Yoga and Anxiety
A great description of anxiety is that is a real physiological response to an imagined threat. Meaning the things we are anxious about are not necessarily happening or coming true – but we respond to them are as if they are happening right here, right now. So how can Yoga help?
Most biological responses triggered by anxiety – such as increased heart rate, shallow breathing and sweaty hands – serve a biological purpose in preparing our bodies to “fight or flight”. This is a useful response in a genuine life-threatening situation, however when these responses are triggered by a situation which does not, objectively speaking, contain a threat to our physical safety (for example someone with social anxiety may have this response to a party) it becomes problematic.
Unchecked, anxiety can lead to many problems with our health and general well-being, including sleep disorders, stomach problems, headaches, depression… the list goes on. It is really important to start working out a plan to start managing anxiety if this is something that you are affected by – and yoga is an excellent addition to your anxiety managing tool-box, as Harvard University have discovered.
Yoga works to help turn off the sympathetic nervous system activated by fight-or-flight responses, instead activating the parasympathetic nervous system by mimicking the slower breath and movements experienced in this more relaxed state. By consciously re-creating the physical actions of the body while in this state, we are “tricked” into actually relaxing and calming down.
Any yoga practiced with conscious awareness of the breath can assist you with this. A strong, fast practice can help with burning up the excess nervous energy created by being in a constant flight-or-fight state and relax us, but if you are feeling absolutely overwhelmed and exhausted a more slow restorative practice will be more what you need. Be aware of your state of mind, and treat yourself kindly in whichever practice you choose.
Some especially good postures for dispelling anxiety are:
– Standing postures (eg. Virabhadrasana I)
When you remain in a constant state of “fight or flight” your thigh muscles can become pretty strong (and tense) from being always at the ready for the “flight” part eg. running away. So you can use that strength for stronger standing postures, at the same time releasing some of the tension held in this area.
– Balancing postures (eg. Vrksasana)
Balancing poses are excellent for anxiety, as they take the focus from the mind and our thoughts and into the body, providing a break from the never-ending thinking that anxiety can produce.
– Flowing sequences
Any sequence linking movement with a slow, smooth breath will work to calm the nervous system and bring the body into the state of equilibrium it misses out of when operating in a heightened state of stress.
– Restorative postures (eg. Balasana)
Postures that allow for stillness and deep breathing are useful for those burned out by the stress their body is under while suffering from anxiety. Deep belly breathing in these postures can be a welcome change from the rapid, shallow breath associated with stress – you might be able to notice after even just a few deep belly breaths the difference this makes. Sometimes being still can be overwhelming for the over-thinkers amongst us, so a simple mantra such as “I am breathing out, I am breathing in” or a conscious focus on the breath coming in and out of the nostrils can help here.
Here are some resources which may be helpful if you want to learn more about yoga and anxiety:
Vimeo discussion breaking down the effects of yoga on anxiety here. Goes through some exercise you can do also.
Yoga Journal: Learn How Yoga Calms Anxiety Holistically
Yoga moves to help with anxiety here.
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