When You Need to Cultivate Calm: How Yoga Can Help Ease Anxiety

By Tamara Y. Jeffries for Yoga Journal.

Last spring, when we thought we might be in for a couple of weeks of lockdown, we stocked up on snacks and prepared for a short quarantine “retreat.” Little did we know that the shutdown would turn into an extended sentence. As the pandemic continued to spiral, anxiety symptoms surged. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), some 40 percent of people surveyed said they were struggling with their mental health, three to four times as many as in the year prior.

Anxiety—feeling worried, nervous, or ill at ease—is common, even normal under the circumstances, says Diane Malaspina, PhD, E-RYT 500, an applied psychologist and Yoga Medicine Therapeutic Specialist. Worry may intensify during stressful life events (both positive and negative), such as planning a wedding or getting a divorce. But when your worries won’t turn off even after the stressful situation ends, you may be experiencing generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

How Stress Affects the Body

When you feel threatened, your body releases hormones to help you respond to the stressor: Your heart rate goes up, and your breath becomes shallow as your brain instinctively prepares to fight, flee, or freeze. When the threat is resolved, body systems return to normal—at least until the next threat comes along.

But when the “threat” is ongoing and comes from a danger from which there’s no easy escape, you can never fully relax. Stress hormones keep surging, taxing the system and putting you at increased risk for chronic health problems including high blood pressure, heart conditions, gastrointestinal disorders, and a weakened immune system.

“For my clients who are especially anxious, symptoms show up in the body—headaches, back pain, tension in the shoulders and back,” says Johnette Walser, RYT 200, a clinical counselor in North Carolina. “They don’t recognize it as anxiety because it seems like a physical problem.”

Yoga Reset

Fortunately, yoga has long been used to ease anxiety—and science supports its efficacy, so much so that health care providers are incorporating it into their care plans for patients, according to Malaspina. Mindfulness practices that help reset negative thinking patterns—and movement and breathwork that tone the vagus nerve—are especially helpful for people with anxiety, Malaspina says.

If you are experiencing acute anxiety, going for a run or a walk or simply noticing your breathing can help you clear your head until you’re ready for mindfulness practices like meditation, or pranayama techniques such as Nadi Shodhana Pranayama (alternate-nostril breathing), Malaspina says.

Chamomile has long been a go-to for sleep, but it may help ease long-term anxiety as well. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that people who took 500 mg of pharmaceutical grade chamomile extract three times a day showed milder symptoms of anxiety, had few side effects, and took longer to relapse after they stopped taking the herbal formula. In a follow-up, participants who took the herb maintained fewer anxiety symptoms than people who took a placebo. A health bonus: Chamomile-takers reported lower blood pressure and body weight as well.

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