Written by Sarah Loker
Research shows that there has been a spike in anxiety across the UK over the last 10 years, and it is now one of the most common mental health concerns in Britain. As we continue to navigate the uncertainties and stresses of modern life, our mental wellbeing is constantly being tested. And this doesn’t just affect life at home - an estimated 800,000+ employees are affected by work-related stress and anxiety every year.
The ancient practice of yoga has many wonderful applications to support us in modern day life, and is particularly powerful at helping to ease anxiety in a number of ways. Keep reading to find out how yoga can support you when feelings of anxiety start to arise.
Yoga regulates mood
All exercise can boost your mood by lowering levels of stress hormones, increasing the production of feel-good chemicals known as endorphins, like serotonin and dopamine, and bringing more oxygenated blood to your brain. Yoga may have some additional benefits, as it can affect mood by elevating levels of a brain chemical called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is associated with better mood and decreased anxiety. Meditation also reduces activity in the limbic system - the part of the brain dedicated to emotions. As your emotional reactivity diminishes, we are better able to deal with stressful situations and stay calm.
Movement is key
Moving the body in yoga also helps to release muscle tension, bringing about a relaxation response. This is particularly the case in yin or restorative yoga, where the longer time spent in the positions and the use of props to support during the practice allows for a dropping in and deeper state of rest and relaxation. A more upbeat and challenging movement practice, such as a Vinyasa Power Flow and sun salutations, are great for overcoming the restless feeling that anxiety can sometimes bring, which can make being still or holding longer poses nearly impossible. Yoga classes that challenge us to move into physical shapes that are new and out of our comfort zone teach us the physical lesson that everything in life fluctuates. Yes, a pose may be demanding and difficult, but after a few breaths it is over, and the body can soften and relax again.
Yoga regulates the nervous system
When you experience anxiety for long periods of time, the sympathetic branch of your nervous system, also known as the fight, flight or freeze system, is operating in overdrive. This means your body has a heightened reaction or response to a perceived threat, leading to anxiety symptoms such as agitation and stress. This means your parasympathetic branch of your nervous system, or your rest/digest state, is underactive. This system is vital for the optimal functioning of your entire body, such as your digestion and heart rate. Put simply, when we feel threatened, our body shuts off the system that is responsible for the normal functioning of your body, so that the system that is getting you ready to fight, run away or go into freeze can make us safe from the danger we have perceived. This unfortunately leads to a dysregulated nervous system, where we can remain stuck in the sympathetic branch of our nervous system. Staying here for long periods of time causes huge problems for us and is one of the main reasons for chronic illnesses.
Research is showing that stimulating the vagus nerve, which is a vital part of our nervous system, is key to modulating the sympathetic fight, flight or freeze response of our sympathetic nervous system. Yoga stimulates the vagus nerve in a few ways - firstly, through interoception, or how we perceive sensations arising in the body. Practices that increase interoception enable a person to distinguish between safe and fearful or dangerous situations. Another way that yoga stimulates the vagus nerve is by increasing vagal tone, which means you are able to relax sooner after stress. Increasing your vagal tone can reduce symptoms resulting from a dysregulated nervous system, reducing feelings of anxiety.
Yoga encourages us to be present
When we are anxious, we can often get stuck in repetitive thought patterns and focus solely on the past or future. Yoga and meditation practices help to train our minds to interrupt this autopilot, and come back to the present moment, reducing stress and anxiety.
Breathing exercises in yoga also help to focus on the present, and help to regulate the nervous system - the way we breathe quickly has a big impact on our stress levels. We can literally alter our physiology through manipulating and changing how we breathe. Anxious, stressed breathing is normally shallow and fast, whereas relaxed breathing is associated with slow, long, deep breaths. When we breathe fully we stimulate the vagus nerve, and this signals to our body that we are safe and able to fully relax.
Yoga encourages less identification with our anxious thoughts
Through meditation and yoga, we can focus the mind and practice observing and accepting our thoughts, rather than getting caught up in the thought and letting it affect our levels of anxiety. In ancient yoga tradition, yoga leads to a cessation of the fluctuations of the mind - such as limiting beliefs, self-doubt, critical self-talk, and negative outlook on life. Yoga teaches us that we are not our thoughts, and encourages a shift from over-identifying with them - this shifts the thought from being anxious to having anxiety, it is no longer an integral part of who we are. Shifting from ‘I am anxious’ to ‘I have anxiety’ acknowledges that anxiety is just a small part of the many threads that make up the tapestry of ourselves. Anxiety is not the whole.
Join Sarah for a range of regular, weekly yoga sessions at The Studio, Bartlow and online from anywhere. Classes range from slower-paced, relaxing Flow & Restore Yoga and Gentle Yoga Flow, to more upbeat Power Yoga and Energising Yoga Flow. Come along and feel your stress and anxiety lessen with mindful movement, guided meditation and relaxation.
Yoga: A Manual for Life, by Naomi Annand, p116