IT’S ALL IN YOUR HEAD: THE EFFECTS OF YOGA ON STRESS AND ANXIETY
By Alexandra Nystrom
I believe I am innately a more anxious person than most. Even as a child, I thrived off of the idea that anything short of perfection was failure and failure would have catastrophic consequences, despite the unconditional support from my family. In fact, I would go as far as to attribute my impressive performance in high school to my anxiety. However, anxiety really took over my life after a dear friend of mine passed away.
Trevor was hiking on Santa Cruz Island off the coast of California when he fell to his death. I reacted to his passing as you would imagine any best friend would. However, after a few days, I returned to my daily routine and life seemed to be getting easier again after a few weeks. I was still feeling sad and, at times, in disbelief of the fact that Trevor would never come back, but I felt as though I was on track to recovering from the tragedy. Unfortunately, that feeling of control changed about two months after the incident when I found myself on a plane to Costa Rica to visit a friend. For the first time in my life, I felt terrified of heights. With the exception of a strange and inexplicable fish phobia I had harbored since childhood, I had never really been afraid of anything. So, I decided to go bungee jumping once I arrived in Central America. Forty-eight hours later I plunged eighty meters over a river and, not only did I fail to conquer my new fear of heights, I gained a fear of bridges.
My anxiety plagued my friends and loved ones. I would lash out if anyone pushed me too hard. If something did not go as planned I would come across as a spoiled brat who just wanted things to go her way when in reality I was internally freaking out that a wrench got thrown in the plans. I knew I had to do something if I wanted to save my relationships as well as revive the adventurous soul that still resided within me. I went to therapy, which did help a bit in systematically confronting my phobias. However, what I mostly attribute my healing to is something I stumbled upon due to a physical injury.
I started to go to yoga in order to regain strength after I hurt my shoulder. After a few years of practice, I found myself in India at an ashram going through a teacher certification program. The moving meditation of the poses along with the yogic breath practice lead me to develop a more sound mind and gave me the tools necessary to control my anxiety.
In the West, when we hear “yoga,” we either think of thin women in hundred-dollar, Lululemon pants doing handstands or we think of an hour of stretching lazily and passing it off as a work out. In reality, there are many parts to the ancient practice that often go overlooked. As I said, yoga is a moving meditation, meaning each movement goes along with an inhale or an exhale on which focus should be fixated, causing the yogi to remain in the present moment. The difficulty in yoga is not achieving a posture, but keeping the mind calm and still while in that posture. While ancient beliefs in why yoga works may not hold up in a laboratory, construction on a bridge between yogic healing methods of the East and medical healing methods of the West has recently begun. As of current, legitimate research has been done on various yoga practices and their affects on anxiety, mood, and stress disorders.
A study in 2005 based in Germany examined women who were emotionally distressed, by their own diagnosis. They attended a ninety-minute yoga class three days a week for three months. At the end of the study, “depression scores improved by 50%, anxiety scores 30%, and overall well-being scores by 65%. Initial complaints of headaches, back pain, and poor sleep quality also resolved much more often in the yoga group than in the control group” (Sengupta, 2012).
One less common practice of yoga in the West is called pranayama, or breath control. Prana, in yogic theory, “is the universal principle of energy or force. It is the sum total of all energy that is manifest in the universe, all the forces in nature and powers which are hidden in men and lie everywhere around us” (Yoga Magazine, 2009). Put more simply, it is an energy found in everyone and everything and is responsible for the existence of our world and our own vitality as humans. Pranayama, in yogic terms, “is the perfect control of the life-currents through control of breath” (Yoga Magazine, 2009). In other words, by practicing certain breath patterns, one learns to harness this prana and use it to benefit their body. Of course, scientific theories differ and are still rather undeveloped. Regardless of the science of it, a recent study shows that pranayama has a positive affect on students’ test anxiety.
A current study took 107 postgraduate students in Iran and randomly divided them into experimental and control groups. For one semester, the experimental group was asked at the beginning of class to follow a breathing pattern; they would inhale slowly and as deeply as possible. Once full, they would hold their breath as long as they could while remaining comfortable. When they could no longer hold their breath, they would release, trying to make their exhale longer than their inhale. All this was done visualizing good energy entering the body with each inhale and negative energy exiting with each exhale. They were also told to repeat self-affirming mantras in their heads. 73% of the experimental group had lowered test anxiety, compared to 26.3% of the control group, who simply did not participate in the practice. In addition, those with the lower test anxiety (those who had been practicing pranayama) scored higher on their exams (Azadeh, 2013).
One particular study done in 2008 at the University of Utah even concluded that the yoga practitioners had a higher pain tolerance when compared to a control group. When examined in an MRI machine, yoga practitioners showed less brain activity in the area in which pain is perceived (Sengupta, 2012). The idea behind this is that a stress threshold is positively correlated with a pain threshold. Therefore, yoga somehow affects our ability to take on stress, or rather let it go.
When we feel stressed or anxious, two physiological paths are activated within the parasympathetic nervous system to initiate the fight-or-flight response. One of those is called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal pathway (HPA). When we first feel the effects of a stressor, a chain of events, starting in the area of the brain called the hypothalamus, eventually trigger the release of stress hormones called corticosteroids. While this response is essential to our survival, prolonged release of these hormones can be damaging to our health. It is theorized in one article by the National Institute of health “that yoga has an immediate quieting effect on the HPA axis response to stress. While the precise mechanism of action has not been determined, it has been hypothesized that some yoga exercises cause a shift toward parasympathetic nervous system dominance, possibly via direct vagal stimulation” (Sengupta, 2012).
There are theories that connect with cognitive-behavioral methods of psychology. By means of self-soothing, “yoga appears to modulate stress response systems” which “decreases physiological arousal e.g., reducing heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and easing respiration” (Sengupta, 2012). This theory is suggesting that we may have more control over our sympathetic nervous system than we think. By having a consistent practice in which we regulate our breath and thoughts in times of physical stress, we can long-term regulate our stress response systems.
A common theory amongst yogis has to do with the simple idea of being present. As humans of the modern age, surrounded by technology, to-do lists, and distractions, we are often absorbed in thoughts of the future. Our minds are racing with reminders of what we need to do, where we would rather be, and the wrongful use of the word need in replace of want. In yoga, no matter the branch of practice, you are taught to be present. Rather than thinking of what you want for dinner or replaying that thing your boss passive aggressively mentioned on your way out of the office, you are thinking about the moment you are in by practicing mindfulness. You practice examining how the ground feels beneath your feet and if the time it takes you to inhale matches the time it takes you to exhale. When you focus on your breath in particular, you have no choice but to be present and let worries about the past or future dissipate, if only for a moment. This, according to yogis, is the practice that allows you to be the eye of the hurricane. The world may be chaotic, but that does not mean you have to step out of the calm and join in. You can just you watch the storm pass by. Mindfulness meditation is a method among yogis used to maintain a state of being present and it is gaining scientific backing.
A recent study took ninety-three individuals who fit the DSM-IV criteria for general anxiety disorder and placed them in an eight-week program. One group was placed in an eight-week program called Stress Management Organization. They other group group participated in another eight-week workshop called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Both groups devoted the same amount of time toward their program and included physical practices as well as “homework” and educational components. The focus of the first group was to educate the individuals on the physiology of their anxiety, to offer guidance with redirecting their anxiety, and to offer physical exercises to ease their minds as well. The program lacked any mindfulness component. The second group was based around weekly classes of breath-awareness, body scan meditation, and a gentle yoga sequence, aiming to “cultivate awareness of internal present- moment experiences with an accepting, non-judgmental stance” (Hoge, 2013). This practice taught the group to not dwell on thoughts or sensations for long, but rather observe them as one would observe a cloud in the sky, letting it pass by without trying to control or hold onto it. After eight weeks, it was concluded by numerous standardized tests that the individuals within the mindfulness group experienced a much greater reduction in anxiety than those in the stress management group.
In order for yoga to gain accreditation by the medical and psychology communities, more research needs to be done. However, considering trends of funding research on a “medicine” that is free, that accreditation may be slow coming. In the meantime I would urge anyone feeling the weight of anxiety or stress to take the time to find a good teacher and a steady practice. Any success story can help fuel the fire to urge commencement or continuation of scientific research.
Hoge, Elizabeth. “Randomized Controlled Trial of Mindfulness Meditation for Generalized Anxiety Disorder: Effects on Anxiety and Stress Reactivity.” National Institute of Health. Apr. 2013. Web. 20 Nov. 2014. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3772979/
Nemati, Azadeh. “Abstract.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 3 July 2013. Web. 28 Nov. 2014. http://www.ncbi.nlm. nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3573544/
Sengupta, Pallav. “Health Impacts of Yoga and Pranayama: A State-of-the-Art Review.” National Institute of Health. July 2012. 14 October 2014. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih. gov/pmc/articles/PMC3415184/
“Understanding the Stress Response.” Harvard Health Publications. Harvard Medical School, Mar. 2011. Web. 03 Dec. 2014. http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/ Harvard_Mental_Health_Letter/2011/March/understanding-the-stress-response
“What is Prana?” Yoga Magazine. Bihar School of Yoga, Aug. 2009. Web. 03 Dec. 2014. http://www.yogamag.net/archives/2009/haug09/pranay.shtml