According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the average age-of-onset for anxiety disorder is 11 years of age. With increased academic pressure, social pressures, and family pressures, it’s no wonder that healthcare professionals are seeing massive increases in anxiety diagnoses, particularly among women. While medication may be the best course of action in some cases, more holistic approaches can be equally as effective in treating mild to moderate cases of anxiety.
Common Anxiety Symptoms
The symptoms of anxiety can differ from person to person, and may manifest in different ways. However several symptoms are fairly common including:
- Concentration issues
- Ongoing restlessness
- Feelings of nervousness
- Sleep issues
- Shortness of breath
- Rapid heartbeat
- Tightness in the chest
- Numbness in feet or hands
While this is not a complete list, it offers general physical and emotional symptoms often associated with anxiety. Research suggests that these symptoms can negatively impact several systems in the body including the immune and circulatory systems.
Addressing Anxiety through Yoga
So what is it about this 5,000 year old approach to physical and mental health that can help an individual struggling with anxiety? Good question! Yoga exists as a whole body approach to wellness; it combines breathing techniques with postures and meditation to both strengthen the body and mind. Specific attention to the breath encourages both relaxation as well as increased circulation throughout the body. Deep breathing not only increases oxygen levels, but it centers the mind as well. These aspects working in tandem can decrease stress levels and assist the body in reducing anxiety and its negative byproducts. In today’s fast-paced, immediately-connected world, slowing the body and encouraging moments of meditation can indeed work wonders.
Over the past several decades researchers have successfully correlated practicing yoga with a decrease in anxiety related issues including depressive disorder, phobias, OCD, and generalized anxiety disorder. A study appearing in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice found that yoga assisted women in decreasing perceived levels of anxiety over a period of two months. The experimental group took 90 minute yoga class twice a week. Based on exit data from the participants, researchers concluded that yoga could be a “…complementary therapy or an alternative method for medical therapy…” to effectively address a range of anxiety disorders.
Another study published in Alternative Medicine Review examined the results of several different studies examining the effects of yoga on populations experiencing anxiety and stress. Populations participating in the research included a wide range of people including breast cancer patients, medical students, rheumatoid arthritis sufferers, pregnant women, and male flood survivors among many others. While the effectiveness of practicing yoga varied between groups, nearly every study cited a decrease in anxiety and stress with a regular yoga practice.
So what makes yoga a holistic approach to treating anxiety and anxiety-related disorders? According to Harvard Health Publications, yoga possesses the ability to tame the body’s stress response. Researchers at Harvard found that practicing yoga “…appears to modulate stress response systems”. This means that yoga can decrease an individual’s heart rate and lower blood pressure levels, thus reducing the body’s overall response to stress.
Targeting Anxiety through Yoga
Addressing anxiety early is a key to avoiding chronic conditions that occur when this condition is left untreated. Issues including a weakened immune system and debilitating depression may result from ongoing anxiety. Practicing yoga with a certified teacher is ideal as he or she can help students master the correct posture for each pose. For new students, pairing postures with specific breathing techniques can help the body and mind achieve greater relaxation. With a basic working understanding of yoga found with an experienced, certified yoga instructor, a home practice may be extremely beneficial in combating anxiety and its negative effects on the body. The following postures and breath practices (pranayama) are a great start to reducing anxiety and stress; they can easily be practiced at home.
- Cat/Cow Pose
With hands and knees on the floor, the back rounds towards the sky. This posture flexes and extends the muscles of the spine as well as the abdominal region. Inhalation to the extended spine followed by exhalation from the rounded back encourages release of tension and anxiety.
- Extended Puppy/Down Dog Pose
From hands and knees, walk your hands forward to feel stretch at the backs of the arms and along the spine. For more lengthening at the back of the legs, tuck your toes, reach the hips back and extend the legs as appropriate to your body. Bend alternate knees for further release at the backs of the legs. Take several deep breaths in either pose.
- Child’s Pose
Return to hands and knees, reach the hips back to the heels, wraps the arms by your sides or keep them extended in front of you. Place a blanket inside the fold of your knees for additional support and rest your forehead to the floor or other support. This relaxing posture encourages the body to release tension accumulated throughout the day.
- Comfortable Seated Pose with Pranayama
Sit cross legged or with leg’s extended. Place a cushion or blanket under your sitting bones and or behind the knees. Alternatively, sit in a chair. Close your eyes or soften your gaze downward. Focus on your inhalations and exhalations and then let them grow deeper until each inhalation is a little longer than the one before it. As you become comfortable invite your exhalations to lengthen so that eventually they are twice as long as your inhalations.
No doubt exists that yoga can benefit individuals living with mild to moderate anxiety. While a home practice can help, practicing with an experienced, certified instructor ensures that a student learns to master the correct alignment and breathing techniques for each posture. Combining yoga with meditation further enhances the body and mind’s ability to relax and release tension.