There’s a common belief in our society that mental health is not universal.
We might know of so-and-so whose cousin had a friend that struggled with depression. We might hear about it on the news. We might see suicide prevention walks and think, ‘that’s great, but it doesn’t affect me.’
I used to think I was invincible from these issues. But then someone very close to me attempted suicide twice – thankfully unsuccessfully – and the experience became embedded in the very fiber of my being.
I realized through those tumultuous years that I needed to take charge of my own health. Growing up, I knew alcoholism and depression were present in my family history. I never expected them to be exhibited in my own life, until my first anxiety attack in college and subsequent struggles with it in the years to come.
The conversation of mental health is one we all need to be having. Regardless of whether or not you are directly connected, I can guarantee you will come into contact with someone who is. Spouses need to understand how to best support their partner. Employers need to create boundaries for a work/life balance. Friends need to recognize signs when a peer is suffering.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experience mental illness in a given year. We all experience this to a certain degree. Stress exists when stuck in bumper to bumper traffic and you’re already late for a meeting. Anxiety is present while awaiting news from a doctor. Depression rears its head after a difficult breakup. To some of us, it might just manifest as a small blip in the day. But for others, our days become structured by taking certain medication on time and when we next see our therapist. For many, simply getting out of bed can be a significant accomplishment. I want readers to understand that a great stigma exists against discussing mental health. Those who struggle with it feel ashamed to share, and those without it don’t know what to say.
Before we can help others, we must first be able to help ourselves. If you’re reading this, I want you to stop and pause. Maybe close your eyes, or at least look away from the computer/phone. Notice your breath. Is it quick, hurried? Is it slow and even? Is this maybe even the first time you thought about your breath today? Continuing being aware of your breath. You’re not trying to change it; you’re just trying to observe it. Your breath will naturally start to lengthen once you bring attention to it. As you exhale, can you release some tension along with it? Maybe that annoying conversation with a co-worker is lingering as tension in your shoulders. Or what your spouse said has produced a clinched jaw. Inhale deeply and exhale fully, relaxing the areas where your tension might reside.
And boom – you just did yoga. How does your body feel now? How about your emotions? What if I told you that you just did the single most important step to taking care of your health? Yoga can be a key to emotional and psychological healing. It works with not only our physical tightness but our emotional tension. Self-doubt, trauma, childhood abuse – all of these yoga can and does transform. Yoga is a study – a study of the body, the mind, our behaviors, and the world around us. Even if you’ve only been to one class, you’re aware that each movement is connected to either an inhale or exhale. This action alone shifts the body from the sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic. The ‘fight or flight’ part of the body is associated with rapid breathing, a quickened heart rate, and an increase in blood pressure. There’s nothing wrong with this state – in fact, it’s what has kept us out of danger for millions of years! The problem arises, however, when we stay too long in this state. By tapping into the breath, we activate the nervous system that oversees digestion and relaxation. The heartbeat slows, our breath deepens, and anxiety’s power is lessened.
Apart from the biological benefit, yoga improves our sense of self. Practicing yoga, you gain confidence as you build strength in the poses; you became courageous by being vulnerable on your mat. Cultivating these skills equip us for when Depression tells us we are unworthy, or when Anxiety tells us we’re not good enough to land that promotion.
Perhaps most importantly yoga teaches us contentment. The notion of santosha is the acceptance of what is, and allowing yourself to be okay with it. I apply this to how I think about my anxiety disorder. Over the years, I have worked to be content with my anxiety because it fuels my desire to grow. It’s what keeps me showing up to practice, and what keeps me mindful of my breath. It especially instills compassion for those who struggle in similar ways. I am content with anxiety being part of my human experience, just as I am content with a good book and coffee at Stella. Santosha means not waiting for happiness in the future; it means resting in the now. We’re not idly sitting waiting for life to happen, nor are we frantically pushing for it. We accept and appreciate what we have and where we are. Mental illness thrives on blurring what is present, whether that means ruminating on the past or fearing what’s to come.
As we celebrate Norfolk’s yoga studios this month, I would encourage you to look at them differently. Try seeing yoga as not simply a way to stay physically fit, but also emotionally strong. Allow yourself to be curious about the classes and ask teachers questions. Yoga is, and needs to be, for everyone. And maybe, just by healing our own selves, we can start to heal the world.
For more on Norfolk Yoga Month, click here.
For more on Mentally Healthy Norfolk Month, click here.