Teaching a Stressed System to Relax: Living in the Gaps
“The more I practice cultivating the gaps and being really present for them, the more my nervous ...
My mom-in-law can rarely sit still. She is a fabulous host and cook, but you will find her restlessly changing places like a game of musical chairs when she is cooking for a large gathering. That’s anxiety.
My dad is also an anxious person. I remember, when preparing for one of our family trips, my mom and brother demanded my dad show them the flight tickets. Since we were flying internationally, we had to get to the airport three hours ahead of time. My dad lied about the flight time so we would get to the airport six hours ahead of time. My brother and I now laugh about Dad’s travel anxiety, but trust me: it was annoying to have to spend an entire day at the airport as a kid.
As the most common mental disorder, anxiety presents an urgent problem that affects people of all ages. In essence, anxiety is the body’s exaggerated response to stress. Long-term stress leads to health decline.
One of my colleagues has to blow into a paper bag before her big speaking engagements. A friend’s daughter was found curled up on the bathroom floor around exam time. A cousin can’t sleep because her thoughts go in a million directions when she thinks of her aging parents. One client of mine is afraid of becoming dull and does all kinds of research to keep her brain sharp. These are all manifestations of anxiety.
While it’s normal to experience occasional anxiety, anxiety is considered pathological when feelings of fear or dread that are crippling, devastating, or overly exaggerated last for longer than six months or interfere with life functions.
From an Ayurvedic perspective, anxiety results from an imbalance in Vata dosha, especially the vayu principle, which is air, in the manovaha srotas (channels of the mind). Vayu is light, mobile, and dry. In his book Ayurveda and the Mind, Dr. David Frawley writes, “Psychological disturbances occur with great frequency when Vata is too high, which, as the nervous force, easily affects the mind. Like Vata, the mind is composed of the air and ether elements.”
All the people in the examples above have a high amount of aggravated Vata dosha in them. An imbalance of Vata, especially vayu, leads to instability and agitation in the mind, which results in overthinking, distressing, an inability to focus, constant movement (physically and mentally), and a tendency to overestimate danger.
Having said that, you don’t have to be naturally Vata-predominant to experience anxiety. Ayurveda reminds us that Vata can be thrown off balance by Vata-aggravating diet, lifestyle, routine, seasons, and environment. Anidra, or insomnia, is also an outcome of excess Vata.
With anxiety (which Ayurveda views as an overload of upward-moving energy), one tends to feel ungrounded and unfocused. The disconnection from the earth feels destabilizing. To create centeredness and lower anxiety, Vata needs to be brought to a place of balance.
For that to happen, the mind needs to release compulsive thoughts, the nervous system needs to become calm, the digestion needs to be strong, and one needs a deep connection to the earth (downward energy). Stabilizing the body’s energy is key to navigating anxiety and bringing down Vata.
From an Ayurvedic viewpoint, high rates of anxiety reflect culture-wide deficiencies in diet and lifestyle, leading to impaired agni (digestive fire), the root of both physical and mental health or disease. The Charaka Samhita, one of Ayurveda’s foundational texts, states (as translated by PV Sharma), “Lifespan, complexion, strength, health, enthusiasm, corpulence, luster, immunity, energy… all these depend on agni.”
The most delicate of all the three doshas, Vata is the easiest to be thrown off balance. Similarly, even small adjustments in our diet and lifestyle can bring Vata into balance and help lower anxiety.
Maintain a routine: Wake up and go to bed at the same time every day. Vata is vitiated through erratic living, and by maintaining a fixed bedtime and healthy sleep hygiene, we help bring Vata back to balance.
Ritualize eating: Agni is everything in Ayurveda. Let’s keep it lit. This means prioritizing cooked, spiced, warm, easily digestible, freshly made meals prepared with an array of spices. Set a fixed time for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Eat at the same time every day. Avoid snacking.
Utilize shirodhara: Shirodhara is a traditional Ayurvedic therapy where a steady, gentle stream of warm oil is continuously poured over the forehead. This helps soothe and repair a distressed nervous system. The term shirodhara comes from the Sanskrit words shiro (head) and dhara (flow). According to Ayurveda, the gentle but constant pouring of warm oil stimulates healthy blood circulation to the brain and pituitary gland. It also eliminates toxins and can provide relief from symptoms of anxiety. Seek out a skilled Ayurvedic practitioner to help you with this technique.
Explore Ayurvedic herbs: Anxiety is a complex problem and, thus, there are no simple solutions. However, there are Ayurvedic herbal remedies that can help lower anxiety. Ashwagandha, Brahmi, and Tulsi (Holy Basil) are some incredible herbs. But before you start taking any herbs, speak with an Ayurvedic practitioner to find out what’s right for you.
Practice breathwork: Pay attention to your triggers. Whenever the mind starts to spiral, place one hand on your heart and the other on your belly. Breathe deeply and remind yourself that it will be okay. Anuloma Viloma and Bhramari Pranayama can be stabilizing and calming for the mind. You may also practice Sama Vritti: inhale for a count of five, and exhale for a count of five, making the length of the inhalation and exhalation the same. Continue this for a few minutes, and you will start to feel calmer.
Disclaimer: The content is purely informative and educational in nature and should not be construed as medical advice. The information is not intended for use in the diagnosis, treatment, cure, or prevention of any disease. Please use the content only in consultation with an appropriate certified medical or healthcare professional. If you are nursing, taking medications, or have a medical condition, please consult with your health care practitioner prior to the use of any of these herbs. If you are looking for advice from a trained yogi and Ayurvedic coach, contact Sweta here.
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