In a world of ever-increasing anxiety, what does yoga have to offer? Nearly one in five people in the UK experienced anxiety in 2013-14, and record levels of anxiety are being reported in teenagers. So can yoga for anxiety and panic attacks really help, and if so, how?
As most of us are aware, the mind and the body are not separable. Our conscious experience is fundamentally an embodied one. Different states of mind bring about different physiological states, while changes in our physiological state can have a profound effect on our state of mind. Anxiety is a physical and psychological phenomenon and as such, it can be significantly alleviated by yoga.
An anxious mind makes for an anxious body, and if the body becomes habitually used to the physicality of anxiety – which can range from held tension to hyperventilation – it can further entrench anxiety in the mind. Mind and body truly set each other off. Yoga works wonders on anxiety because it understands this – when we set a good pattern going physically, the mind also benefits; when we establish healthy thought processes and mental well being, our bodies can’t help but respond.
What Exactly Is Anxiety?
The easiest way to understand anxiety is along a spectrum. Whether or not we have experience of something we’d classify as mental illness, we all experience anxiety, to a certain extent. It is a natural reaction to some of the challenges of everyday life, and sometimes the bio-chemistry behind it can actually help us. We have evolved to experience fear as a mechanism for self-protection.
Broadly speaking, as a species, it has motivated us to prevail, or to get out of the way. Butterflies in the stomach caused by adrenaline before an exam or public speaking can work in our favour, preparing us with that little extra edge offered by the activation of our ‘fight or flight’ mode, helping us to perform to our optimum.
Sometimes this response doesn’t help, however. A racing pulse, the inability to think clearly through mental overdrive, a clenched feeling in the forehead, jaw or throat all may be prompted by a fear of attack, or fear of failure – we naturally tense up, mentally and physically, to brace for impact.
But when this happens in anticipation of something that doesn’t actually require this degree of reactivity (deciding what to have for lunch for example, or how to phrase a difficult email), it might not help us. It might actually make things harder, giving our brain and body more to process than necessary.
Symptoms Of Anxiety
Sometimes this can culminate in a tension headache, the feeling of emotional strain, or low mood, all of which paradoxically do not enhance our performance at all, despite our body’s best evolutionary intentions! At a psychoanalytic level, anxiety often has to do with how we perceive threat in the world and what activates fundamental insecurities or fears we may have learnt through conditioning.
The symptoms listed above might all fall within the range of everyday instances of anxiety: they are unpleasant but generally transient experiences. Anxiety when it gets out of control, or habitual, however, can be more deeply disorienting and distressing, and this is when it is classified as a clinical problem. In its most extreme physical expression, anxiety can manifest as a panic attack.
As anyone who has had a panic attack will know, the physical symptoms can feel so intense and alarming that anxiety is not the first thing you might suspect could be behind what is happening to your body. Legitimate feelings accompanying an attack can be fear of collapse or death.
Sometimes experiencing a flood of neurological information reporting such physical distress can convince the panicking mind that the body is having a heart attack, a stroke, or experiencing aggressive bouts of an underlying serious physical illness. Many of these symptoms are caused by hyperventilation, which is a common physical occurrence during an attack, nasty because it often escalates without the person being fully consciously aware that their breathing has become rapid and shallow, depriving the brain of oxygen. This can cause dizziness, confusion, nausea, tingling and a host of other unpleasant side effects.
The Vital Question: Can Yoga Really Help With All Of This?
The answer is firstly, YES. Yes, yes and yes. Yoga addresses the inseparable dual dimensions – mental and physical – of anxiety. Because yoga integrates mind and body intelligently, and with synchronisation between the two as its goal, it holds great power to reconnect the mind and body, allowing them to once again work in harmony.
Harmony is everywhere in nature, and it is naturally ideal for us to live mentally and physically connected. In that sense the practice of yoga is simply harnessing the power of our nature and helping us to work with, instead of against, the power of our minds and bodies.
Quite literally, yoga can re-calibrate psycho-physiological patterns of distress by reprogramming our minds. It does this by working with our physical experience in the here and now. If the matrix of anxiety relies on a projection of a fearful future, yoga saps the power of this by bringing the practitioner directly into the present.
Sounds Good….How Does Yoga Help With Anxiety?
By slowing the mind down to the rate of the breath, as the mind is gently invited to notice a calm breath established by exercises freeing the diaphragm to express itself naturally and without tension. Once a regular, deepened breath has been cultivated, movement can be introduced and synchronised with it, which allows the mind to come more fully into conscious awareness of the present moment, in which it might start to be able to let go of some of the fear in which anxiety finds its roots.
Anxiety is usually associated with a fear of things to come and whether these be quite immediate or further ahead of us, it often relates to a fear that the future will take us out of where we feel comfortable and in control. The anxious mind has a tendency to race ahead – sometimes even years ahead! – of where we happen to be, filling us with doubt, uncertainty, confusion and the emotional discomfort those mind states often generate. But by bringing the mind into the immediate present (in which the body has no choice but to function and live), yoga can start to challenge and break down anxious cycles of thought.
It works because the mind is plastic, or mouldable, just like the body. Just like lifting weights will change the shape of your biceps, meditation – which, at its heart is what yoga really is – will change the circuitry of your brain. I know this to be true from my own experience, but if you’re looking for harder evidence, Neuroscience has proven time and again that thought patterns are physiological. (1)
Though these patterns are frequently more complex than our current understanding of their chemical and electrical intricacies can fully comprehend, even simply having this knowledge gives us huge power to harness yoga’s simple wisdom. When we do so, we can bring about in ourselves palpable positive change. All we really need is a mind, a body, patience and practice.
What Types Of Yoga Are Best For Anxiety?
Yoga calms the nervous system and some practices actively focus on this. So if you are looking at yoga as an antidote to anxiety, perhaps consider restorative yoga, which works deeply with finding physical release in the body through the breath.
Yin yoga works similarly, but at greater depth with channels of energy according to Chinese medicine and acupuncture’s meridian system. Hatha yoga and most flow classes also tend to build in a relaxation to practice, as well as the breath work, or pranayama which is essential to uniting breath and body – which is the original Sanskrit meaning of the word yoga.
Yoga Poses For Anxiety
Generally, the benefits of yoga practice accumulate over time, but it’s also very likely you will feel immediately better after one visit to the mat! It’s a win-win, really. If you want to feel an instant sense of calm, perhaps adopt one of the following positions, and listen to your breath, deepening it into your diaphragm and allowing the lower belly to rise and fall as you do so.
And if you’re curious about how anxiety has brought this yogini full circle into teaching, here is my story…
For most of my life I have struggled with anxiety. It has manifested itself in obsessive thought patterns pertaining to different areas of my life, but consistently has focused around being good enough. As young child, a health scare that zapped my confidence when I was nine years old made me desperate to prove, at a fundamental level, that I was able. That I would be ok. I never told anyone how terrified I was of not making it – essentially, of dying – but every trip to hospital and every invasive investigation made that fear very real. It stayed with me a long time after I got better, but if I said it out loud it seemed it would make it more likely to happen. So I didn’t, and it stayed on this inside.
To manage it, I became a perfectionist, and quickly got addicted to being the high-achiever that perfectionism enabled me to be. My need to be ok quickly had become a need to be the best, and it was never satisfied. So naturally, I excelled. When I satisfied my unforgiving academic goals at 18, gaining 100% in several A levels and a place at Cambridge to read English, my perfectionism needed something else to turn to. So it turned to food.
Now I needed to be perfectly slim, perfectly attractive as well as bright, because now that I was surrounded by brainboxes, simply being a nerd didn’t distinguish me as being more than just OK. I spent three years telling anyone who noticed I didn’t eat much that the reason I was skinny was because I was busy and exercising, but in reality I was subsisting on a few hundred calories a day.
Once I’d graduated I thought it would all go away – I had told myself it was the pressure of academia, that was all. It didn’t go away. Yes, it fluctuated, but since I was still living in a perpetually fearful future of my own projection – that I would never feel fundamentally OK within myself – it didn’t.
Next up it invaded my need to plan out a career and around that time major depression set in. By this point I was so depleted, mentally and physically, by being perpetually anxious, that everything I turned my hand to seemed to fall to pieces. Work, friendships, relationships. It felt like the sh*t was hitting the fan big time. I had to face up,finally, to really not having felt ok at all since I was little.
The unexplained gastric illness I had had for nearly a year when I was nine was eventually discovered to be a rare intestinal infection, and was cured by chance by intravenous antibiotics I was given for a kidney infection which I also contracted at the same time. Physically I had a clean bill of health, but my anxious brain had stored up all those patterns of fear, and sure enough they expressed themselves much later on.
When I took up yoga, though, it generated a feeling so deeply restorative that it somehow undercut all of this. I knew – in a very physical sense – that it had the power to heal me. It was something I felt at a level deeper than anxiety, and in fact, vitally, deeper than fear.
That’s why the I often describe my passion for yoga as a kind of faith. It’s not a religious faith but an experiential faith in nature, in biology and in the primal body-mind continuum, and its innate intelligence. Yoga ignited (as the tiniest ember to start with) a spark of faith in my mind-body connection that knew it could mend. My spirit and my zest for life started to reawaken when I understood that in yoga there is always a chance to heal the wounds of anxiety, if you give yourself one.
1. The Neuroscience of Changing Toxic Thinking Patterns, PsychCentral http://blogs.psychcentral.com/relationships/2011/08/the-neuroscience-of-changing-toxic-thinking-or-behavior-patterns/