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