Quelling the Storm: Soothing Anxiety through Yoga
By Nicole Schnackenberg
“Yoga has a sly, clever way of short-circuiting the mental patterns that cause anxiety”.
– Baxter Bell
Anxiety is one of the most common psychological struggles in the United Kingdom. One in six adults present with anxiety in any given week in the UK; a very high figure indeed. Anxiety is a normal response to stress or danger and manifests as the arousal of the sympathetic (fight, flight or freeze) nervous system, which involves adrenaline being pumped quickly through the body to enable it to cope with any impending catastrophe. Problems arise, however, when this response is out of proportion to the level of actual danger present in the situation or, indeed, if no true danger is present. The physical symptoms of anxiety can include a rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, a tight chest, nausea, the urge to pass urine or empty bowels, tremors, and sweating to name just a few. Psychologically, a person with anxiety may experience tension, agitation, a sense of a loss of control, impending feelings of dread, and a sense of detachment.
People struggling with anxiety may also contend with other co-morbid (occurring together) presentations including depression, dissociation, obsessive compulsive disorder, disordered eating, insomnia and numerous others. Human beings are, of course, beautifully and wonderfully unique and anxiety tends to present rather differently between person-to- person, whilst some similarities may lead to this specific diagnosis over others.
The practice of yoga can be a beautiful way of balancing the parasympathetic (rest and digest) and the sympathetic (fight, flight or freeze) nervous system, which are so commonly out of equilibrium within a presentation of anxiety. As we move through some of the yoga asana, particularly more rigorous physical practices such vinyasas, Kundalini sets or backbends, we typically stimulate the sympathetic nervous system. As we marry these movements up with the breath, we tangentially stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. The result can be a balance and equilibrium of both systems, thus reducing the experience of anxiety in the body. There is a growing body of research and increasing interest in the use of yoga as a way of soothing and managing anxiety. Studies looking at the therapeutic benefits of yoga for anxiety include those by Smith, Hancock, Blake-Mortimer &, Eckert (2007), and Bhushan &, Sinha (2001). Prevalent findings include reductions in anxiety scores, a modulation of the stress-response through an increase in parasympathetic nervous system arousal, reductions in obsessive compulsive tendencies, an easing of heightened respiration, and improved mood following a yoga intervention.
To take the example of one study conducted in Germany in 2005 (Brown et al, 2005), 24 women who described themselves as ‘emotionally distressed’ took two 90-minute yoga classes a week for three months. The women in the control group maintained their usual activities without engaging in an exercise or stress-reduction program during the study period. At the end of the three months, the women in the yoga group reported improvements in perceived stress, depression, anxiety, energy, fatigue and well-being. Anxiety scores in the yoga group improved by 30%.
Many of the people who access our services here at Ourmala have experienced, and continue to experience, significant levels of anxiety in their lives. In many cases, this anxiety is related to previous trauma: many of our clients have been displaced from their country of origin and experienced war, lack of food, violence and suppression. Whilst the immediate danger may have been removed, the experience of anxiety in the body can continue to live on long after the actual threat has passed. Providing gentle yoga practices which aim to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and bring the person into a state of safety and calm within their bodies can provide rich and multiple benefits including the reduced anxiety, improved sleep, balanced appetite, reduced nightmares and diminished flashbacks cited in so many research studies.
Certain yogic pranayamas are excellent at stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system and thus reducing sensations of anxiety including ujjayi breath, alternate nostril breathing and long deep breathing. Some key yoga asana that can be particularly beneficial for soothing anxiety include child’s pose, legs up the wall pose, cat pose, head-to- knee forward bend and standing forward bend. Naturally, different asana will have different effects on different physiologies. The key is always to pay close attention to the unique experience of the individual person in each pose, particularly observing the breath, heart rate and sense of peace or agitation within the body and mind.