How Yoga Can Help With Stress and Anxiety

How Yoga Can Help With Stress and Anxiety

From an evolutionary perspective, stress is an essential part of life. Thousands of years ago our ancient ancestors relied on stress to stay alive, taking advantage of the various physiological changes that occur throughout the body to either run away from a threat, or to turn and fight. But the world has changed so much, so quickly, that this primordial design isn’t always suited for modern life.

According to The World Health Organization, 1 in 4 people throughout the world will be affected by a mental disorder at some point in their lives. It’s a significant figure, and the prevalence of stress and anxiety has reached epidemic proportions throughout many part of the world. While the factors attributing to mental health conditions are often varied and complex, they are undoubtedly affected by the world in which we live.

The original origins of stress

Thousands of years ago our response to stress was perfectly suited to the way we lived. In moments of danger, our heart would beat up to three times the normal speed, and the hypothalamus in our brain would send warning messages to our adrenal glands. Valuable energy and resources would be diverted away from non-essential systems (our digestion, immune system, sexual function etc.) to the muscles that needed them most – namely the ones that enabled us to run very fast, or to fight an aggressor.

The issue with the modern world isn’t this evolutionary design, but how often it’s activated, and our repeated exposure to it. Thousands of years ago our bouts of stress would be few and far between (albeit rather intense), today however, it’s likely that we experience them on a daily basis.

Whether it’s emails, work demands, an angry boss, road rage or financial pressures, our body doesn’t know the difference between an angry caveman with a big club, or a deadline for a work. It also doesn’t matter if the threat is real or perceived, the body’s response to stress is the same; and it’s this repeated exposure over a long period of time that can cause a host of physical and psychological issues.

It’s therefore important that we take the time to unwind from the various stressors in our life, and supported by a wealth of scientific research, yoga is increasingly being used to help treat stress and anxiety.

Yoga’s effect on Cortisol and stress

Cortisol is a steroid hormone that’s produced by our adrenal glands, helping to regulate a wide range of processes throughout the body. One of its most important roles however, is during our response to a stressful event.

By controlling the muscles in the walls of our arteries, Cortisol has a direct effect on our cardio-vascular system. In times of stress it helps to boost our blood pressure, while providing the fuel we need (in the form of glucose) during the fight or flight response. It can also affect our central nervous system, influencing both our behaviour, and our mood.

The challenge is that if we’re perpetually stressed, cortisol levels can remain in the blood stream for longer than they should. This not only causes the adrenal glands to swell, but can negatively impact our immune system. The end result is an increased risk of stomach ulcers, increased risk of hypertension, heart disease and other vascular disorders. The excess sugar in our blood stream also increases the likelihood of diabetes. Basically, none of it is good.

Numerous studies have highlighted yoga’s ability to reduce cortisol levels throughout the body. It’s thought that the deep breathing associated with yoga not only helps to increase the flow of oxygen to the brain, but the lowering of our blood pressure and slowing of our heart rate has a natural calming effect.

When combined with the various poses that physically relax our muscles, practicing yoga can help to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. While the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for stimulating activities associated with the flight or fight response, the parasympathetic nervous system can be considered its polar opposite – ultimately responsible for stimulation of “rest-and-digest” activities. It’s during this relaxed state where are bodies can start to repair themselves.

The practical application of yoga in the treatment of stress

It’s for these reasons why healthcare providers like the NHS in the UK, are using yoga as a preventative and curative approach for treating anxiety and stress related conditions. By helping us to recover from the numerous stresses associated with living in the modern world, yoga is being viewed as both an affordable and accessible solution for people suffering from anxiety and stress.

Far from overloading healthcare systems with the need to treat chronic stress related conditions, yoga can ultimately empower us to be a little more self sufficient when working towards our own health and wellbeing.

The anxiety epidemic

It’s more than likely that we all experience the odd moment of anxiety from time to time. The occasional worry about a job, exam, date or public speaking, are all perfectly normal. However people suffering from an anxiety related disorders often experience the effects of anxiety more intensely, and more often.

Within the UK it’s estimated that more than 8 million people suffer some sort of anxiety disorder, and women and people under 35 are especially affected. The symptoms for many can be debilitating, marked by hard-to-control worries, poor sleep, irritability, shortness of breadth and a host of other manifestations.

It is also not uncommon for people suffering from anxiety to have problems dealing with distracting thoughts that have been assigned ‘too much power’. They may find it difficult to distinguish between a thought that’s part of the natural problem solving process, and a recurrent worry that has no tangible resolution or benefit.

While the traditional approach in western medicine for many years was therapy and/or medication, a growing number of doctors are starting to prescribe yoga, largely as a result of increased awareness backed by credible scientific research.

In one of the more notable studies, published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Streeter used magnetic resonance spectroscopy to explain why yoga practitioners report a greater improvement in mood and a decrease in anxiety than people who simply walked for relaxation.

Their study revealed that those who practiced yoga had higher levels of the neurotransmitter gamma-amino butyric acid, or GABA. This is essentially a chemical that acts as our brain’s chief inhibitory neurotransmitter, put simply it inhibits various signals in the brain, rather than promotes them.

It’s thought that an increase in GABA throughout the brain could help with minds that are too ‘busy’, helping to inhibit fear circuits and errant thoughts often associated with anxiety and depression. People with chronic pain, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and depression often express low levels of GABA – a physiological marker that’s helping us to understand how anxiety works.

While Streeter’s findings support the use of yoga when treating stress and anxiety, there are a variety of ways that could help, from meditation, to exercise and healthy eating. However the beauty of yoga is that it addresses both the physical and mental aspects of wellbeing, which if in balance and harmony, can have a tangible and positive impact in a variety of unusual and unexpected ways.

BIO: This post was written by Heather Mason, founder of The Minded Institute – a world leader in the development and implementation of yoga therapy and mindfulness for those with mental health and chronic physical health problems.