Maybe it’s society’s always on the go mentality. Maybe it’s all the technology. Maybe it’s the political climate. No matter what the reason is, it seems like anxiety is becoming more and more of an issue every day for millions of Americans. In fact, according to NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, over 40 million adults in the U.S. have an anxiety disorder making it the most common mental health concern in the country.
So what is an anxiety disorder? While we often use the term anxiety synonymously with stress, worry and nervousness, anxiety disorders are marked by the presence of intense fear and overwhelming distress that interferes with one’s daily life. Anxiety disorders can present themselves in various ways including phobias such as Agoraphobia, Panic Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Many of the most common symptoms of anxiety disorders are physical in nature and may be confused with other physical health concerns. These physical symptoms of anxiety may include: increased heart rate, sweating, rapid breathing, shortness of breath, headaches, fatigue, insomnia and digestive issues.
From a physiological perspective, anxiety is our mental and physical reaction to a perceived threat– otherwise known as our fight or flight response. When this happens our brain floods our nervous system with adrenalin and cortisol (the stress hormone) designed to help us respond to the real or imagined threat.
Typically, mental health professionals will recommend psychotherapy, medication or a combination of both to treat anxiety disorders. If you are looking for a more holistic approach, practicing yoga has also been shown to decrease the symptoms of anxiety. The combination of breathwork, poses and meditation are what make yoga such a wonderful tool for individuals looking to better manage their anxiety.
Breathwork— As many yogis know the practice of pranayama helps to connect the mind and body. We breathe in and out unconsciously all day everyday. Controlling our breath, however, takes focus and attention. Deerga Swasam or Complete Yogic Breath allows the body to take in up to 7 times more oxygen than normal. It is a three part breath that helps to calm the nervous system. This in return allows the mind and body to relax. Another pranayma practice known as Nadi Shodana or Alternate Nostil Breathing helps balance the nervous system and both hemispheres of the brain.
Yoga Poses— A variety of yoga poses better known to yogis as asanas have been identified that specifically help to alleviate anxiety symptoms. Balasana or Child’s Pose is a restorative and calming pose that releases tension in the back, neck and shoulders where oftentimes people hold a lot of their stress. Balancing postures such as Virabhadrasana III (Warrior 3) and Trikonasana (Triangle) take one’s mind off negative thoughts and worry by placing focus on the physical body. Viparita Karani or Legs Up The Wall in addition to relieving anxiety symptoms, reduces low back pain, manages blood pressure, regulates blood circulation and improves sleep. Other poses that help relieve anxiety by enabling better blood circulation include Setu Bhandhasana (Bridge), Ustrasana (Camel) and Marjariasana (Cat).
Meditation— What better way to reduce anxiety than to focus on the present moment? Sometimes with anxiety, it can feel like your brain won’t shut off or that it is constantly on overdrive. So many thoughts, so little time and usually those thoughts center around worrying about the future. Meditation helps reduce anxiety by quieting the mind and bringing mindful awareness to the here and now. Whether you choose to focus solely on your breath, a mantra, or listen to a guided meditation, it is important to cultivate a daily practice. Think of meditation as an exercise for your mind. Just like you need physical exercise to keep your body healthy, meditation helps keep your mind healthy. And isn’t that the ultimate goal, a healthy mind and body?
If you are struggling with anxiety, remember that you are not alone. There are a variety of treatment approaches from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to yoga and mindfulness. It just may take time to find the right treatment method or therapist who is right for you.
- Amanda Schofield is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Registered Yoga Teacher in Oviedo, Florida specializing in a variety of mental health concerns including anxiety and stress in children, adolescents and young adults.