How can yoga help people with anxiety?
Sometimes, the public perception of anxiety doesn’t quite fit the reality of living with an anxiety disorder. The idea of someone who feels nervous more often than is comfortable, or who worries too much about what people think of them, is misaligned with the often debilitating nature of anxiety and the terrifying experience of a panic attack.
In this context, self-help advice like “have you tried yoga?” can feel a little glib, especially to a person who is having trouble stepping outside their front door. But evidence is growing to suggest that, when used as an adjunct treatment, yoga therapy can be a truly helpful response. When applied by yoga therapists, (who will have training in dealing with anxiety disorders) used in a wider program of psychotherapy or taught in a general yoga class when symptoms are less acute, yoga for anxiety can help us manage our symptoms and even fully recover.
How does yoga reduce anxiety?
Both yogic breathing exercises and asanas (yoga poses) are beneficial for anxiety, with breathing exercises helping to ease immediate stress and a regular yoga practice reducing symptoms over the long term. But what is it about yoga that can be so soothing?
Perhaps the most significant overall factor in yoga’s effectiveness as a self-help tool is in the fact that it doesn’t require people to think or rationalise their way out of anxiety. When our fear response is active, our higher cognitive functions are often impaired – which is why someone living with anxiety can become convinced of dangers which, rationally speaking, simply don’t pose the level of threat they feel they do.
Yoga gives people the tools to understand the thoughts, feelings and actions which proceed an anxiety spiral, and enact immediate self-soothing methods. For example, shallow breathing contributes to panic attacks when combined with other physiological and psychological factors – but it’s something we do unconsciously when we are stressed or anxious. The body awareness we develop through yoga helps us to “check in” with ourselves, and if we are feeling stressed, we can use our breath to regain a sense of calm.
Further to this, learning to breathe coherently while we hold poses helps us to unconsciously regulate our stress response and build resiliency to the physiological experience of stress. People with anxiety disorders are often “primed” for threat, with their bodies tense and flooded with adrenaline, and yoga helps to address this physiological, unconscious aspect of anxiety disorders.
It’s in the advancement of our mind-body awareness that yoga can be so efficacious in reducing anxiety over the long-term. Whether we use alcohol to calm down, (despite the fact it actually increases feelings of anxiety and depression) or sit with our shoulders drawn up and our jaw clenched, yoga helps us to understand our otherwise automatic behaviours. With this awareness, we can better understand some of the exacerbating factors for anxiety and utilise yogic techniques to counteract them.
Practicing yoga in the context of anxiety
In the majority of cases, yoga is best placed alongside psychotherapy and prescribed medications. The experience of anxiety can sometimes make it difficult to travel, socialise or be in public spaces, so working directly with a yoga therapist can be a good option. They will understand the symptoms of anxiety, and can sensitively guide us through a yoga practice – armed with the knowledge base needed to makes us feel comfortable and not inadvertently increase feelings of panic.
Sometimes, pharmaceuticals can dramatically reduce symptoms of anxiety, and this can be a helpful moment to begin introducing yoga as a self-help tool and gain the group support available from a yoga class. In this case, yoga can provide a bedrock of increased resilience and methods to deal with rising anxiety should we ever decide to (with the full knowledge and guidance of a GP) to reduce our medication – if this is what works best for us.
Whether it’s committing to a daily practice, attending a class one a week or simply learning a few basic tools to take into our everyday life, we can use yogic techniques as much or as little as we like on the road towards becoming well. Yoga addresses issues in the context of ourselves as a whole person, working with both mind and body to address problems that can otherwise be extremely difficult to untangle.
While moving on from an anxiety disorder is rarely straightforward – and yoga is by no means a ticket to instant and continued bliss – it is another tool in our armoury, and one that can contribute greatly to helping us overcome anxiety
Heather is the founder of The Minded Institute, a world leader in the development and implementation of yoga therapy and mindfulness programs for those with mental health and chronic physical health problems.