Finding Relief: Reclaiming Your Anxiety to Work With You, Not Against You

BY NKECHI DEANNA NJAKA, MSC. PHOTOGRAPHY BY ANNA-ALEXIA BASILE.

anx·i·e·ty

aNGˈzīədē/

noun

  1. a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.

  2. PSYCHIATRY; a nervous disorder characterized by a state of excessive uneasiness and apprehension, typically with compulsive behavior or panic attacks.

I've been deeply fascinated with my own relationship to anxiety ever since my very first anxiety attack. I was sixteen.

I was sitting in the back row of Honors Biology and all of a sudden a wave of fear and panic overwhelmed my body in an instant. It was a sensation I had never experienced before and one that deeply concerned me. Was I going to be sick? Was I going to faint? What was happening? My heart was beating very fast, I had shortness of breath. And I didn't know why.

Very slowly I raised my left arm in the air and waited to be called on. I asked if I could be excused from the classroom and my teacher with kind, concerned eyes said yes. I went to the nurse’s office and I laid down in a small room with the lights off and with the door cracked open. The nurse asked me a bunch of questions about how I was feeling but never once suggested that it might be anxiety. I was in her office for a little bit and found that once the adrenaline wore off and the other strange physiological symptoms subsided, that it might be OK enough for me to return back to class. So I went back to class, wondering if this would happen to me again.

 PHOTO BY ANNA-ALEXIA BASILE

PHOTO BY ANNA-ALEXIA BASILE

High school was the beginning of  a long and challenging relationship with my own mental health and wellness, with this very first episode of anxiety that later turned into debilitating panic attacks. I had no idea that this would begin a long relationship with: Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Depression, Specific Phobias, Separation Anxiety, Performance Anxiety, Agoraphobia (fear of enclosed spaces), Situational Anxiety, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Social Anxiety. It was also in high school (1 year after the first anxiety attack) that I had my first of many episodes of depression. I was deeply aware of how my anxiety was negatively affecting my physical body, my ability to be present, and the quality of my life.

WHAT HAPPENS TO A HURT PEOPLE? WE FORGET THAT WE ARE BUTTERFLIES BEARING UP IN THE WILD WINDS. WE FORGET THAT WE ARE TENDER FROM THE SUFFERING. ― Zenju Earthlyn Manuel

TREATMENTS

THERE IS NO ONE OR RIGHT WAY TO HEAL. Finding the right treatment is a process of trial and error. Of addition and subtraction. So much depends on what's available. So much depends on what else is happening in life.

I saw my very first psychologist at age 18. And I still have a therapist today. My first two therapists were women of color and I found that over the years that has been the most effective. In my early therapy days, I was also medicated—prescribed antidepressant and anti-anxiety medication that I took for several years after my first prescription.

About 10 years after that, I found yoga, meditation and a holistic nutritional counselor. I started learning about how food affects my mood. I understood that certain foods were triggers—like sugar and caffeine. Three years later, I stopped drinking caffeine. The most severe panic attacks also stopped that day. That was 5 years ago. Since then, I have started working with a somatic psychotherapist as well as employing various alternative modalities like acupuncture, bodywork, sound healing, spa treatments, floating, and rest. Other medicine: creativity, music, dance, being in nature.

RESEARCH +

WHAT ARE THE FACTS. The biggest epidemic in our society is stress in the body. Stress leads to anxiety and depression when gone unnoticed. It also prevents true self-expression and connection, and it often leads to more serious illness.

Forty million U.S. adults suffer from an anxiety disorder, and 75 percent of them experience their first episode of anxiety by age 22. Women are more likely to have anxiety than men. Anxiety disorders also occur earlier in women than in men. Women are also more likely to have multiple psychiatric disorders during their lifetime than men. The most common disorder to co-occur with anxiety is depression. People of color are also 20% more likely to experience mental-health and are generally less likely to have access to resources.

STUDYING MEDITATION + PERSONAL PRACTICE

I started teaching meditation before I started practicing. It was my job as a neuroscientist. We were using mindfulness as a treatment and our findings revealed that meditation can change the brain, can change behavior and can heal. It took me seven years after that to start practicing consistently, and I started my practice to treat my own anxiety. This is what inspires, motivates, guides and propels my work today.

 PHOTO BY ANNA-ALEXIA BASILE

PHOTO BY ANNA-ALEXIA BASILE

RECLAMATION

OUR WOUNDS ARE OFTEN THE OPENINGS INTO THE BEST AND MOST BEAUTIFUL PART OF US. ― David Richo

The best way to learn from our anxiety is to be in inquiry with it through a meditation practice or through a creative practice. Both allow us to connect with our most inner-self, which is the self worth listening to. This is the path to knowing, seeing and loving the authentic self.

Authenticity is more readily accessible and available when radical presence is practiced. From my research, practice and personal experience, stress, anxiety, and ultimately depression occur and continue to exist when there is an absence of authenticity and self-expression. Practicing being present can help to mitigate and reverse this.

DEEP LISTENING PRACTICE:

At your meditation seat, try working with these prompts to investigate what your anxiety is revealing to you and how you may be able to make friends with it.

Anxiety, where do I feel you inhabiting my body?

What am I present to? What do I notice?

What do I notice about my thoughts and feelings?

Where can I create more space for ease in this chaos?

How are you affecting my breath right now?

Can I feel into what you might be telling me?

Can I trust that I am safe and will be OK?

Nkechi is a neuroscientist, choreographer and meditation teacher. She has spent the majority of her life investigating the relationship between the brain and the body and has always felt the significance of their integration. Through her work as a neuroscientist as well as a professional modern dancer + choreographer, she discovered that mindfulness and creativity are crucial for sustaining individual and global wellbeing. She attended Scripps College in Claremont, CA where she majored in neuroscience and dance and went on to complete an MSc. in Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh. Nkechi Deanna Njaka is the founder of NDN lifestyle studio, co-founder of Sitting Matters, and a 2017 YBCA Truth Fellow.