I don’t know what’s right or what’s real anymore And I don’t know how I’m meant to feel anymore And when do you think it will all become clear ‘Cause I’m being taken over by the Fear–Lilly Allen, The Fear
This month was no surprise. I predicted it was going to be crunchy as I was taking on new obligations while finishing up the demands of some old ones. And crunchy, hectic and stressful it has been and will be through next week. Along the way I’ve learned two important lessons.
One, stress is really anxiety and anxiety is really fear. In other words, stress = fear. I’ve been likening my experience this month as a compression, a feeling of being squeezed from many directions. It’s not a pleasant sensation; it’s actually scary. When we are stressed we are afraid that we will fail to accomplish what needs to be done in the manner required or desired. Stress is worry that we will drop the balls in our juggling act and let ourselves and others down.
For many years I have been conscious of the effects of fear. Fear is not a good emotion upon which to act. Fear, I say, does not lead us to good decisions. When I am in a place of fear, I make the worst choices and respond to others, not with trust and compassion, but, with aggression, hostility and suspicion. The same bad impulses happen when I am stressed. I lose my willingness to be generous, to connect fully with other people. I judge and criticize as I try to deflect my own inner judgments and criticisms onto others. It gets ugly quickly.
The trick is to feel the pressure without reacting with fear.
Two, I‘ve learned that managing pressure so that it doesn’t get ugly requires two things: preparation and breathing. Preparation means that we stay conscious of our lives in a way that we avoid adding too much pressure in the first place. We stay careful not to over-commit our time or energy and that if we find ourselves faced with inevitable periods of compression, we formulate a management plan—looking for ways to make it less painful. And, we need to remind ourselves to keep breathing through the whole process not just before and after.
Yoga can help with stress on many levels. Yoga reminds us to breathe. Often times I notice that the yoga room becomes very quiet when students are taking on a challenging pose or coming into a balancing position such as tree (vrksasana) or eagle (garudasana). Then as soon as they come out of the poses, the room fills with gasping breaths. We need to remember to breathe exactly when life is hardest and most scary. When we hold our breath and say, “’ll take a good breath when I am done,” we just make our situations more stressful.
Yoga can also help us see the fear underlying the stress by teaching us to stay present and dig deep within ourselves. I’ve watched myself in savasana, as my thinking mind attempts to intrude with the long list of “must-do’s.” I feel the fear come up, as the heart rate accelerates and panic and frustration flood my brain with the silent scream “Why am I lying here on my mat when I have so much else to do!” If we can watch the fear come up then, or when we are attempting a new forearm balance, we can mindfully breathe, and teach our bodies to relax through the challenge.
Yes, we are all going to get squeezed by life sometimes. The goal is to not let fear take over.