A consistent meditation practice is perhaps one of the best things you can do to manage anxiety. When you are anxious the mind gets carried away with worry, fear, and doubt, and projects into the future. Meditation helps you stay in the present moment. Current research shows that 20 minutes of meditation activates the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that can tamp down feelings of worry, and that feelings of anxiety can drop by as much as 39% in a single meditation session.
- Oil your body. With anxiety there is an increased sensitivity to the rushing and intensity of the world around us. It’s almost as if we do not have the insulation necessary to protect us from the stress of life. Abhyanga, or oil massage, is an Ayurvedic technique that provides a deep feeling of stability, warmth, and comfort. Here is how to do it. Get a high quality, unrefined oil such as sesame or coconut. Prior to a shower, massage your body with the oil starting at the feet and working your way up to your head. You can even oil your scalp. Then shower as normal. Also, if you have challenges with sleep, oil the bottoms of your feet prior to bed, put on old socks so as not to ruin your sheets, and sleep deeply and restoratively.
- Practice grounding yoga poses. Yoga poses that ground and stabilize the system are especially useful. Poses such as down dog, forward folds, child’s pose, legs up the wall, pigeon pose, supine twists, wide legged forward folds, and bridge pose may be especially helpful at lessening anxiety.
- Turn toward curiosity. In the Bhagavad Gita, one of the core texts of yoga, we are introduced to the idea that there are 3 different disordered thinking patterns that all humans experience, called Malas. One of the Malas, Karma Mala, is the thinking pattern where we feel powerless and a lack of control (sounds like anxiety doesn’t it?). We respond to Karma mala by either giving up (numbing) or by overdoing (overwork, overworry, overcontrol). If this thinking pattern isn’t observed and cleared away through a purifying practice like meditation or yoga, the end result is consistent anxiety. And, we can most effectively deal with Karma mala in our daily lives by turning toward curiosity. Instead of letting worry and nervousness rule the day, what if we remained curious and open to what life was bringing to us? What if everything coming our way wasn’t a threat, but rather something to teach and expand us?