You might have heard of yoga as a growing fitness trend, a spirituality movement, or many other things. But have you heard of yoga as a legitimate and distinguished treatment modality, such as using yoga for anxiety and stress?
Studies show that in comparison to other forms of exercise, integrated yoga – meaning, yoga with a focus on both the physical aspect of the practice, and the spiritual or meditative qualities of the surrounding culture – has a marked effect on people with anxiety disorders and elevated cortisol levels (stress hormones).
More so than other forms of exercise, practicing yoga for anxiety and stress can help both the mind and body relax and lead to lower stress levels and improved mental health symptoms. Understanding how and why may help you leverage the benefits of yoga at home, or help you consider visiting a yoga class that specializes in therapeutic applications and mental health.
How Does Yoga Affect Mental Health?
Your mind and body are intrinsically entwined – we know from years of research that the effects of movement and physical exercise on a person’s mental wellbeing are significant, and that much of that has to do both with the biological, or neurological effects of chemicals like endorphins, as well as the social impact of group exercise, and the psychological benefits of self-improvement through physical activity.
Yoga goes one step above this by combining physical activity with spiritual practices that emphasize mindfulness and meditation, qualities that we know also have a marked impact on anxiety levels and mental health. In other words, yoga gives us a best-of-both-worlds approach to mental health through the physical as well as the mental.
Not all Anxiety Disorders Are the Same
Anxiety disorders are not all the same. They share critical characteristics but can be caused and developed through different factors. Genes often play a role, but that doesn’t make them applicable to different anxiety disorders – for example, someone with obsessive-complusive disorder (OCD) might not necessarily be more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well.
Anxiety Disorders, the Body, and Nervous System
But on both a mental and physical level, anxiety disorders do share similarities in how they tax the brain and body. Anxiety disorders nearly always involve the overstimulation of your sympathetic nervous system, which is your fight-or-flight response. Whether it’s something as extreme as the hypervigilance and heightened reflexes of a person with PTSD, or the chronic mental fatigue that accumulates with generalized anxiety disorder, your nervous system is working harder than that of most people. More than just your mind, anxiety often affects the body.
Your nervous system isn’t alone in that fact. The heart is also taxed more in people with anxiety than in those without. Anxiety disorders often lead to increased levels of adrenaline in the body, which means your heart rate will be increased quite often.
A continuous release of stress hormones, or cortisol, can begin to affect your immune system, reduce the rate at which your body responds to internal stressors with inflammation (which is crucial for your physical homeostasis), and prevent protein synthesis, slowing down physical repair, healing, and recovery.
Yoga Improves Mood
As a form of physical exercise, when using yoga for anxiety and stress, it helps the body release more endorphins and higher levels of oxytocin, both of which play a role in managing the sympathetic nervous system and improving your mood.
Yoga’s rhythmic deep breathing practices are also linked to the relaxation of the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems – meaning, the way breathing plays an integral role in every moment of a yoga session specifically helps the body calm down, reduce cortisol levels, and bring your anxiety levels to a minimum over other forms of exercise.
Last but not least, the therapeutic role of mindfulness practices within integrated yoga can help people further modulate their anxiety and calm themselves.
It interacts synergistically with the physical benefits of yoga – where the release of certain chemicals in the body helps calm you down and break down the initial barriers to therapy that anxiety present, and the mental aspect of yoga helps further deepen its effectiveness.
Yoga or Exercise?
Does that mean people with anxiety should quit their favorite sport and pivot towards yoga? No, not if their favorite sport is helping them right now. Physical exercise can go a long way toward helping people reduce their anxiety symptoms.
But context matters, for both the body and the mind. If the competitive nature of your sport is negatively affecting your anxiety, and you’re losing sleep over missed training sessions and upcoming competitions, it may be healthier for you as a person (and as a long-term athlete) to take a break for a season or two and focus on activities that are purely beneficial to your mental and physical wellbeing.
As far as research can tell us, the benefits of yoga for anxiety and stress come from a combination of the therapeutic effects of its spirituality-based ethos, in conjunction with the physical benefits of deep, rhythmic breathing exercises and low-impact physical movement.
You can find all these qualities in a number of different activities and treatment modalities. If you deeply dislike yoga, it might not do you any good. But if you’ve never tried it before, you should consider giving yoga a chance – even if you are already physically active to begin with.
Trying Yoga for Anxiety and Stress in Treatment
Mindfulness is a part of yoga’s core tenets, but it may not necessarily be emphasized in every single yoga class. Your best bet for integrating yoga as a potential treatment modality is to seek out a mental health facility that offers it as part of its repertoire.
Amend Treatment in Malibu, for example, helps clients deal with a variety of mental health issues and offers an individualized treatment plan that may include group yoga sessions for the benefits of consistent physical activity and combined mindfulness, as guided by a professional.
Can Yoga Cure Your Anxiety?
As a treatment modality, yoga’s potential is greatest in conjunction with an individualized treatment plan, one that includes one-on-one talk therapy and maybe medication, depending on the type of anxiety the client is diagnosed with. In most cases, no single treatment modality can be credited for “curing” an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are treatable, but it often takes an array of learned coping skills, support systems, and ongoing therapeutic practices.