Yoga Therapy for Anxiety: Definitions, Symptoms, Conventional Treatments
One may say that our mind creates our world. Thus our reactional patterns often become the source of suffering. A person in an anxious state of mind has readily created barriers around her own life, thus impeding a free and creative unfolding. Anxiety is a bane for many. Many people silently suffer or opt for conventional remedial treatment. Yoga therapy for anxiety offers a compelling alternative that is holistic, economical, and effective.
In this context, anxiety is a psychological and physiological state consisting of cognitive, somatic, emotional, and behavioral components. These elements jointly give rise to an unpleasant feeling that is typically associated with general uneasiness and worry, as well as apprehension and fear.
Fear, however, is commonly related to specific behaviors of escape and avoidance and occurs in the presence of a perceived threat.
Anxiety, on the other hand, originates from threats that one feels to be uncontrollable or unavoidable. If fears become abnormal or phobic, the individual will be unable to function in society and the world.
Types of Anxiety
Anxiety can be highly vague, but this unpleasant feeling of fear of something can be categorized into at least five distinctive types as follows:
1: Panic – an extreme momentary fear without any apparent external cause.
2: Phobias – irrational fear resulting in conscious and forceful avoidance of particular objects, anticipated situations, people, and other things. A phobia’s main symptom is the excessive and unreasonable desire to avoid the item associated with the mentioned fear.
3: Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) – is a reiteration of obsessive thoughts for something that has to do with a particular worry. Examples could be the fear of getting robbed, the fear of acquiring a specific disease, or anxiety of uncleanliness. Obsessive-compulsive disorders can virtually extend to anything or phenomena. OCD sufferers often perform different tasks, which may seem abnormal to other people to relieve them of their particular fears.
4: Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – mainly brought about by excessive negative past experiences rendering one feel helpless and fearful. People who have PTSD often also are affected by insomnia, nightmares, flashbacks of particular events, and depression.
5: Generalized Anxiety Disorder – a general feeling of ‘angst’ or aroused the fear of anxiousness of being in this world and living in a society without an explicit object of anxiety projection.
How Severe is Anxiety and What Happens in the Body?
In 1959 M. Hamilton developed the widely used interview scale called the HAM-A (Hamilton Anxiety Scale) that measures the severity of a person’s anxiety. It uses 14 parameters, which include anxious mood, tension, fears, insomnia, somatic complaints, and behavior.
Physical symptoms of anxiety can consist of heart palpitations, muscle weakness, and tension, fatigue, nausea, chest pain, shortness of breath, stomach aches, headaches, or any combination thereof.
In general, the body gets into an alarm mode to respond to a threat: The heart rate and blood pressure increase. Sweating initiates, major muscle groups become active. And at the same time, the immune and digestive functions restrain. These body reactions are a familiar fight or flight response.
External signs in a patient with anxiety may include papillary dilation, sweating, trembling, and pale skin. A quite common symptom can also be a sense of dread or panic. Panic attacks may even be confused with heart attacks.
Symptoms of Anxiety Are also Emotional in Addition to the Physical Ones
Feelings of apprehension or dread, difficulty concentrating, feeling tense or jumpy, irritability, restlessness, nightmares, déjà vu, or a general sense of being trapped. Cognitive symptoms of anxiety can include serious thoughts about suspected dangers, such as the fear of dying.
Anxiety is commonly psychogenic. Its origins are in mind. However, there are also indications that an inherited disposition may exist. In the same vein, childhood experiences and conditioning can be causative. Or that it may even be related to impairments in the functioning of the brain.
Generally speaking, anxiety disorders stem from tension and a weak mind.
From a psychoanalytical perspective, acute anxiousness is not a response to the object itself, but to the possibility that some unacceptable unconscious material may be about to become conscious. The pivotal moment here is that of repression and anxiety, thus elucidates the interdependence of our mind and body.
Conventional Therapies for Anxiety
There are three broad categories of traditional western therapies for anxieties: Psychotherapy, behavioral therapy, and medication.
Psychotherapy involves a psychotherapist talking to the person suffering from anxiety, attempting to make unconscious material conscious. A therapist would commonly apply associations, discussions, and a generally supportive environment. Psychotherapy usually offers mixed results since inert material may remain hidden. Also, psychotherapy does not address physical effects.
Behavioral therapy aims at the patient’s patterns of thinking and acting to retrain behavioral patterns.
One technique is desensitization, which gets patients to work in their imagination from the least to the worst fear. And there is the technique of exposure that aims at experiencing the decrease and passing away of the unease by physically confronting it. So the patient is either inserted into a dreaded situation or has to approach the object of her worries.
This method may also apply relaxation techniques before exposure. Exposure has proven to be effective as moving through the fear situation acquaints patients to living with the fear rather than avoiding it.
At times, however, exposure results in detrimental effects as it tends to put patients into a ‘do-or-die situation.’ Also, it aims at developing a healthy ego, which is a somewhat different approach if the ego is perceived to foster a sense of separateness.
Medication involves the short or long-term use of drugs, above all tranquilizers. However, medicines can only be useful short-term, as it does not allow patients to solve their difficulties if this method is applied solely.
Treating Anxiety with Yoga Therapy
The advantages of treating anxiety with yoga lie in its holistic approach to any mental and psychosomatic ailments. The mind, body, emotions are addressed as a whole in yoga. For this reason, yoga therapy is very suitable to remove the root cause of anxieties through the application of Yoga Nidra (= yogic sleep) and meditation, asana, cleansing techniques, pranayama, mudras, and bandhas.
Naturopathy practices like hot foot bath, steam bath, and mudpack may well enhance the positive effects of yoga therapy. Thus anxiety is not only addressed on the egoic behavioral level as in conventional western treatments. But also, the nervous and endocrine systems gain more balance. And the prana or energy in the body become more harmonious. And a better energetic balance in the body results in overall higher mental and emotional equilibrium.
In this context, it is an essential contribution of yoga to assert that it is ‘prana,’ the subtle force creating all life that sustains body, mind, and emotions.
Yoga understands our whole existence as vibrational energy. This energy vibrates at different levels of intensity, making up solids such as bones, liquids like blood and urine, and gases like the air we breathe are all at the gross level. At the same time, emotions and thoughts are at a subtle level.
The Role of the Chakras in Anxiety
The seven chakras, which correspond with nerve plexus in the total physical body, link these energies and the Nadis – energetic currents, throughout their extensions in the body. If anxiety disorders arise from suppressed material in the subconscious mind, a yogic approach will assert that the chakras and Nadis store these complications and blockages in the flow of energy.
These so-called samskaras are the impressions, in this case – tensions, from our karma from past lives. Imbalances or blockages in the chakras or nadis cause disease. Without further elaborating on the chakras here, let’s assume that anxiety involves at least Mooladhara – fear, and Manipura – the need to control that characterizes states of anxiety. Also affected would be Ajna, the location of mental worry and anxiety, the heart center or Anahata, and the throat center – Vishuddi, inability to speak.
Concerning the nadis, Ida and Pingala are the most relevant here. Ida governs the left side of the body and the right side of the brain, moving in the left nostril. Pingala controls the right side of the body and the left side of the brain and moves in the right nostril.
Ida and Pingala meet and cross at each of the chakras, which reside along Sushumna moving in the central spinal column.
Unbalanced Ida can make a personality introvert, depressed and paranoid, while unhealthy Pingala is related to a too sedentary lifestyle. Hence the personality type of an anxious person appears to be overactive Ida.
Yoga as a therapy would need to address the outlined imbalances from the unconscious mind, conscious mind, to the emotions and physical body involved in anxiety disorders.
Yoga Practics for Alleviating Anxiety
Here are some yogic practices that would help deal with anxiety. We need to assume that the person, apart from suffering from at least one of the types of fear, is of good health. There are no further complicating ailments, like high blood pressure, heart diseases, slipped disk, or the like.
Yoga Asanas for Anxiety
Pawanmuktasana and Surya Namaskara offer great benefits as they work to balance the entire body and endocrine system. The speed at which one performs these asanas should be rather slow, though, as an anxious person generally needs to calm down. One can adjust the speed and intensity of each asana according to one’s overall capability.
Shaschankasana, Marjariasana, Ushtrasana, the trikonasana series, Chkrasana, and Dhanurasana work on the adrenals. The shakti bandha series, spinal twists, Paschimottanasanaand, and Bhujangasana are also beneficial.
The more experienced student may practice inversions. Topsy-turvy yoga positions are accommodating for the troubled mind. These asanas stimulate the pituitary gland and supply the brain with fresh blood carrying oxygen and nutrients.
Inversions may include Sarvangasana, Halasana, and Sirshasana. Advanced postures may also include Garbasana and Koormasana, both poses that strongly induce mental relaxation.
Pranayama for Anxiety
Pranayama is extremely important and beneficial in yoga therapy as it balances the nadis and chakras and, therefore, the gross physical body.
Patients of anxiety should generally avoid Khumbakh (breath retention) as this requires a stable mind and can create tension for the nervous system.
Nadi Shodana is especially beneficial as it directly balances the nadis, thus purifying the pranic system and bringing the whole body into balance.
Ujjayi, the ‘victorious’ or ‘psychic’ breath, is useful to induce stillness, clarity, and calm.
Bhramari, the humming inspiration, is helpful in alleviate mental tensions and worries.
Bhastrika revitalizes the sympathetic nervous system, and Kapalbhati tones the parasympathetic nervous system. Hence, these two pranayamas are complementary practices for anxiety patients who do not suffer from hypertension.
Mudras for Anxiety
Vipareeta Karani, Pashinee mudra, Shambavi mudra, Prana, and Yoni mudra – these mudras or psychic gestures focus the mind and concentrate the flow of energy in the body.
Shambavi Mudra, for example, is an excellent method of introspection. This mudra stimulates Ajna chakra and generally strengthens vision. These are highly beneficial effects for a person in a state of anxiety.
Mudras, as well as the application of Bandhas (body locks), will help the patient to focus and balance energies in the body. Thus, practicing Mudras are a proper preparation for meditation, a highly beneficial practice against all states of anxiety.
Bandhas – Body Locks
The patient may carefully practice Jalandhara, Moola, and Uddiyana Bandha according to progress and the overall state of mind. As they can initially arouse, people with high blood pressure and heart ailments, as well as colitis or ulcers should avoid these bandhas.
If one can apply them with comfort, however, they have a very beneficial effect on the flow of prana: Moola Bandha directly stimulates Mooladhara Chakra, and Jalandhara Bandha works on Vishuddi.
Yoga Nidra for Anxiety
The most effective, especially if the patient is starting with yoga practices, are meditation, yoga Nidra, and Omkar chanting.
In contrast, meditation usually requires a prior practice to quieten the mind. Yoga Nidra and Omkar chanting are great to prepare the mind for meditation.
Both these practices will have an immediate calming effect on the patient. One can practice Yoga Nidra and Omkar Chanting almost non-stop for initially two days to remove acute anxiety. As there are no contraindications, these are fabulous tools.
Yoga Nidra is psychic sleep working with visualization techniques bringing greater awareness and calm. The vibrational energy of the primordial ‘Om’ (Omkar chanting – A-U-M) is tremendously healing vibrational energy for the whole body and mind. It should be part of any asana practice as well. This practice can bring some spaciousness into the inner cage of anxiety and foster self-acceptance, a key element in overcoming anxiety.
Once the patient becomes proficient in Yoga Nidra, the practice of inner silence (Antar mona) becomes available. Inner calm allows the anxious person to watch the mind without judgment. Non-judgement allows all thoughts to come to the brain and accepting all experiences as internally caused.
Ajapa Ja is also helpful for anxiety. This practice involves the repetition of a mantra. Focusing the mind on recitation and sound redirects effectively the attention from the anxiety trigger.
Shatkarma for Anxiety
These are various cleansing techniques, much helping an anxious mind.
The cleansing techniques remove waste products from the body. But more importantly, they strengthen the mind and increase the resistance of the nervous system.
These techniques include Agnisar (the fire breath – practice 100 strokes total in 3 to 4 rounds), Uddiyana Bandha (5 rounds of each 30 seconds), Jalan Neti (once a week), and Laghoo Shankaprakshalana (once per week). Also, Trataka (candle gazing) and Kunjal offer significant benefits.
Suitable Diet for Anxiety Sufferers
The diet for a patient of anxiety should be healthy food with fewer fats and carbohydrates but with high fibers. The best food is fresh fruits and plenty of vegetables, replenishing the body with ample pranas.
Avoided should be non-vegetarian food and oily and spicy food with too much salt. Also, any refined food, fast food, and preserved food are not beneficial nutrition for the distressed mind.
A healthy diet should support a well-balanced lifestyle aiming at overall body-mind harmony avoiding unnecessary stress.
The naturopathy practicals hot foot bath, steam bath, and mud back can enhance the recovery from acute anxiety.
These practicals are calming, alleviate stress, and help introspection, apart from the benefits for the gross physical body.
Yoga Therapy for Anxiety is Holistic and Empowers the Individual
Yoga therapy offers tangible benefits for all types of anxiety.
A yogic approach shifts the mental emphasis from the external environment to the inner attitude. And yoga nudges the mind from having a fixated egoic perception to a systematic personal transformation.
In April 2009, the Harvard Medical School published an article called ‘Yoga for Anxiety and Depression’ by and large supporting the claims for the beneficial application of yoga therapy to anxiety disorders.
The report cites studies from the University of Utah. Here, researchers showed that yoga significantly modulates the stress response system and increases pain tolerance in patients.
A German study from 2005 showed that 24 women decreased their anxiety scores by 30% over three months.
And in Australia, one randomized controlled study examined the effects of yoga and a breathing program. Participants in the study were disabled Australian Vietnam veterans diagnosed with severe PTSD. After a five day course, their PTSD scores came down from moderate to severe symptoms to mild and moderate.
So, there are strong indications that yoga therapy relieves anxiety disorders. Why then, you might ask, is yoga therapy not more popular for treating anxiety disorders?
One crucial reason perhaps is pharmaceutical lobbies in major industrial countries. Corporations producing medicines don’t necessarily favor yoga therapy — people taking fewer drugs would mean a loss in business.
In this context, a compelling argument for yoga therapy is that it empowers the individual to become her healer.
So let’s conclude on a positive note: yoga therapy for anxiety fosters personal empowerment and individual responsibility. Both are underlying requirements to deal with the environmental and social challenges of the twenty-first century and beyond.