Guest post by Sally Bates

Anxiety is one of the most common mental conditions in the world, affecting one in 13 people from all walks of life. Clinical anxiety affected 10 per cent of people in Western Europe, Australia and North America, yet the opposite is true for depression – Western countries are least likely to be affected. Anxiety ranges in symptoms from mild to severe. The condition can interfere with daily life when it manifests itself in panic attacks, which involve hyperventilation (caused by breathing too much oxygen/ breathing too quickly). For some people, anxiety can make it impossible to leave the home, since sufferers fear symptoms such as dizzy spells, a racing heart rate or faintness. Generalized anxiety is one type of anxiety that can be particularly difficult to live with, since it envelops sufferers in a general state of worry about matters small and great alike.

Exercise is commonly described as the most powerful way to battle generalized anxiety, since physical activity lowers stress hormone levels, improves mood and promotes better sleep. However, among all different forms of exercise, one (yoga) is particularly successful at dealing with generalized anxiety disorder, according to a recent study published in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy by researchers at Georgia State University.

The lead author of the study noted that generalized anxiety disorder is characterized by uncontrollable worrying about various aspects of the future – symptoms include an inability to relax, an inability to let go of a troublesome thought, difficulty concentrating, rumination on all possible outcomes before taking a decision, and difficulty handling uncertainty. Psychotherapy works well with most forms of anxiety, except generalized anxiety disorder. Yoga, however, does significantly reduce worry, which is the main symptom of the disease. Once worrying is kept down, other symptoms (such as concentration, decision making) usually improve. Therefore, the researchers concluded that yoga wields promise in helping people break free from the clutches of anxiety.

In other studies, yoga has also been found to reduce symptoms of depression, and to improve mood and vitality, even in groups with great cause for worry, such as women receiving radiotherapy for depression. The reasons yoga is more successful than a gym-type workout are manifold and include:

• Stress reduction: Yoga modulates the way we respond to stress. When we stop perceiving a situation or person as stressful, our physiological responses change accordingly. Thus, our heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate go down, and our heart rate variability (which indicates our ability to respond well to stress) increases.

Encouraging a mindful state: Yoga is an intensely mindful activity, one which requires full concentration as participants aim to coordinate their breathing with different asanas. The practice of pranayamic breathing is also effective at controlling breathing and at lowering stress hormone levels. Those who practice yoga espouse the importance of mindfulness meditation – the latter invites practitioners to recognise and accept their worrisome, negative thoughts, without letting the latter take hold of them or lead them to a state of panic. During mindfulness meditation, we are encouraged to accept the sensations and thoughts that cause us to worry, seeing them for what they are yet not granting them the power to control our behaviour. Journalling is one mindful practice that has found to be highly beneficial at helping individuals understand their triggers for anxiety – writing our thoughts and feeling down enables us to identify the thought and behaviour patterns that can bring about our ‘fight or flight’ response. Indeed, journaling, mindful meditation and yoga are three holistic practices which are currently embraced by the best substance abuse rehabilitation centers all around the world, since anxiety is often encountered by addicts wishing to quit their ties to drugs.

Encouraging self-compassion: The yogic philosophy embraces a key element of battling worry: self-acceptance and self-compassion. Those who worry incessantly can do so because they struggle to conform to unrealistic expectations set by others or by themselves. Yoga invites us to accept ourselves as we are, with all our failures and disappointments.

Yoga is already playing an important role in therapy for anxiety, owing to many more reasons: its ability to boost the self-esteem, to introduce us to new networks of friends, and to enjoy simply being in the present moment, as our body, mind and spirit become one.

This is an article sent in by Sally Bates.