Why so Many People are Turning to this Ancient Practice to Treat and Manage their Symptoms.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is an emotional reaction to stress, and is part of the normal human experience. Though uncomfortable, the feeling of anxiety often serves beneficial purposes; for example, anxiety can alert our brains that a dangerous situation may arise, and that we need to prepare for, or react to, a potential threat. Anxiety can, at times, be harmful when it transitions from a protective factor to a maladaptive response. When symptoms of anxiety permeate multiple facets of our lives, becoming persistent and intense, this creates an unnecessary burden on our wellbeing. Anxiety is commonly thought of simply as worry, but it is much more complex than that. Anxiety includes mental, emotional, and physiological symptoms. Physical symptoms can be so prevalent and adverse, that many people believe they are having a heart attack.
Mental/behavioral symptoms of anxiety can include (but are not limited to): excessive worry, self-consciousness, obsessive thoughts, being on alert, being overly cautious, flashbacks, perfectionism, self-judgement, compulsive behaviors, hyper-sensitivity, and avoidance of potentially stressful situations.
Emotional symptoms of anxiety can include (but are not limited to): nervousness, irritability, restlessness, uneasiness, fear, agitation, apprehension, feeling overwhelmed, feeling the urge to escape, and feeling unsafe.
Physical symptoms of anxiety can include (but are not limited to): rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, muscle tension, shaking/trembling, dry mouth, heart palpitations, sweating, headache, dizziness, weakness, tingling/numbness, chest pain, tightness in the throat, nausea/indigestion, fatigue, and insomnia.
How are the mind and body interconnected?
It is common in the Western World to treat our minds and bodies as two separate entities, however, these elements have been empirically shown to influence one another in significant ways. Our thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and beliefs impact our physical health. Conversely, how we treat our physical bodies impacts our mental/emotional well being. We are biologically hardwired so that the areas of our brains that process emotions are connected, via neurological pathways, with our physiology (i.e. spinal cord, muscles, cardiovascular system, digestive tract, etc.) As Dr. James Gordon, founder of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine, states: ?the brain and peripheral nervous system, the endocrine and immune systems, and indeed, all the organs of our body and all the emotional responses we have, share a common chemical language and are constantly communicating with one another. These systems within our bodies use messengers such as hormones and neurotransmitters to facilitate this communication. In other words there is a direct, chemical connection between your brain emotionally reacting to a stressful event, producing, for example, fear, and your body reacting to a stressful event, producing, for example, nausea.
What is yoga?
Yoga’s origins date back over 5,000 years ago, when the practice was developed in India. The word yoga is derived from the Sanskrit word yuj, which originally meant to yoke or to bind, but contemporarily has been interpreted as to unite. In many ways, yoga can be thought of as the disciplined practice of uniting the body, mind, and soul. Several misconceptions about yoga include: 1) it is simply stretching, 2) you must already be flexible to begin practicing yoga, and 3) yoga only has physical health benefits. Fortunately, none of these are true. The practice of yoga generally includes a combination of breath control and breathing exercises, movement and body postures, and mindfulness and meditation. Yoga asks that you come as you are, without self-judgement.
The first step of any learning experience, any journey, is simply to begin.
Physical health benefits of yoga include (but are not limited to): increased flexibility, increased strength and muscle tone, better posture, improved balance and agility, increased stamina and endurance, increased pain tolerance, and improved body alignment (reduction in back and joint pain, etc.)
Mental / emotional health benefits of yoga include (but are not limited to): reduced stress, increased energy, increased focus, increased body awareness, improved sleep, increased self-confidence, and decreased anger/frustration/hostility.
How does yoga help anxiety? Medical Doctors and Mental Health Professionals are increasingly suggesting yoga as a complementary therapy for treating anxiety. Why? Because it’s safe, has no adverse side effects, and it really works to relieve symptoms! Some research even suggests that the use of yoga in treatment is equally as effective as cognitive therapy!
Below you will find a brief overview of the many ways in which yoga helps to treat, manage, and reduce symptoms of anxiety:
Deep Breathing: When we are anxious, our bodies are in a heightened, aroused state of being. The use of breathing exercises in yoga counteracts this maladaptive arousal by forcibly and physiologically calming the nervous system down, ultimately reducing the impact of the exaggerated stress response. Here’s how it works.
There are three types of breathing patterns:
- In a normal breathing pattern, we take in oxygen that the body needs, creating carbon dioxide in the process, which we then breathe out. When we are in this calm, resting state, our breathing produces balanced levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide for our blood stream.
- During exercise, our breathing rate increases. This increases the intake of oxygen, which our bodies need to fuel our working muscles. This ultimately produces equivalent levels of carbon dioxide, keeping our systems balanced and our bodies nourished.
- When we are anxious, our breathing rate increases; we take in more oxygen and produce more carbon dioxide, but since our bodies are not working any harder (we are in a resting state) our bodies are not able to use the extra oxygen, or produce more carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is therefore expelled faster than it is being produced, leading to a decrease in its concentration in the blood stream, and a change in the pH of the blood – this is called Respiratory Alkalosis. This change is what produces some of the physiological sensations of anxiety, such as dizziness, tingling, and sweating.
When we engage in breathing techniques that are an integral part of yoga, we are purposefully and methodically returning our breathing to a normal rate, therefore balancing the levels of carbon dioxide in the blood, and ultimately driving the physiological symptoms of anxiety to dissipate. Regular use of these breathing practices can produce long-term reduction in anxiety symptoms.
Meditation / Mindfulness: The use of meditation in yoga can be broadly defined as an intentional and self-regulated focusing of attention, whose purpose is to relax and calm the mind and body. Here’s how it works:
- Anxiety frequently leaves us dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. The practice of mindfulness, which is another fundamental aspect of yoga, brings us to the here-and-now. Mindfulness includes components such as focusing on our breath moving in and out of our nostrils, or noticing (with detail) how our bodies feel in a particular posture or pose. The art of mindfulness keeps our minds firmly anchored in the present moment, instead of dwelling in the past or future. Mindfulness changes how our brains process and perceive stress, decreasing our sense of danger and training our minds to react with less fear.
- Meditation involves changing the activation of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), which is the system responsible for involuntary processes (in other words, bodily functions we don’t have to think about in order to operate) such as heart rate. The ANS includes two components: the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). Anxiety activates our SNS, creating what is commonly referred to as the fight-or-flight response. The act of meditating has been shown to activate our PNS, triggering a resting state in the body and subsequently turning off the threat response initiated by the SNS. Since these two systems are inherently contrary to one another, only one can operate at any given time. The meditative practice included in yoga helps us gain control over our ANS in order to actively and purposely alleviate symptoms of anxiety.
Although even one session of mindful meditation has been shown to alleviate stress, it is also a cumulative practice; the more we practice, the more benefits we will achieve. Continued, disciplined practice yields gradual reduction in symptoms and therefore reduces the impact that anxiety has on our lives.
Is yoga the right treatment for YOUR anxiety? If you found yourself connecting to any of the above information then YES, yoga IS the right fit for you! Yoga is an evidenced-based approach to alleviating feelings of anxiety which has helped countless people take control over their symptoms and their lives.
As B.K.S. Iyengar said: Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured, and endure what cannot be cured. You don’t need to continue to suffer through difficult days, and you don’t need to tackle your anxiety on your own. We are here to support you, to teach you, to guide you, and to join you on your recovery journey. We don’t want you to simply survive, we want you to THRIVE.