By Téa Paige for Yoga Medicine®.
We all know that feeling of a knot in our stomach, trembling hands and sweaty
palms. Maybe it’s before a big presentation, before a first date or a job interview. Anxiety is something we all experience on a regular basis. It’s part of a natural system in the human body that keeps us alive by alerting us of possible danger.
Nowadays, many people experience high amounts of anxiety in their daily
lives. The symptoms of high anxiety can impact a person’s day to day life including daily activities, work performance and social connections. In 2020 alone, over 40 million adults in the U.S. were diagnosed with a form of anxiety disorder.
A buildup of anxiety is rooted in persistent fear or worry about the unknown. In
other words, an individual’s mind is fixated on the future, rather than the present moment. Based on thoughts alone, this results in physical symptoms of increased heart rate, perspiration and tenseness in the body. The practice of yoga has 3 components that help relieve these symptoms in the body by bringing one’s awareness into the present moment – breath, meditation and movement.
3 Components for Relieving Anxiety
Intentional breathing is a direct way to activate the parasympathetic nervous
system (PSNS) – the system in our body that helps us relax and rest. By
slowing down the breath, we intentionally calm the heart rate and
communicate to our body that it is safe to rest. Using breathing exercises that
are focused on exhalation is an effective way to activate the PSNS. When
we’re in an anxious state our bodies reflexively begin inhaling more oxygen,
which triggers the heart to beat faster. The more frequent we inhale, the more
rapidly our heart beats. If we want to increase relaxation and decrease stress,
focusing on exhalation is key. Specifically focusing on prolonging and exerting
energy into your exhales will effectively trigger the PSNS and reduce stress in
The beginning and end of a yoga class often incorporates some kind of
meditative exercise. We bring awareness to the breath, to sensations in the
body, to the feeling of contact with the ground or other mindfulness exercises.
Meditation and mindfulness are amazing tools for reducing stress and anxiety
in the body. Mindfulness allows us to fully experience the present moment,
reducing the likelihood of getting attached to thoughts. Through meditation,
we recognize that thoughts can be separate from our awareness. When our
mind is not focused on one specific task, it goes into ‘autopilot mode’ thinking
about the future, the past, making connections and so on. When we practice
meditation on a regular basis, we teach the mind to come back to a resting
state rather than getting lost in autopilot mode. Yale researcher Judson Brewer
and colleagues concluded in a study that the ‘autopilot mode’ of highly experienced meditators were far less active than those of beginners. Overall, meditation and mindfulness reduce our reactivity to psychological stressors by changing our perspective on thoughts. These tools are amazing ways to calm the
body and mind.
One of the main focuses of yoga are the asanas – the poses, the ‘flow’ portion
of practice. The more we look at stress and anxiety the more we realize the
connection between mind and body. In a study by researchers at Boston
University School of Medicine and McLean Hospital, they discovered that one
hour of yoga can increase levels of the neurotransmitter GABA – necessary in
relaxing the body – by 27% or more! Evidence suggests this level of increase
is likely to counteract effects of anxiety and other psychiatric disorders
(Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine). When our mind
becomes attached to worrisome thoughts, our body prepares to fight or flight.
Oftentimes neither of these are an option if we’re at work, at school or busy.
Resulting in the body holding onto the stress – possibly leading to chronic pain
and other conditions. The practice of yoga allows our bodies to relieve tension
by lengthening and stretching the muscles, ligaments and tendons. By holding
onto these postures, we are allowing muscles in the body to extend and
release. When the body comes to a state of calm, the mind follows.
Just like any other task, yoga requires that right mindset. This mindset might look
different from person to person but the end goal is all the same. The yogi mindset
amplifies the importance of finding peace within your life. This might look like, experiencing an anxious moment but moving forward with love rather than hate.
With determination and knowledge, any yogi – beginner to advanced – can benefit from any aspect of the yoga journey. The practice of yoga is an inward journey
that draws us closer to ourselves, guiding us on a path to reconnecting to the
present moment. Breathwork, meditation and movement are all essential forms
of stress/anxiety relief that have helped millions of people and will help many
more to come!