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Yoga for Anxiety Disorders

At some point of time in life, all of us have experienced feelings of anxiety. From mild nerves to sheer panic, anxiety is a natural response to stressful situations. One that can help us react appropriately when we are in danger. But for those living with an anxiety disorder, feelings of fear or worry aren’t a rational response to external circumstances. They are a disruptive and dominating influence.

Anxiety Disorders: A Background

An umbrella term for a variety of mental health conditions, anxiety disorders share similar symptoms and traits. These can be distress, sleep disturbances and difficulty in fulfilling social/occupational roles. “Anxiety disorders have been associated with significant long-term disability. They can be distressing for the person affected, their families, friends and careers, and can have an impact on their local communities.” There are seven anxiety spectrum disorders (which include generalised anxiety disorder, panic disorder and phobias) with a high incidence of co-occurrence between them. These are possibly because the existence of one anxiety disorder can trigger or contribute to the development of another.

Anxiety disorders also appear in conjunction with other mental health issues, and often co-occur with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD).
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, nearly one-half of those diagnosed with depression are also diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and applied relaxation techniques are often recommended, while antidepressants are the first line in pharmacological treatment.

In the treatment of anxiety disorders, no single treatment works for everyone. People may try a variety of medications and therapies
before finding what most helps them manage (or recover from) this illness.

Type of Anxiety Disorders

  • Generalised anxiety disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
  • Phobia
  • Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD)
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Anxiety and Yoga Therapy

Whether it’s a persistent feeling of dread or intermittent panic, the hyper arousal of the fight/flight survival response creates a feeling of urgent fear and unignorable physical symptoms. So how can someone begin to calm down when their body is telling them that they are in mortal danger?

Yoga therapy can help people in this situation because they aren’t being asked to rationalize their way out of anxiety. Instead, they are given tools that help them recognise the thoughts, feelings and actions that lead to heightened anxiety, and enact effective self-soothing methods. In a yoga class, they are also unconsciously learning to regulate their stress response and building resilience to stress. Someone who suffers with mild or subclinical experiences of anxiety may find support in a general yoga class. For those whose anxiety is more severe, a specialized course of yoga therapy (guided by highly-trained yoga professionals that understand the physical and psychological mechanisms of anxiety disorders) may be more appropriate.

It’s also good to know that yoga alone should not be considered as the only treatment option. It should complement proper medication after consultation with a doctor or specialist. The doctor would guide you on the condition better and help you understand the type of anxiety disorder you may have.

Why use Yoga as an Adjunct Treatment for Anxiety?

Yoga leads to a cessation of the fluctuations of the mind

~ Pantanjali

With a growing body of scientific literature to guide clinical practice in applying yoga as a treatment of anxiety, yoga therapy can step into this gap and provide additional support. It helps people regulate their stress response, increase their resiliency and manage their anxiety. While an ancient practice, remarkably Patanjali’s eightfold system of yoga contains many elements used in modern treatments for anxiety: cognitive reframing, behavioral recommendations, relaxation techniques focused on breath regulation, mindfulness of sensory input, as well as methods for greater cognitive flexibility, concentration and down regulation of distress.

Some postures are challenging, but you are learning to relax under physical duress and this can help you handle long-term anxiety.

~ Heather Mason

There may be cases where yoga can be appropriately applied as a primary treatment in response to anxiety disorders, but in most cases,
it’s the integration of yoga with psychotherapy and pharmaceutical intervention that could significantly support recovery. Breathing
techniques in particular offer a method through which people can reduce their anxiety in the short term, allowing them to properly engage with other therapeutic practices. Along with basic movements and yogic relaxation techniques, these can easily become a part of a wide array of treatment pathways.

As a mind-body practice, yoga allows people to become aware of the link between their minds and bodies in a way which can help them become less anxious. For example, shallow breathing may contribute to a heightened stress response, or repeated patterns of behavior might ultimately worsen overall anxiety (for instance, relying on alcohol to calm down). Yoga increases mind-body awareness, as well as offering a form of relaxation which can replace unhealthy coping mechanisms.

1. Yoga Techniques

These yoga postures can help achieve a happy and healthy mind and body. Asanas help release tension and negativity from the system.

  • Dhanurasana
  • Matsyasana
  • Janu Sirsasana
  • Setu Bandhasana
  • Marjariasana
  • Paschimottanasana
  • Padahastasana
  • Adho Mukha Svanasana
  • Sirsasana
  • Vrikshasana
  • Tadasana
  • Vajrasana
  • Shashankasana
  • Shavasana
  • Makarasana

At the end of the yoga posture session, lie down in Yoga Nidra to give your mind and body a few minutes of thorough relaxation. The
technique is helpful in flushing out body toxins, a primary cause of stress, from the system. Yoga Nidra is qualitatively different from
relaxation. Yoga Nidra aims to focus the mind to achieve relaxation and increase wellness.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7vpwfTXet-o

2. Pranayama Techniques

Taking your attention to the breath can help free the mind of the unnecessary clutter of thoughts that breed anxiety. Try the following
breathing practices:

  • KapalaBhati Pranayama
  • Bhastrika Pranayama
  • Nadi Shuddhi Pranayama
  • Bhramari Pranayama

Observe how deep your inhalation and exhalation is. Hold your breath for a few seconds after exhalation. If the negative thoughts are again disturbing, then open the eyes and feel the abdominal and chest movements while breathing. Repeat the same which helps to reduce the continuous thoughts of the mind.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MjPBhH–mxM

3. Meditation

Meditation can be an excellent technique to relax a distracted mind and give you a sense of calm and peace. Meditating daily can also make you aware of how your mind works to keep you involved in small, petty things around. It can also help you not worry too much or get anxious about the unknown future. You might have often heard the term ‘adrenaline rush.’ This happens when we get too anxious about a potential threat. For instance, while taking an adventure ride, the level of adrenaline hormone goes higher, leading our heart to beat faster, making the muscles tense and our body sweat profusely. Scientific research has shown that regular meditation practice can help significantly reduce the level of this stress hormone.

4. Yoga Philosophy

Knowing and applying the ancient yoga knowledge in daily life, which talks about some simple yet profound principles (yamas and niyamas) of yoga, can be the secret to happy and healthy living. For instance, the Santosha principle (niyama) teaches the value of contentment. The Aprigraha principle can help us overcome greediness or the desire to keep possessing more, which can be a reason for stress and anxiety. The yamas and niyamas of yoga will also help us eat nutritious food and live a healthy lifestyle which significantly contributes to overcoming anxiety and stress.

5. Pray and keep faith

Prayer is the best form of reassurance and support to keep you anxiety free. Developing habits of daily prayer, chanting or singing bhajans (devotional songs) fill you with positive energy and also help still the mind. They also instill a sense of deep faith that all happens for the best and that there is a higher divine power that takes care.

6. Think about what you can do for others

When we constantly remain stuck in ‘me and mine’, it makes room for stress and anxiety. We keep worrying about what will happen to us. Instead, shift your attention to how you can be of some use to others around you. Energizing yourself with some service activity can give you deep satisfaction and immense joy.

7. Keep positive company around you

When you spend more time with positive-minded people, you are influenced by similar thoughts, which reflect in your overall attitude to life. Only a positive mind can breed joy, peace and relaxation.

8. Pay attention

It’s hard to slow down and notice things in a busy world. Try to take the time to experience your environment with all of your senses — touch, sound, sight, smell, and taste. For example, when you eat your favorite food, take the time to smell, taste and truly enjoy it.

9. Wish other people happiness

You only need 10 seconds to do this practice from author and former Google pioneer Chade-Meng Tan. Throughout the day, randomly wish for someone to be happy. This practice is all in your head. You don’t have to tell the person, you just have to set the positive energy. Bonus points if you find yourself annoyed or upset with someone and you stop and (mentally) wish them happiness instead.

10. Set an intention

There’s a reason your yoga teacher asks you to set an intention for your practice that day. Whether you do it in your morning journal or before important activities, setting an intention can help you focus and remind you why you are doing something. If something gives you anxiety — like giving a big speech at work — set an intention for it. For example, you can set an intention to take care of your body before heading to the gym or to treat your body with kindness before eating.

11. Doodle or colour

Set aside a couple minutes to doodle. You’ll get the creative juices flowing and let your mind take a break. Or invest in a coloring book,
adult or otherwise. You’ll have the perk of accomplishing something without having to face a blank page.

12. Go for a walk

Being outside does wonders for anxiety. Pay attention to the sounds around you, the feel of the wind against your skin, and the smells
around you. Keep your phone in your pocket (or better yet, at home), and do your best to stay in the moment by focusing on your senses and your environment. Start with a short jaunt around the block and see how you feel.

13. Look up

Not just from the screen in front of you, but at the stars. Pause and take a few deep breaths into your belly as you look up at the stars. Let the cosmos remind you that life is bigger than your worries or inbox.

14. Brew on it

Making a cup of tea is a deeply cherished practice in many cultures around the world. Settle into the practice and focus on each step. How do the leaves smell when you pull them out? What does the water look like when you first add the tea? Watch the steam rise from the cup and feel the heat of the cup against your hand. If you have time, sip your tea without distraction. Don’t like tea? You can easily do this practice while making rich, aromatic, French-pressed coffee.

15. Focus on one thing at a time

Yes, your to-do list can be a form of mindfulness if you do it right. Set a timer for five minutes and give one task your full and undivided
attention. No checking your phone, no clicking on notifications, no browsing online — absolutely no multitasking. Let that one task take
center stage until the timer goes off.

16. Leave your phone behind

Do you really need to bring your phone with you when you walk into the other room? When you go to the bathroom? When you sit down to eat? Leave your phone in the other room. Instead of worrying about it, sit and breathe before you start eating. Take a moment for yourself and your needs in the bathroom. Your phone will still be there when you’re done.

17. Turn household tasks into a mental break

Instead of obsessing over your to-do list or clutter, let yourself relax into the moment. Dance while you do the dishes or focus on the way the soap runs down the tiles while you clean the shower. Take five slow breaths while you wait for the microwave to stop. Daydream while you fold the laundry.

18. Journal

There is no right or wrong way to journal. From using the structured 5- Minute Journal to scribbling your thoughts on a random scrap of paper, the act of putting pen to paper can help soothe the mind and tame swirling thoughts. Try a gratitude journal or simply jot down the three best things that happened today.

19. Pause at stoplights

As much as no one wants to admit it, you can’t time travel or make cars move out of your way when you’re late. Instead of rushing, bring your focus inward at every stoplight. While you wait, sit upright, still and take four slow, deep breaths. This practice sounds easy on a leisurely drive, but the real benefits come when your anxiety and stress feel like they’re taking up the whole car.

20. Log out of all of your social media accounts

While social media has its uses, it can also contribute to your anxiety and interrupt your productivity. When you actually want to check in, set a time limit or an intention.

Actively trying to be mindful during every moment can actually add to anxiety and stress. Know when you need to let off some steam and let your mind wander where it wants to go. Netflix and chill has its place in your mindfulness practice. So does doing absolutely nothing.

Summary

Every little bit of mindfulness helps. What matters most is that you are consistent with your mindfulness practice. Practicing mindfulness
regularly can help you calm your mind and move past negative emotions. Try to take at least five minutes each day to check in and do a meditation or mindfulness exercise that you enjoy. Simple mindfulness exercises can be practiced anywhere and anytime.

Apply the techniques that work for you, and stay stress and anxiety-free!


This blog was originally written by Shakshi Patel, Level 2 Indea Yoga Teacher, and edited by Team Indea Yoga. This was a part of her dissertation work during her Level 2 Teacher Training Course.

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