When I was diagnosed with social anxiety nearly two decades ago, my initial response was critical self-judgement. It took me a trip to Myanmar to learn just wha anxiety feels like and looks like to my body, and begin to grow my understanding and compassion around it.
To my ego-self, a pop-up style presentation should not cause my heart to race or my palms to sweat.
To my ego-self, a workshop with an unknown agenda should excite, not trigger a reaction more appropriate for if a snake were winding itself around my neck.
Logically speaking, I knew that my life was not in danger in these situations. But to my body, it may as well have been.
Naming my condition was the opportunity I needed, though, to start studying yoga and spirituality, where I learned techniques to help avoid, limit, or create touchstones of control within these situations.
But the best and most important work I ever did in engaging with and understanding my anxiety came when I embarked on a solo pilgrimage to Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) for three weeks in October, 2014.
In an effort to manage down my anxiety, I arranged my outings, my hotel stays, and my transportation all ahead of time. To the logical, left side of my brain, I had sufficiently outwitted my anxiety.
But to my body, traveling to a country in which I didn’t know the language, the customs, or any of the people, was terrifying.
I felt anxiety coming on the very first day when my guide—who had picked me up from the airport right where and when I was expecting—drove me to my hotel.
I tried to engage in conversation with him, but my thoughts were so much louder. How far is my hotel? What is that siren sounding for? And why are people honking so much?
To my curious self, this was a feast of questions seeking answers. But to my body, threats lay in every direction, assaulting every sensory input.
On my very first outing, when I’d momentarily let my curiosity guide my eyes upward to the statues at a pagoda, I fell into a crevice and sprained my ankle.
We were an hour or more away from the hotel at this point, and while my guide was kind enough to help me find some ice, I watched with wide eyes as my ankle swelled to three times the normal size.
What was I doing here all alone? I asked myself while adrenaline flooded. This must be a sign. I am not wanted here.
To my spiritual seeking self, this trip was supposed to be the adventure of a lifetime. But to my body, it now had proof that danger lay in every direction. What if it’s broken? What if I need surgery? What if, what if, what if? I muffled sobs on the drive back, and once in my room, I called my husband and suggested I come home.
“I can’t do this,” I said. “What was I thinking?”
“Go to the hospital and get it checked out. See how you feel then. If you still want to come home, we’ll make it happen.”
The thing about anxiety is that it’s impossible to think logically when it’s flooding your body with adrenaline and cortisol.
It’s probably the reason why telling someone who’s in the midst of an anxiety or panic attack to “calm down” doesn’t work. It’s better to have someone offer calm suggestions, as my husband did.
The next morning, rather than the excursion to a pagoda I had planned, I went to the hospital. On the drive there, my mind raced with imaginary scenarios of a “third-world” hospital and the associated whatifs.
But everyone treated me kindly and professionally. I returned to my hotel with a comfortable brace and assurances that nothing was broken.
To my agenda-driven self, it was a wasted day. But to my body and mind, it was just the salve of kindness, love, and support I needed to continue my trip.
From a 2018 study at the University of Colorado at Bolder: New brain imaging research shows that imagining a threat lights up similar regions as experiencing it does.
And from Dr. David R. Hamilton:
The stress response evolved in humans to give us the ability to fight or flee when faced with danger. Chemicals including cortisol and adrenalin help kick start the body, pushing blood towards the major muscles to give you strength.
But the exact same stress response kicks in when you imagine danger, also producing cortisol and adrenalin and pushing blood around the body. The same chemistry is produced regardless of whether the danger is real or imagined.
What this research means is that to our bodies, what we imagine happening and what is really happening are essentially the same thing. These responses are survival instincts that have been refined and passed on through the millennia of human evolution. Never had I understood this quite like I did during my trip to Myanmar.
Here, not only was I finally facing my anxiety directly, I was also facing the truth that I had never really had compassion it—not the way I would if I had befriended it rather than mocked it.
My injured ankle forced me to change the way I approached my pilgrimage.
No longer was it about ticking off items on an agenda, but about being present and alive to every feeling, every emotion, every thought. When I was on my knees before the Buddha statue, that was a real prayer of gratitude I offered.
This slower pace deepened the relationship between my mind, my ego, and my body. Soon I felt more comfortable, safe, and happy.
From this place of greater confidence, I faced more challenges, such as climbing up and then down (down was far scarier!) a very steep set of stairs at Bagan temple.
I slowly and carefully climbed up the 777 steps at Mt. Popa, and had my picture taken at the top.
But then, I entered a situation in which I faced an even greater challenge than social anxiety: a panic attack.
I was the only passenger on a small transfer boat.
For a while, I was enjoying the view, the sunshine, and the journey. Suddenly, though, it seemed the ride was taking too long, and I realized I had lost track of time. I also didn’t have a sense of place, as it occurred to me that I didn’t even know which direction we were traveling in anymore.
All I could see was river in all directions. My phone wouldn’t work if I tried, and there was no one around except the two men taking me, who paid me little attention and who did not speak English.
I reminded myself to breathe, and told myself that the frightening scenarios playing out in my mind were not happening in real life. Stay present, I told myself. Breathe. Everything is okay.
But then, the boat motor cut out, and the two men scrambled and spoke in rushed tones. My body flooded with fear as our boat drifted.
While I believe now that I was never truly in any kind of danger, at the time I was already envisioning newspaper reports about my disappearance.
A few minutes later, but what seemed like an hour, the men had the motor started again. Shortly thereafter, I arrived at a dock where my next guide was waiting to meet me. According to my agenda, I was right on time, right where I was supposed to be.
But to my body, I had narrowly escaped the jaws of death.
For the remainder of my trip, I danced between caution and trust, fear and excitement. Whether visiting with local families, touring schools, or getting my picture taken with the lotus flowers, I tried to stay open and curious while maintaining compassion for my body and its needs.
People often ask me why I took this trip, especially when I share some of these stories.
Until recently, I never really knew how to answer that, outside of saying it was a natural culmination of my years in yoga and spirituality.
And it’s true that on the level of my soul, this was the trip of a lifetime. But on another, just as truthful level, this trip, to my body, was a hardship.
For these past five years, I’ve been waiting for more clarity to come to me as to why I felt called to do this.
But I’m finally starting to understand that I went on this trip to test and stretch my strength, endurance, and independence. Only a trip like this one, so far away from the natural comforts of home, could’ve provided the necessary tension and stress.
While the trip was undoubtedly hard on my body, in the end it did not weaken me, but made a stronger, wiser, kinder, and more compassionate advocate for my own body and mind.
So, to my body, today: I honor you for your keen sense, your constant awareness, and your desire to keep me safe— from a stalled boat in Myanmar to a just-announced round of personal introductions.
I understand now that if my body deems a situation to be a threat, it is not for me to judge.
It is for me to breathe, and be present—even if a snake is wrapping itself around my neck.