Yoga for Anxiety

According to the ADAA (Anxiety Disorders Association of America) General Anxiety Disorder affects 6.8 million adults, or 3.1% of the U.S. population, in any given year, with women being twice as likely to be affected. The exact cause of this disorder is unknown but there is evidence that biological factors and life experiences, especially stressful ones, contribute to it. This is only one of the anxiety-induced diseases and disorders defined by the American Psychological Association. Other anxiety-related diseases include Panic Disorder & Agoraphobia (along with an exhaustive list of other phobias), Posttraumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD, Social Anxiety Disorder and plain old vanilla depression. These disorders account for many more millions of Americans’ suffering each year, and untold expense on the healthcare system and business. One of the new treatments found effective for almost every single disorder listed is yoga.

A recent article in the Baltimore Sun says that yoga ‘may’ positively affect stress, but clinical studies are proving that it definitely does. The article states that, “One national survey estimated, for example, that about 7.5% of U.S. adults had tried yoga at least once, and that nearly 4% practiced yoga in the previous year.” So it seems people are either finding some kind of positive relief or they are desperate for something that will provide it.

Stress and anxiety begin with physiological arousal. A stressful state is created by both a biochemical reaction and an environmental stimulus. Once these two cause and effects are instigated, they are often propagated through an ongoing feedback loop, so that state of stress is held permanently within the body. Once this happens it makes it very difficult if not impossible to manage the psycho physiological arousal resulting in emotions, including fixation on the past, doom about the future, and an impediment to making viable goals and dreams with a coherent action plan. Basically, once we are responding to the world with a ‘stress’ response, we cannot generate appropriate solutions to life’s problems. We go from acting to reacting in a dysfunctional state rather than an innovative one.

The nervous system is responsible for regulating our reactions to perceived stress. It is broken down into two parts: the Central Nervous System composed of the brain and spinal chord nerves, and the Peripheral Nervous System which includes the autonomic nervous system which we can look to for stress regulation more specifically. The autonomic nervous system’s job is to run all the involuntary functions of the body like breathing, heart rate, digestion, endocrine (hormonal) release, etc. We don’t have to think about these things for the body to do them, it just does. The autonomic nervous system is comprised of the Sympathetic Nervous System, which initiates the stress response, and the Parasympathetic Nervous System that induces the relaxation response. Dr. Herbert Benson talks about the ‘relaxation response’ in great detail in his book with the same name, which was first published after the Vietnam War to deal with the large amount of people suffering from PTSD.

The opposite of the ‘relaxation response’ is the ‘fight or flight’ response. This is a response left over from of ancestral past when we had to utilize great amounts of adrenaline in real times of danger, like when we were about to be eaten by a large animal. Today, this same response is activated with any threat we perceive. It can be real or imagined. Once the brain receives the signal that there is perceived danger, it releases a series of chemicals akin to a chain reaction. These chemicals affect every organ and system in the body. Once a vital defense mechanism, this ‘stress response’ is now the cause of many disorders and diseases. The chain reaction happens within the organs and endocrine glands also. A stress signal sent to the hypothalamus in the brain then stimulates the pituitary gland which then stimulates the adrenal glands, and so on. This over-stimulus of the glands leads to adrenal fatigue. The stress response is the biological equal to a super charger on an engine. What was once a mechanism for the body to live is now a failed system, and in reality, helps the body to die.

There are some very simple tools that can be utilized to counteract this chain reaction. They are outlined in many yogic texts, and modern science is beginning to mimic the teachings once found only in esoteric texts. The first tool is to create a quiet environment. There is so much to distract us from what is going on in the body these days, from television to video games, traffic and work demands, PDAs and cell phones, the list seems never ending. If we consciously chose to create an environment of peace, then we have taken the first step toward combating anxiety and the disorders that result from it. In Raja Yoga this is a form of meditation in and of itself.

When we take the attention away from distractions, we can then begin to focus on one singular thing. We can then integrate diffused attention into a steady, calm focus that helps us to find our natural equilibrium. Once the mind becomes one-pointed, a state of meditation can be entered into. As our mental state becomes calm the physiological responses of the body follow, and the chain of stress is broken. Instead the body and mind are fortified so that the next time a perceived threat enters our awareness, we don’t respond to it in the same way. The very same stimulus will not cause us to tense up. We may be aware that this event, or person once caused us anxiety, but now, it does not. We have recreated a mental state, which can perceive a problem and chose a response instead of reacting unconsciously to it.

Many yoga gurus recommend the practice of developing an objective state of mind. It is often called developing a ‘witness.’ As we develop this objective self, we can not only combat anxiety, but we can consciously build a different chain reaction within the body and mind that is positive. Certain brain neurotransmitters have antidepressant and anti-anxiety effects, and as we build those neural responses to different stimuli, eventually nothing can phase us. No matter how crazy the world is, we stay in our equilibrium. This is the message of Yoda is Star Wars and Neo in the Matrix, but also the message of the ancient sages of the yogic tradition.

General Anxiety Disorder
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About the Author:
Christina Sarich runs

How fascinating: to develop an objective or witness. I hadn’t heard of that practice before, but I really like the affects of altering our more negative neurological reacts. Thanks, as always for such detailed and informative postings.


You are welcome!

Thank you for this. I’ve suffered from anxiety for many years, in fact, it’s why I got into yoga in the first place. I’m so tired of being anxious. Thank you!

No quiet environment in my house. i live with my parents- 22 cant afford to move out- my brother shouts, guitars, tv etc.
I still try. I found yoga helps my anxiety and I’m trying to make it a part of my life as it has helped in the past but I didn’t stick to it.
Cant afford classes.

Very interesting!

Very interesting and informative article. I’ve been lucky enough in my life not to experience debilitating periods of anxiety. However, my best friend suffered from this for several years while her husband was serving in Iraq. She did yoga everyday to help her cope and it did wonders for her.