Does Yoga and Progressive Relaxation Help Reduce Social Anxiety?

Can exercise and progressive relaxation activities similar to Savasana in yoga change the way we look at the world, and alter our perception so that we view the environment in a less threatening or negative way?  

This was the question asked by a new pilot study, as reported by Canada-based Queens University. Published in PLOS One, the study examined the effects of exercise and relaxation activities like yoga on people with social anxiety disorders.

The study used point-light displays, a depiction of a human that is comprised of a series of dots representing the major joints. Human point-light displays are depth-ambiguous and because of this, an observer looking at the display could see it as either facing towards them or facing away. Researchers have found people who are socially anxious perceive these figures as facing towards them (i.e., the more threatening way) more often.

The aim of the study was to examine whether people would perceive their environment as less threatening after engaging in physical exercise or after doing a relaxation technique that is similar to the breathing exercises in yoga and Savasana at the end of the practice. The researchers found that people who either walked or jogged on a treadmill for 10 minutes perceived the ambiguous figures as facing towards them (the observer) less often than those who simply stood on the treadmill. The same was true when people performed progressive muscle relaxation, similar to Savasana.

Anxious people tend to focus on more threatening things in their environment, according to researchers, and according to some theories could get caught in a vicious cycle: by focusing on anxiety-inducing things they become even more anxious. But results of the study indicate that as little as ten minutes of exercise and yoga relaxation practice may help break this cycle.

According to Mr. Heenan, the pilot study, if it bears out, could help to explain why exercising and relaxation techniques have been successful in treating mood and anxiety disorders in the past.

This research was published in PLOS One, an international, peer-reviewed publication.

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