What is anxiety?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting up to 40 million (18%) of the population aged 18 and older, while lifetime prevalence affect up to 28.8% of the US population (1).
In Ayurveda, a sister science of yoga and what can be considered as Traditional Indian Medicine, anxiety is an imbalance in one's constitution. In particular, it is an imbalance of the air and ether elements in one's body, causing a whirlwind of emotions, sense of instability, and restlessness.
However, being anxious occasionally is part of everyday life. Anxiety, characterized by "uneasiness of mind or brooding fear about some contingency" (2), is a very primal physiological effect that helped hunter-gatherers decide whether an area is safe to venture in. Our heart rate increases, our pupils dilate, blood sugar rises, our stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin increase, and our muscles tense all in preparation to tackle the potential threat. Anxiety allows us to anticipate, and therefore prepare, for difficulties ahead of us (2).
Today, the effects of mild anxiety keep us on top of deadlines, prepare us for the job interview, guide us to walk on well-lit streets rather than dark alleys, and maintain our alertness as we bike down a busy road. Being anxious is a survival mechanism that is built within our system, and it is not inherently bad. After the deadline or the potential danger is over, the body returns to a state of homeostasis where heart rate and blood sugar levels drop back to normal, muscles relax, and less stress hormones circulate the system.
Sympathetic vs Parasympathetic Nervous System
The problem is with anxiety today is that the body doesn't always get the chance to return to a state of homeostasis--the body literally does not get a chance to take a breath.
Instead, we are constantly being fed situations that require the effects of anxiety: we need adrenalin, higher blood sugar, and increased attention to get us through the mountain of tasks each day. With technology, it is almost impossible to disassociate from work, even right up till the minute before we hit the bed. To put it more scientifically, our nervous system is constantly in the sympathetic state, or more commonly known as fight-or-flight.
As mentioned above, being in fight-or-flight is not inherently good nor bad. There always comes a time when we need it, and frankly, it can very much save our lives. Problems arise when we don't give our nervous system the chance to switch over to the parasympathetic state, or more commonly known as rest-and-digest. The parasympathetic nervous system plays a huge role in aiding muscle relaxation, digestion, salivation, sexual arousal, urination, and defecation (3), all of which are crucial in maintaining a healthy body and healthy reproduction of offsprings.
Symptoms of elevated sympathetic activity
To be balanced individuals and to sustain good mental health, we need a healthy mix of both the fight-or-flight state and the rest-and-digest state. However, the list of downstream effects due to long-term activation of the sympathetic system and the commonalities of these symptoms tell us that the state of our nervous system as a general population is almost always tipped towards the sympathetic mode. Some of these downstream effects are:
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Increased heart rate
- High blood pressure
- Trouble concentrating
- Muscle tension (note: muscular pain in the body is due to chronic muscular tension)
How yoga therapy helps
Now that you have an idea how on earth anxiety survived evolution, since to most people, it seemed like an unwanted, inconvenient, and perhaps even life-altering condition, let's explore how yoga therapy can help.
1. Asanas (Postures)
Specific yoga postures and techniques are gentle and slow enough to not cause additional exasperation of anxiety, while invigorating enough to relieve tension and restlessness from the adrenalin build-up. Certain yoga asanas, breathing, and specific use of props are designed to help the body and the mind feel grounded. Examples of these are supine poses with heavy-weighted blankets, standing poses with longer holds, and the practice of long exhalations. Additionally, the practice of yoga requires mindful movements, which can help bring an individual's focus from worrying to the movements of her physical body. When comparing the effects of yoga for anxiety verses other activities (aerobics, walking, and social games), yoga participants experienced the most benefits over the course of intervention (6).
2. Pranayama (Breathing practices)
Yes, we breathe everyday, but most of us breathe unconsciously and improperly. The practice of pranayama, or yoga breathing techniques, is said to increase one's life force, or prana, help balance one's constitution (remember that anxiety is an imbalance of the air and ether element), balance mental activity, and improve communication between the left and right brain hemispheres. In one Tedx Talk given by radiation oncologist researcher Sundar Balasubramanian, he discusses his findings that after pranayama practice, nerve growth factors, along with many other enzymes and hormones, are found with increased saliva production. These nerve growth factors are proteins that "help the neurons, the nerve cells, to grow, survive, withstand stress, and live longer (5)." Furthermore, controlled and conscious breathing practices have been shown to decrease heart rate and respiratory rate, while increasing parasympathetic activity (7).
As mentioned above, true relaxation is something only a handful of individuals experience, especially when the state of busyness is praised in our society. Fortunately, the combined effects of gentle asana practice and pranayama is relaxation -- a state of reduced sympathetic activity and increased parasympathetic activity. In addition, guided awareness and guided meditation are some of the wonderful yoga relaxation techniques that can also help manage anxiety.
If you occasionally experience feelings of anxiety around deadlines, public speaking, going out with a new date, starting a new job, etc, rest be assured that these sensations are a normal part of daily living. If you experience chronic anxiety, please consult with your physician if you haven't done so already. Whether you experience occasional anxiety or live with it, specific yoga, breathing and relaxation techniques are not only practical, but are tremendously beneficial, for managing symptoms. If you would like to speak with me further on how yoga therapy may help and develop a specific protocol for your symptoms, you can set up a free consultation with me.
While yoga therapy can help manage our woes, aches, and symptoms, it is helpful to remember that the purpose of yoga is to remove any obstacles standing in our way of finding that equilibrium in which our body and mind are at ease. When the body and mind are aligned and at ease, then we can present our best selves to our family, friends, and community.
- "Anxiety Disorder." National Institute of Mental Health. Mar 2016. Web. 16 May 2017. <https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-
- "Anxious." Webster-Merriam Dictionary. Web. 15 May 2017.
- Grohol, John M. "Anxiety Disorders." Psych Central. Web. 18 May 2017.
- Hansen, Fawne. "Fight or flight vs Rest and digest." The Adrenal Fatigue
Solution. 24 Jun. 2015. Web. 18 May 2017.
- Sundar Balasubramanian. "The Science of Yoga Breathing." Tedx
Charlston. Youtube.com. 19 May 2017. <https://www.youtube.com/
- Bonura KB and Pargman D. "The effects of yoga versus exercise on stress,
anxiety, and depression in older adults." International Journal of Yoga
Therapy. No 19 (2009): 79-89.
- Upadhyay DK et al. "Effect of alternate nostril breathing exercise on
cardiorespiratory functions." Index Medicus for South-East Asia Region. 15 Mar, 2008. <http://imsear.hellis.org/handle/123456789/46689>.