How does yoga help with anxiety?
Yoga is often recommended to help control stress or anxiety symptoms. But, really, what is it that makes yoga an effective antidote for anxiety? It wasn’t until very recently that science has taken serious interest in yoga and its effects on our mind and body. I have created the following list based on medical journals, experience as a mental health therapist and my own personal experience.
1. Yoga helps us regulate our breath
It all begins with breath, which is the foundation of yoga. Breathing is intimately connected to our nervous system. When we're anxious or scared we automatically take fast, shallow breaths, or we might even (unconsciously) hold it. This sends a message to our nervous system that something is ‘wrong’; we get into fight or flight mode and our body reacts accordingly.
When we slow and deepen our breathing, we let the nervous system know that everything is ok and our heart rate and blood pressure decrease as a result. In yoga, we learn to breathe with awareness-- which, with practice, allows us to consciously modify our breathing when anxious or scared, so sending soothing signals to the body and mind.
2. Yoga teaches our mind and body how to modulate our stress responses and even to have a higher pain tolerance.
A study by the University of Utah exposed three groups to thumbnail pressure at varying degrees of painfulness. The groups were composed of 12 experienced yoga practitioners, 14 people with fibromyalgia (a condition many researchers consider a stress-related illness that is characterized by hypersensitivity to pain)
and 16 healthy volunteers.
The participants with fibromyalgia reported pain at lower pressure levels when compared to the other groups. Functional MRIs showed they also had the greatest activity in areas of the brain associated with the pain response, showing that people who have a poorly regulated response to stress are also more sensitive to pain.
In contrast, the yoga practitioners had the highest level of pain tolerance and the lowest pain-related brain activity during the MRI. Because yoga helps to regulate stress, it also allows people to attain a higher pain tolerance.
I have been practicing yoga for 4 years now, and I have noticed I can turn to breath almost automatically in many situations of distress. It is also easier for me to notice if I’m holding my breath and engage in deeper breaths in times of pain or anxiety. Once you build the neuroconnections for breath, the flow happens almost effortlessly.
More research has also revealed that yoga influences levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. GABA helps to control fear and anxiety when neurons become overexcited. Lower than normal levels of GABA in the brain have been linked to schizophrenia, depression, anxiety and sleep disorders. A psychiatric hospital affiliated with Harvard Medical School, found that after an hour of yoga, GABA levels increased significantly.
3. Yoga increases body awareness
We are in constant communication with our bodies through our emotions all the time.
Why do we need body awareness? Well, as you may have noticed, high stress and anxiety cause our bodies to contract. Our minds react to this muscular tension causing an anxiety cycle. Yoga is designed to lessen muscular tension, promoting relaxation through breath and movement and breaking the anxiety pattern.
Moreover, yoga teaches us how to listen to our bodies before it’s too late. Since yoga promotes connection with your physical and emotional sensations, it makes it easier to detect what your body is asking for at any given time.
For example, sometimes we don’t really know how dehydrated we might be or how bad our back pain is because we become numb to it until the dehydration or the pain become a bigger problem.
4. Yoga fosters self-acceptance, self compassion and teaches us to accept discomfort
“Negative” emotions, such as anxiety, naturally cause discomfort. Because we don’t want to be aware of our rapid heartbeat or our racing thoughts, we (consciously or unconsciously) block our body and mind’s cues that we are experiencing anxiety. Overtime this causes anxiety to pile up since we are not addressing the emotion or its root.
Yoga teaches us that it is ok to have discomfort, either through our least favorite pose (chair pose will do it for me) or through stretching a particular area in the body where our anxiety resides. Once we sit (or stretch) with our discomfort, and acknowledge the emotion, it can be released.
Vast research now confirms what countless yoga practitioners have known for centuries. Whether we're dealing with acute stress like childbirth or struggling with longer-term stress and anxiety, yoga is a powerful tool to calm the nervous system and teach us how to live our lives more peacefully. I know for certain it has done it for me.
While a single session of yoga can reduce your stress in the moment, in order to lower your anxiety long term, consider making yoga a habit.
Also, when it comes to the broader practice of yoga, a combination of asana (yoga), pranayama (breathing) and meditation is likely to be more effective than just yoga by itself-- and this triple combo is what I offer in a yoga-psychotherapy session.
If you have any further questions about what yoga can do for you, please don’t hesitate to contact me through my website.
Michelle Quiroga, LPC, RYT
American Licensed Professional Counselor
Registered Yoga Teacher (200 hr)
Reiki Practitioner (Level II)
Graves, G. (2015, July 29). How Yoga Calms Anxiety Holistically. Retrieved from https://www.yogajournal.com/lifestyle/how-yoga-calms-anxiety-holistically
Harvard Health Publishing. (n.d.). Yoga for anxiety and depression. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/yoga-for-anxiety-and-depression
7 Ways Yoga Lowers Stress and Anxiety. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/think-act-be/201609/7-ways-yoga-lowers-stress-and-anxiety