How Yoga Can Help Anxiety
Anxiety is a common feature in life for many. The agitated, fearful and overwhelming sensations that it brings can ripple through our lives with devastating effect.
Survival mode on constant alert
Stress reactions are an important part of our self-defence mechanisms, they bring fear and negative thinking to save our lives in dangerous situations, but these thinking and emotional whole mind-body responses can become stuck when life seems relentless challenging. When we react to people or situations in ways that can seem inappropriately strong, it is a sign that the ‘fight-or-flight’ stress response has become stuck in hyperarousal and continually signals that the world is ‘unsafe’. This is part of the stress response via the sympathetic nervous system, which is there for self-protection and survival, but is only able to respond in a primal, whole body way.
Yoga has shown in many studies to bring down this ‘constant alert’ and allow the self-soothing mechanisms of the opposing and calming parasympathetic nervous system1. Addressing this sensitivity to jump to a heightened nervous system can have a knock-on effect to other expressions of the same root cause; sleep, addictive tendencies, mood swings and the ability to act reflectively rather than impulsively under stress.
Breathing ourselves calm
Stress and anxiety use up oxygen at a fast rate and can create dominance on the inhalation, even to the point of hyperventilation. That’s why modern yoga teaching often focusses on the releasing exhalation, not because it’s more important, but because we need to address this imbalance from over-stimulated to self-soothing.
Allowing spacious out-breaths that go right to their end point can help increase oxygenation, spare vital nutrients, reduce heart rate, relax muscles and reduce anxiety. Our brains needs three times more oxygen than the rest of the body, so increasing this supply can have immediately positive effects on how we feel able to respond to the world around us by all-over communication throughout the body, including that between the brain, spinal cord and nerves.
Even becoming aware of where we might breathe in over the end of the exhalation can help, especially if practising stronger postures. It is part of yogic consciousness to find the ease within strength that doesn’t set the pattern that our practice is any way another stressful event.
The resilience and adaptation that yoga can help has shown to help reduce emotional interference; when we have fast reactions from the fear-based and emotional limbic system – part of our more ancient and survivalist brain. A recent study stated that “yoga may help improve self-regulatory skills and lower anxiety”, from 45 yoga practitioners and 45 matched controls, it showed that “The yoga group presented lower emotion interference…… (and) rated emotional images as less unpleasant and reported lower anxiety scores relative to controls.”2
Stilling the agitated mind – the research
The mind-quieting or ‘stilling the mind’ (according to Patanjali) that is the aim of yoga is the state where racing mind tendencies of anxiety can fall away. Practicing yoga with an emphasis on increasing interoception (noticing and feeling our inner landscape) helps the body awareness that switches off left-brain chatter. Holding a compassionate space to feel whatever physical and emotional sensations that arise can help those whose inner voices may tend towards
catastrophizing and fearful thinking. Feeling these as tones and flavours rather than needing to interpret or analyse
is part of the route to mental peace.
Studies have shown that postural, meditative and breathing yoga practices increase levels of the calming neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-amino butyric acid), shown to be low in those with anxiety levels in the body3,4. GABA is sometimes referred to as the brain’s peacemaker, as it inhibits persistent and worrying thoughts (literally ‘stilling the mind’), allowing us to regulate brain activity, relax and sleep.
Yoga and Anxiety – Practices for Cooling, Calm and Self-care
Whilst stronger, standing poses can be beneficial to help regulate stress hormones and create resilience in life, focussing on practices that are cooling, calming and literally more grounding can have a profound effect on anxiety and agitation that is here now. Being physically close to the ground can create a real sense of safety when much of anxiety-provoking modern living has us lost up in our heads. The ground is a supportive and trustworthy place to come back to and can help us receive the signals that there is nowhere to fall, that we don’t need to be supporting ourselves and if we can lie or sit down, we must be safe, nothing is chasing us. Any practice that involves sitting, lying or being on all fours can evoke these feelings.
Laying on the ground in whichever way feels most supportive, for a minimum of fifteen minutes allows our nervous systems to come to a deep, somatic state where full release and relaxation are possible.
When the brain is busy and telling us all kinds of stories, focussing into what is actually true deep into our bellies can help convince our whole mind-body that everything is actually safe. Circling from the belly creates a moving meditation at both soothes and catches up the mind’s attention.
- From any seated position, from a lifted spine begin to circle the whole torso, making circles with the crown of your head. Keep the shoulders uninvolved and the chin drawing lightly into the throat, so that the movement comes from the belly and the front brain, jaw and eyes can stay soft.
- Allow yourself to get caught up in the rhythm of the movement and it may feel organic to inhale as you lift round and back and exhale as you sweep around forward. Change direction when it feels right and fully experience the difference in flow and ease counter to the way you picked first.
- As with all mindful practices, when your brain (naturally) wanders, notice and bring it back kindly, but firmly – as you would a small child, without judgment or criticism. In this way, you train your mind towards more steadiness and ability to drop beneath distraction and stories of what is happening. Focus on the actual experience in your belly instead to drop down from any agitation in the mind.
You can see Charlotte’s series on Yoga for Anxiety and Stress at Conscious2 TV: conscious.to/charlotte-watts
1. Health Psychology Review, 2015; 15:1-18
2. Psychological Reports, 2015; 117(1):271-89
3. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 2010; 1145–1152
4. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2015; 15:85