I will never forget being in a movie theater my junior year of high school. I was with a boy I was crazy about, and desperately trying to connect with and impress him. But rather than sitting by his side, my body and my mind betrayed me, and I was forced to flee the theater. I spent the next 30 minutes pacing in the back hallway of the theater, overwhelmed by a paralyzing anxiety that would come to haunt me for years. It would keep me awake at night. It would make me feel crazy. It wouldn’t allow me to eat. It bring tears to my eyes on the track. It would criple me on the stage. It would rob me of happiness and joy. It would mark my life with solitude rather than relationship. It would fill me with sadness and anger. It would plague me with a me fear of living.
The research being done regarding the drastic increase of suffering caused by anxiety in american youth and adults alike is staggering. According to studies done by the American College Health Association in 2016, 62% of undergraduate students reported “overwhelming anxiety,” up 12% from 2011 (Denizen-Lewis, 2017). Similarly, the National Institute of Mental Health found through their studies that 38% of teenage girls and 26% of teenage boys have anxiety disorders (Rosen, 2017). The Anxiety and Depression Association of America claims that Anxiety Disorders are affecting 40 million adults in the United States ages 18 or older, or 18.1% of the population every year (AADA, 2017).
What is happening? There are many different beliefs and ideas as to the root cause of these startling numbers. Social media. Fast-paced living. Lack of “time.” Smart phones. Too much pressure. Achievement based societies. Electronics. And the list goes on.
So what do we do? There are many different schools of thought as to how best to treat anxiety. Psychotherapies: exposure therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, supportive-expressive therapy, psychodynamic psychotherapy, etc… Or there is medication: SSRIs (Celexa, Lexapro, Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft…), SNRIs (Cymbalta, Effexor…), Antihistamines, Anticonvulsants, Benzodiazepines, etc… (Goldberg, 2017).
And there is yoga.
Now I am not one to judge the way in which a person goes about healing, surviving, or finding relief from their suffering. I believe that each person is different, and each person deserves the autonomy and freedom to discover and define their own path. If medication works best, take it (I do!). If therapy offers relief, go (I’ve been in therapy the majority of my life!). But if you have the time, also try yoga. Perhaps it will work better. Or maybe a mix of the three could be best.
In the words of Jenny Taitz, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at The American Institute for Cognitive Therapy in New York City, “Anxiety is essentially worrying about the future, about bad things that haven’t happened yet and probably won’t” (2015). Others define anxiety more simply: an overactive brain; a hypersensitive fight or flight response (Bailey, 2016). So how can yoga help?
On a basic level, meditation can help calm an overactive mind. Anxiety is often characterized by incessant thoughts about the future, therefore anything that brings the mind back to the present moment is helpful. By focusing on the feelings inside the body in a particular pose, or focusing on the breath, the mind remains in the present moment, creating a healthy emotional distance from distressing thoughts.
According to research at Wake Forest School of Medicine, 20 minutes of mindfulness meditation activates the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that combats worry), and increases the anterior cingulate cortex (the area that governs thinking and emotion), allowing rational thought to displace worry (Graves, 2015). In this same study, participants reported levels of worry dropping by 39%. Fidel Zeiden, PhD, the study’s lead author and director of neuroscience research states, “During mindfulness meditation, your brain is getting practice at controlling your reactions, so if you meditate often enough, you become better at controlling your reactions during your everyday life” (2015). Other research done by Harvard Medical school shows that after an hour of yoga, there is a significant increase in the levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, in the brain. GABA is a calming neurotransmitter associated with neuronal receptors targeted by the anti-anxiety benzodiazepines (Graves, 2015).
In addition to brain level changes, yoga offers skills that aid in combatting anxiety. By lowering the baseline level of emotional arousal through regular practice, yoga teaches the brain to meet worried thoughts with presence, curiosity and patience rather than fearful reactivity (Graves, 2015).
And this is just the beginning.
I wish I could say that I now have all the answers. I wish I could tell you that I no longer suffer, isolate, or become overwhelmed by a fear of failure. I wish I could say that anxiety no longer keeps me up at night, or brings tears to me eyes. But I can’t. What I can say, however, is that I now have the tools to push through it. I now have the tools to keep that little monster, that often felt so so very big, from holding me back. Perhaps I shouldn’t give yoga ALL of the credit (there have been many moving parts), but I will give it a LARGE amount.
AADA (Ed.). (2017, August). Facts & Statistics. Retrieved October 18, 2017, from https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics
Bailey, E. (2017, April 11). What is “Fight or Flight” and How Does it Relate to Anxiety? – Causes – Anxiety | HealthCentral. Retrieved October 18, 2017, from https://www.healthcentral.com/article/what-is-fight-or-flight-and-how-does-it-relate-to-anxiety
Denizet-lewis, B. (2017, October 11). Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Severe Anxiety? Retrieved October 18, 2017, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/11/magazine/why-are-more-american-teenagers-than-ever-suffering-from-severe-anxiety.html
Graves, G. (2015, July 29). How Yoga Calms Anxiety Holistically. Retrieved October 18, 2017, from https://www.yogajournal.com/lifestyle/how-yoga-calms-anxiety-holistically
Goldberg, J. (Ed.). (2017). Understanding Generalized Anxiety Disorder — Diagnosis and Treatment. Retrieved October 18, 2017, from https://www.webmd.com/anxiety-panic/guide/understanding-anxiety-treatment#2
Rosen, L. (2017, June 18). The Anxiety Epidemic. Retrieved October 18, 2017, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/rewired-the-psychology-technology/201706/the-anxiety-epidemic