Yoga for Anxiety: Calm Your Stress Response

Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Updated: 
October 09, 2021

From as early as I can recall, the idea of standing up in front of a group of people has terrified me. As a child, I loved the idea of acting but the reality of getting up on the stage was overwhelming. I remember wanting to shrink so small to make myself disappear. I know I am not alone. Today I routinely teach classes and offer presentations without the anxiety that once ruled my life. And, as a clinical psychologist and yoga teacher, I focus on the tools that can help others do the same. Yoga for anxiety brings the power of change to your life.
 
“Growth and change often require exploring the edges of our comfort zones and challenging ourselves to step into unfamiliar territory. Yoga for anxiety guides you to harness the power of your thoughts, works directly with your body, and helps you to face your fears. With the right support, you may just discover that you are stronger and more capable than you imagined.” — Dr. Arielle Schwartz

The Power of Our Thoughts

group of women meditating in lotus pose at yoga studio practicing Jnana Mudra and Meditation

Our thoughts powerfully impact our lives. This is not a new idea and like me, perhaps you were first introduced to the power of positive thinking by “The Little Engine that Could” who huffed and puffed his way over the mountain repeating, “I think I can, I think I can.” Truth be told, we cannot always predict success. However, the likelihood of a positive outcome greatly increases when we change our thinking from “I can’t” to “I will try.”

Psychotherapy interventions from cognitive behavioral therapy, support the idea that changing negative thoughts into those that are more helpful and supportive. Clients are asked to keep track of thoughts in a journal and to challenge irrational beliefs, replacing them with more beneficial thoughts. For example, when you say, “this will never work,” “what’s wrong with me,” or “I’m worthless” you reinforce self-limiting beliefs and painful emotions. Whereas, saying “It’s okay to be nervous,” “remember to breathe,” or “most people will accept me if I make mistakes” is likely to create a greater sense of possibility and positivity.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, a major text in yogic philosophy, also emphasizes observation of our thoughts in order to develop “clear perception.” The Sanskrit word klesha translates as “trouble maker” and refers to our mental misperceptions and misunderstandings. We work with them through increasing self-observation and labeling our thoughts as useful or not useful. It is important to note that we are not judging our thoughts as “good” or “bad.” We simply recognize that there are thoughts that create greater ease and those that create more distress.

Yoga for Anxiety

Senior woman practicing yoga at home, making Alternate Nostril Breathing exercise, nadi shodhana pranayama pose

Somatic (body-centered) psychology proposes that a healthy nervous system is one that oscillates naturally and freely between active (sympathetic nervous system) states and relaxed (parasympathetic nervous system) states. Anxiety tends to occur when we are stuck in a sympathetic nervous system response. In short, a perceived threat triggers a release of cortisol such as adrenaline into your bloodstream, facilitating a fight/flight response. This response continues after the stimulus is gone.
 
If you, too, have experienced anxiety then you know well the accompanying physical sensations. There are usually some variations of quickened breathing, racing heartbeat, and sweaty palms. In addition to working with the mind, we also can directly intervene with the body in moments of anxiety or panic. Yoga for anxiety offers practices such as deep relaxation (yoga nidra) or conscious breathing (pranayama) which are powerful tools for calming oneself during surges of panic.

What Is Yoga for Anxiety? 

Beautiful woman doing yoga exercise for rest and restore lying in Child Pose, Balasana Posture after practice

Yoga for anxiety is essentially a somatic tool to work with feelings of worry, nervousness, or panic. Yoga offers opportunities to observe the body in both active and resting states. In challenging postures or extended holds, such as Warrior Poses (Virabhadrasana) or backbends, the sympathetic nervous system activates by fueling your body with the energy needed to sustain action. 
 
In resting poses, such as Child’s Pose (Balasana) or Relaxation Pose (Savasana), the stillness allows you to feel your heartbeat and breath begin to slow down again. You can gain tolerance of a broader range of somatic sensations and reclaim a sense of choice to create more alertness or calm down at will.

Yoga for Anxiety: Yoga Practice, Not Yoga Perfect

Healthy lifestyle concept - group of people doing cobra pose on mats at studio.

A common cause of anxiety is the need to be perfect. As you step on your yoga mat, remind yourself that you are engaging in yoga practice, not yoga perfect. Each practice is an opportunity to explore your mind and body and to refine your awareness in one small way.

Now, when I step in front of a class or audience for a presentation I imagine my yoga mat beneath me and remind myself that I have permission to take risks, make mistakes, and to learn in the process. I have discovered that my need to be flawless actually inadvertently distances me from my audience. However, my anxiety is greatly reduced when I show up humble and imperfect, relating to others from common ground. We are all in this imperfect, human experience together.

Yoga for Anxiety Off the Mat

Eventually, we have to take our learning off the yoga mat and into our lives. One well-researched therapeutic approach to working with anxiety is exposure therapy in which you challenge yourself to engage in the feared activity with sufficient support to have a positive experience. Ideally, you will recognize are stronger and more capable than you previously realized. In the words of T. S. Eliot, “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”

You are Not Alone

Senior mature man holding hand of beloved middle aged wife.couple enjoys time together, expressing love, affection and support.

Anxiety and panic are common reasons clients come into therapy. I have been working with anxiety (my own and others) for many years. My aim in sharing my story is to encourage you to seek support. Anxiety can lead to shame that can interfere with reaching out. Asking for help can often be the hardest step. You do not need to continue to suffer and you do not need to walk the healing path alone.

 

Susi Hately, Yoga Therapist, Yoga U Presenter, Yoga for Plantar Fasciitis

 

Reprinted with permission from Dr. Arielle Schwartz.com

Dr. Arielle Schwartz, yoga therapist, developed Resilience-Informed Therapy

Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. She is also the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology, mindfulness-based therapies, and time-tested                                                                             relational psychotherapy.