When anxiety becomes an almost constant condition, that’s not normal.
Doctors can prescribe anti-anxiety pills, which do help in many cases. However, benzodiazepines, most commonly prescribed for anxiety, are highly addictive and have serious health risks. More and more, science is confirming that yoga is an effective way to reduce chronic anxiety and benefits your brain and body in many other ways.
What Exactly Is Anxiety?
Anxiety is now the leading mental health epidemic.
Surpassing even depression, anxiety has become the most prevalent mental condition in the United States. It’s estimated that approximately 10 percent of teenagers and 40 percent of adults suffer from an anxiety disorder of some kind.
Anxiety is a nagging feeling, an underlying concern about possible danger ahead. Oftentimes, anxiety doesn’t have a specific conscious component that can be pinpointed as a cause. It has beneficial origins in your brain and originally developed for your protection. That anxious feeling is your brain’s way of learning from past experiences to try to alert you to steer clear of potentially dangerous situations in the future. Only in the case of chronic anxiety, your brain is stuck on overdrive in hyper-vigilant mode.
Anxiety shows up as bodily symptoms, actions, and behaviors. and is an underlying condition that exhibits physically, like an upset stomach or pounding heart. In your brain, anxiety involves the limbic system interacting with the amygdala, hippocampus, and hypothalamus, to turn on the fear circuit.
Science Shows that Yoga Calms Your Brain
A Harvard study reported that yoga modulates the stress response. The poses, breathing exercises, and meditation techniques in yoga can reduce the impact of the brain’s exaggerated stress response. These self-soothing practices can lessen anxiety and even physical pain. Science has proven that yoga also eases depression and has other neuroprotective benefits.
Here are five ways yoga helps anxiety:
Yoga Eases the Physical Symptoms of Anxiety
Physical symptoms that manifest from anxiety can cause health problems, such as inflammation and all over body tension. Heart disease and gastrointestinal tract problems can also result. Any pain that you are experiencing, even if it’s unrelated to anxiety, will be more painful when your body is in constant fight or flight mode. The yoga poses, called asanas, teach your brain and body to relax – even while feeling stressed.
An asana, called “child’s pose” is great for making you feel safe instantly which is another benefit of yoga. It effectively releases tension in the back of the neck, your shoulders, and your upper back. Because there is a body and mind feedback loop connection, you tell the brain it’s okay to relax when you reduce neck tension. Studies have shown that certain yoga poses help calm the nervous system and reduce cortisol levels.
Relaxing at a Cellular Level
Practicing yoga encourages the production and release of GABA (Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid) in the brain. GABA is the chief inhibitory or calming neurotransmitter. Its principal role is reducing neuronal excitability throughout the nervous system. In humans, GABA is also directly responsible for the regulation of muscle tone.
One study discovered that yoga was more effective than walking when for increasing GABA levels in the brain. GABA relaxes your brain and body and counteracts the fight or flight response caused by anxiety. Your heart will decrease and muscles will relax.
Yogic Breathing Reduces Anxiety Immediately
When you practice yoga, you will learn breath work that you can use at times of stress or anxiety. Pranayama breathing, as taught in yoga, teaches you to breathe deeply into the lungs and belly. A growing number of studies have shown that diaphragmatic breathing triggers the body relaxation response instantly. Slow breathing is the fastest way to calm your brain and body.
There is a recently discovered group of neurons at the base of the brain stem, dubbed the “breathing pacemaker.” These neurons have a direct line to the brain’s arousal center and can either set off the body’s alarms or keep it calm. When you intentionally slow your breathing down, these neurons don’t give the panic signal.
When you practice deep breathing routinely, it becomes easier to use breathing as a tool to manage moments of emotional turmoil. The feeling that chronic anxiety gives you isn’t comfortable. By breathing, you can reduce and even prevent that tense feeling from building up in the body. With enough practice, you can learn to relax your central nervous system on demand. This can be as or more effective than anti-anxiety medication without any risks or negative side effects.
Adrenal Gland Management
The adrenal glands play a large part in your immune system and have been shown to be directly affected by stress. Chronic stress and anxiety can lead to adrenal fatigue.
The adrenals are a set of glands located just above your kidneys that produce compounds, including the hormone adrenaline and the steroids aldosterone and cortisol. Balanced amounts of these hormones help you deal with typical daily stress and energy demands. When these glands aren’t performing optimally, you can experience weight gain, fatigue, depression, rashes, cravings, anxiety, and a weakened immune system.
Your adrenals are designed to deal with brief spurts of stress. With chronic stress, instead of pumping out hormones intermittently, the adrenals work non-stop and stress hormones flood your system constantly. This condition wears out your adrenal glands, breaks down cellular structures, and saps your energy.
Because it reduces stress and cortisol production, yoga can aid in restoring adrenal balance.
Yoga Teaches You to Be Mindful
Mindfulness is a fundamental principle of yoga. Through the practice of yoga, you learn to be mindful. Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment. Science has found mindfulness to be an effective practice to reduce chronic anxiety and stress.
There is an ensemble of neural networks, called the default mode network (DFM), that is your brain’s go-to state when it’s at rest, not doing anything in particular. Science discovered the DFM using fMRI scanners where people were observed with no specific thinking assignment. The scans showed that their mindless mental activity was mostly repetitive ruminative thoughts.
In mindfulness, by intentionally directing your attention inward and cultivating awareness, you are becoming aware of your DFM and exerting control over it. By doing this repeatedly in yoga (or meditation), you train your brain to break free of negative or anxious thought loops and orient itself in the present moment.
These are just a few examples of how yoga aids in reducing chronic anxiety. It helps to calm the brain and counter the effects of anxiety on your body. Yoga can also alter your perception and mindset so you don’t experience constant tension and stress as much when outside the yoga room.
Meera Watts is a yoga teacher, entrepreneur, and mom. Her writing on yoga and holistic health has appeared in Elephant Journal, CureJoy, FunTimesGuide, OMtimesand others. She’s also the founder and owner of Siddhi Yoga.