- Jillian Pransky
It wasn't a typical day for Jillian Pransky. She was coming home from Maryland after helping to clear out the belongings of a beloved sister-in-law who had just died of cancer in her early 30s. On the highway, suddenly Pranksy's arms started to shake, her vision blurred, and her breath got shallow. "I remember feeling tingly all over and thinking I was going to pass out," she recalls. Thankfully, she wasn't at the wheel; her boyfriend pulled off at the nearest exit and took her straight to the ER. Convinced she was having a heart attack or facing something equally grave, Pransky was shocked when her vitals came back normal. The ER staff told her that physically, she was fine. She was having a panic attack. Pransky remembers arguing with the doctor: How could she be having a panic attack? She was a yoga teacher.
Not only that, but Pransky figured she had the wrong personality for an anxiety disorder. "I didn't feel fragile or vulnerable," she says. "I was naturally strong and optimistic, and I had so much drive to go after my goals." She was a high achiever, climbing the corporate ladder as a young executive and becoming a rising star at yoga. Yet inside, she held buried feelings that came from growing up with episodes of violence, coupled with fears about losing an ill parent who was also the source of that violence and assault. "I don't think I was aware of how deeply I was holding onto things until I had the panic attack," she says. "The trauma of losing my sister-in-law, who was around my age and a lot like me, was a trigger event for facing the vulnerability that I'd been suppressing for so long. The panic attack was a gift, because it revealed all the ways I had felt out of control historically."
Not everyone would consider panic to be a gift. But epiphanies arrive in unexpected packages. After the ER episode, Pransky worked with a somatic developmental therapist who taught her how to use body awareness to loosen anxiety's grip. She also changed her yoga practice, removing "over-efforting" from her time on the mat. Yoga became less about perfectly executing poses and more about giving herself a sense of calmness and wellbeing. These explorations would eventually become the basis for her book Deep Listening: A Healing Practice to Calm Your Body, Clear Your Mind, and Open Your Heart (Rodale Books, 2017). In the months following the panic attack, Pransky experienced a few smaller "tremors," but she acquired the tools to cope with them. "Step one was not analyzing my anxiety or talking myself out of it," she says. "It was calming my body. It was feeling myself on the earth, noticing my surroundings, and deepening my breath." All of this allowed her to look at the anxiety objectively. "It wasn't 'I am anxious' or 'I am afraid,'" Pransky recalls learning. "It was 'I'm having the experience of feeling afraid.' Knowing this let me realize the anxiety wasn't going to kill me."
The Era of Anxiety Is Here
To varying degrees, we all experience anxiety. Stress and worry are its cognitive aspects, yet anxiety also has physical and emotional symptoms—from a racing heart or insomnia to feelings of apprehension or dread. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), about 40 million US adults, or 18 percent of the population, have an anxiety disorder, whether it's generalized anxiety, a panic disorder, or PTSD. More than 26 million adults (over 8 percent of the US population) turn to anti-anxiety medications, sedatives, and hypnotics such as Xanax, Valium, or Ativan—many of which lead to dependency and have side effects like dizziness, confusion, nightmares, and memory loss, especially with long-term use.
With a 24-hour news cycle chronicling heartrending disasters alongside combative politics, these are anxious times, and the need for natural ways to quell anxiety is greater than ever. Anxiolytic prescriptions are on the rise, but a growing number of doctors are recommending practices like yoga, meditation, and mindfulness for mild to moderate anxiety, or as an adjunct or complementary treatment for severe anxiety. A 2017 meta-analysis in the Journal of Evidence-Based Medicine found Hatha yoga to be a promising method for treating anxiety, with the caveat that we need more research in this area. Such research, if not life-saving, could be quality-of-life saving.
"Asana" is the Sanskrit word for a posture of yoga (such as Downward Facing Dog or Warrior I), but it also means "seat": it's about our connection to the earth. Its purpose is not only to help the body become limber and strong but also to ground us so we don't get swept away by our thoughts and worries. Meanwhile, yoga's focus on the breath lets us turn off the "fight, flight, or freeze" response to anxiety and stress. "When the breath is full and deep, that calms the neural circuitry," says Pransky. She offers a simple tip for when anxiety takes hold: Wrap your right hand around your left ribcage and your left hand around your lower right ribcage, and breathe into that hug. Your diaphragmatic breathing will stimulate the vagus nerve, activating the relaxation response of the parasympathetic nervous system.