We’ve all had the feeling at some point in our lives. The sudden increase in heart rate, the tightness in our chest, the uncomfortable pit in our stomach. Our minds are flustered with thoughts of negativity, panic and worry. The feeling arises after an undesirable situation or could even catch us off guard with no prompt or reason. What we are experiencing is anxiety, and the feeling can range from subtle to intense. Anxiety is not uncommon, and everyone experiences this feeling from time to time. Luckily, there are several things we can do to control our anxiety. In particular, studies point to yoga as a recommended treatment for anxiety, with both mental and physical benefits.
A Look at the Numbers
Whether you’re on the mild or severe end of the scale, it’s important to remember that anxiety is completely normal. In fact, statistics reveal that anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in America, affecting 40 million adults every year. In addition, Research indicates that women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 13 suffer from anxiety globally. Therefore, the numbers are evident that you are not alone in this battle, no matter how unsettling it can feel.
Statistics shows that anxiety disorders affect 40 million adults in America annually.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a natural human feeling of fear and panic. Furthermore, it is a healthy emotion that serves to protect us. This is our body’s way of alerting us of danger, triggering a “fight or flight” response. The sensation of fear and physiological responses of increased heart rate and muscle tension is our body preparing for immediate action. These responses are necessary for survival, and pose an evolutionary advantage for humans. For instance, research suggests that anxiety forces us to take fewer risks, seek safety, and focus on doing things well.
Thousands of years ago, instincts like fleeing from large animals or avoiding conflicts with other tribes were essential for survival. Today, our fears and worries manifest in the form of work, relationships, money and other life events. The stimuli have changed, but our “fight or flight” response and feelings of anxiety remain intact in our human DNA.
Although a healthy emotion in proper doses, too much of anything is never great. Our anxiety, whether mild or severe, can make it challenging for us to function both mentally and physically. It can get in the way of our daily lives and hinder on our thinking, taking control over us. So, what can we do if we struggle with anxiety, and how can we finally take back the control? Let’s start by understanding our anxiety.
For thousands of years, our “fight or flight” response and feelings of anxiety remain intact.
We can break down anxiety into three separate components – our thoughts, our feelings, and our actions. Our thoughts are how we perceive and interpret a situation. This is what you think about an event and is your own mental narrative. In the case of anxiety, our thoughts are normally negative, self-deprecating, and often times irrational. Our feelings involve the physical sensations we experience in response to the thought. Perhaps you feel your heart rate go up, you notice your chest tightening, your muscles tensing up. These are physiological responses to our anxiety, preparing us to fight or flight. Finally, our actions are how we choose to behave and act in response to the situation.
Thus, the key takeaway here is that both our thoughts and our feelings shape our actions. Namely, they determine how well we can manage and cope with our anxiety. It all comes down to nurturing both the mind and body with positive and healthy practices.
According to The Minded Institute, yoga helps individuals become aware of the link between mind and body. As a mind-body practice, yoga can help individuals relax better and feel more at ease. In return, yoga helps anxiety and calms thought patterns and nervous systems.
You can manage and cope with your anxiety by nurturing both your mind & body.
Can Yoga Help Anxiety?
One study revealed that ten sessions of yoga resulted in lower levels of stress and better quality of life. Moreover, another study looked at 24 “emotionally distressed” women who took two 90-minute yoga classes a week for three months. Correspondingly, a control group who did not take yoga classes was put in place. Evidently, the women in the yoga group had higher improvements in depression, anxiety, fatigue and overall well-being.
The benefits are clear, which is why an increasing number of healthcare professionals are prescribing yoga as an effective treatment. In 2011, Harvard researchers found that 3% (6.4 million Americans) were prescribed to practice yoga and meditation for their anxiety. Additionally, a paper published in JAM Internal Medicine reviewed 47 individual studies on yoga programs. Consistently, studies revealed that mindfulness meditation reduced anxiety symptoms.
The basis of anxiety is worry about the future. Our mind is stuck in a negative loop, and carried away with creating bad scenarios that may never happen. Mindfulness practices like yoga and meditation counteract this by teaching individuals to stay present and in the moment. By bringing attention and energy into the moment, we are distancing our mind from anxious thoughts. Instead, we bring focus to our breathing, our body movements, and our body sensations.
In fact, many styles of yoga encompass core elements used in modern anxiety treatments. For instance, Patanjali’s eightfold path is grounded in self-reflection, cognitive reframing, breath regulation, withdrawal of senses, and controlled attention. Hatha, the most common style of yoga, is rooted in increasing flexibility, breath control and mindfulness. Consequently, applying these practices to both mind and body allow us to tackle the thoughts and feelings caused by anxiety.
Studies revealed that mindfulness meditation reduced anxiety symptoms.
How Can Yoga Help Anxiety?
Here are five ways yoga helps anxiety and improves your well-being:
Yoga releases endorphins.
We all know how important exercise is for both our physical and mental health. The release of endorphins during physical activity, like yoga, instantly boost mood and reduce depressive symptoms. According to Harvard Health, getting your heart rate up can change your brain chemistry, increasing serotonin, GABA, and endocannabinoids. These are all important neurochemicals that fight off anxiety and improve mood.
Yoga helps us control and regulate breathing.
If you’ve ever experienced anxiety, you know first-hand how short and shallow your breaths can be. Yoga helps us focus on our breathing, directly connected to our nervous system. We are encouraged to take slow and deep breaths, bringing attention to the rise and fall of our abdomen. The key is to inhale deeply through your nose, hold the air in your lungs, and then exhale slowly through your mouth. This breath work can be applied anytime we are feeling stressed or anxious.
Taking slow & deep breaths brings attention to the rise & fall of your abdomen.
Yoga promotes relaxation and releases tension.
A common physical symptom of anxiety is muscle pain and tension. Frequent feelings of fear and worry often cause our body to tense up, causing uncomfortable pain and stiffness throughout the day. We hold tension in our back, shoulders, necks, head, and other areas. Yoga can help alleviate this tension by releasing grip and relax sore muscles and body parts. Common yoga rituals encourage individuals to scan through the entire body and notice the different sensations throughout and within.
Yoga helps us practice mindfulness and awareness.
Our anxiety puts us in a state of constant thinking, whether it’s ruminating on the past or predicting the future. As a result, we give power to these negative self-narratives and get trapped in our own anxious thoughts. Yoga allows us to distance ourselves from these thought patterns. Simply acknowledging them, observing them, and accepting them. Instead of identifying with the thought and reading more into it, we just recognize that the thought is there. Hence, we take a step out of thinking mode, and transfer that awareness to the body.
Yoga helps lessen tension and promotes relaxation.
Yoga teaches us self-acceptance, compassion and love.
We’re often caught up with our own busy schedules, sacrificing time and care for ourselves. Giving yourself a few minutes each day to practice mindful exercises is an act of self-love and acceptance. We recognize our uneasy feelings and negative thoughts, and gift ourselves the care and compassion to feel and think better. We foster positive thoughts and emotions, accepting everything wholeheartedly – our bodies, our abilities, our life events.
Putting It All Into Practice
Research suggests that only 20-30 minutes of yoga and meditation everyday can foster promising changes in mood. If you’re struggling with stress and anxiety, carve out a few minutes in your day to practice yoga and mindfulness. Create a calm space for yourself, bring attention to your breath and body, and let go of your thinking. Be patient with yourself and notice the changes overtime in your mental clarity, and see how yoga helps anxiety.
In essence, by nurturing both mind and body, we can transform our behaviour and take back control over our anxiety. For those who already put this practice into place, what lifestyle changes have you noticed? How have your anxiety levels been lately with the help of yoga and meditation? Sharing your mindfulness journey with others fosters a great sense of community and connects us all.