Anxiety is so prevalent with an estimated one in four people experiencing it in Australia (1). People often ask me if yoga will help with their anxiety as they’re desperate to find a way to beat it.
But what if anxiety wasn’t the enemy and we didn’t have to fight it?
Anxiety can be thought of as an alarm system, warning us that something needs our attention. Anxiety exists for a reason.
There are many reasons why people feel anxious but it all boils down to our nervous system and the fear center in our brain, the amygdala. Our senses are constantly scanning our environment looking for threats and potential danger. When we detect a perceived threat, the amygdala rings the alarm and our nervous system prepares our body to either run for our lives or stay and defend ourselves.
Which is awesome if we’re being chased by a lion because the fear response is automatic so we don’t have to think about which direction to run, we just do it.
Getting stuck in traffic and being late for a job interview isn’t life-threatening, but our nervous system thinks it is and our body reacts as if our life is in danger:
- our heart rate increases
- our blood pressure increases
- our breath becomes shallow
- our muscles tense
- digestion slows
- the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol kick in
Most of the stressors we face aren’t life-threatening, yet they cause the same amount of stress as if it were.
We’re anxious about what people think of us, being judged, rejected, abandoned, humiliated. And while these feelings are horrible and the thought of experiencing them is stressful, it’s not life-threatening.
Yet our nervous system finds these emotions overwhelming and so it tries to protect ourselves from feeling this, so instead of feeling rejected or humiliated, we feel anxious or fearful. It’s our nervous system that decides feeling anxious is better than feeling humiliation.
And whilst anxiety feels horrible, these are just the physical symptoms of our body preparing us to run or fight for our lives:
- sick in the stomach
- heart racing
- jaw clenching
- shallow breathing
- dry mouth
One technique I use to overcome a situation I’m stressed about is to contemplate the worst case scenario.
Let’s say you have to give a work presentation in front of 200 people. Just the thought of that can make some of us feel sick in the stomach.
Ask yourself, ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’.
Maybe people start laughing at you, or boo or get up and leave.
Ask again, ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’
Maybe your boss fires you from your job or you’re too ashamed to go back to work so you quit.
What’s the worst that could happen?
You’re unemployed and you can’t pay your bills so you’re forced to take a lower paying job.
It sucks and it’s awful but it’s not life threatening. And it’s also highly unlikely that all of these worst case scenarios would stack up.
It may be a confronting exercise but if we do it properly, we realise that the situation we’re stressed about isn’t life-threatening and the fear we’re experiencing is just designed to protect us from the potential embarrassment, rejection or humiliation.
It’s a huge reality check which is often missing when we’re feeling really anxious.
So instead of looking at our anxiety as the enemy, view it as a friend who is only trying to protect us.
This gives us a different perspective on anxiety which is far more effective than trying to beat it and overcome it.
Acknowledging our anxiety, recognising that it’s there to protect us and viewing our anxiety as a warning that we’re feeling threatened gives us a new perspective on anxiety that can make us feel better.
And how does yoga fit in, aren’t there any yoga poses that can cure anxiety?
There is no cure for anxiety, it’s a natural and healthy function of our body. Anxiety is designed to keep us safe which is a good thing.
Yoga promotes relaxation and calms the nervous system which helps to reduce the symptoms of anxiety. It’s the overall practice of moving and releasing tension from the body, diaphragmatic breathing and engaging the mind in relaxation and meditation which provides natural anxiety relief (2).
However yoga needs to be done regularly to reduce the anxiety symptoms. I recommend practicing yoga at least three times per week for people who are experiencing anxiety and stress. It’s not like there is one yoga pose that cures anxiety. Sure there are certain yoga poses that will help with the muscular tension and certain yoga poses are known for their calming effects. But it’s the overall system of yoga that reduces anxiety symptoms, we can’t just isolate one or two yoga poses and hope they’ll be a cure for anxiety whilst overlooking the entire system of yoga which is designed to calm the mind.
Yoga also gives us a greater sense of awareness of our body sensations called interoception, which can help us to detect the early signs of anxiety before they kick in. Then we can use self-awareness to detect the reasons for feeling anxious and instead of judging or criticising ourselves, we can mindfully assess the situation and perform a reality check.
Want to learn more about yoga for anxiety?
Check out our upcoming Art of Relaxation Course in January
Monica’s approach to the topic was great. She was very open and built trust and understanding through her knowledge and empathy. The flow of information and exercises worked really well. It all made sense even the bits that were challenging e.g. embodiment & constant movement. At the end of the weekend I felt Calm, Reflective, Less mental chatter, Thankful.
Artwork by @sinashagrai
- Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2008). National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results, 2007. Cat. no. (4326.0). Canberra: ABS