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Yoga Counteracts Stress & Anxiety

27 March 2014

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) affects 6.8 million adults, (3.1% of the U.S. population), in any given year, with women being twice as likely to be affected; this, according to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA). The exact cause of GAD is elusive but there is plenty of evidence that both biological factors and life experiences, especially the stressful ones, are major contributors. And, GAD is only one of a variety of anxiety-induced diseases and disorders defined by the American Psychological Association, which include “Panic Disorder” & Agoraphobia and an exhaustive list of other phobias such as Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Social Anxiety Disorder and common depression. Together these disorders account for many more millions of Americans’ being treated each year placing an untold burden (and expense) on the healthcare system. Fortunately there is a treatment that is found effective for almost every single disorder listed and that is yoga practice.

The human nervous system is responsible for regulating reactions to perceived stress. It can be divided into two parts; the Central Nervous System (composed of the brain and spinal cord nerves), and the Peripheral Nervous System which includes the autonomic nervous system which we can look to specifically for stress regulation. This autonomic nervous system’s job is to run all the involuntary functions of the body (breathing, heart rate, digestion, endocrine (hormonal) release, etc.). We don’t have to think about these things the body just does them. The autonomic nervous system is further broken down into the Sympathetic Nervous System (which initiates the stress response), and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (which induces the relaxation response).

Opposite the relaxation response is the ‘fight or flight’ response (aka, hyper-arousal, or acute stress response). This response is left over from our ancestral past when we had to use huge amounts of adrenaline in times of real danger, like when we were about to be eaten dinosaur. In more modern times, this same response is often activated with any “perceived” threat, either real or imagined. As soon as the brain receives a signal that there is some “perceived” danger, it begins releasing a series of chemicals like a chain reaction. These chemicals can negatively affect every organ and system in the body, especially when they’re not vital to our survival, and subsequently be the cause of many disorders and diseases.

Back to Yoga practice; outlined in many yogic texts are some very simple tools that can be used to counteract these chain reactions, and modern science is beginning to mimic these teachings that were once found only in ancient and esoteric texts. The 1st of these tools is to create a quiet environment, both inside and out. There’s way too much to distract us from what is going on in our bodies these days, from television to video games, traffic, work demands, computers and cell phones and the list goes on and on. When we consciously chose to create an environment of stillness and peace, then we have taken the first step toward combating stress, anxiety and all the resulting disorders. According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (Raja Yoga), creating this type of environment can be form of meditation in and of itself.

When our attention is taken away from distractions (including thoughts) we are able to focus on one singular thing and integrate “diffused” attention into a calm, steady one-pointedness that helps us find our natural balance. Once the mind has focused on one point (through concentration), the state of meditation can be entered into with ease. Whenever our mental state has become calm, the physiological responses of the body spontaneously follow, and the chain of stressful reactions is broken and we are empowered to choose our response instead of reacting to it unconsciously.

Over the centuries many yoga teachers and gurus have recommended the practice of developing a sort of “objective” state of mind, often referred to as developing a “witness” mentality. As we develop this witnessing self, we can undermine anxiety when it arises, plus we can consciously create a different chain reaction within the body/mind, one that is positive and calming. There are certain brain neurotransmitters (like endorphins) that have anti-anxiety and anti-depressant effects, and as we consciously build those neural responses to different stimuli, we eventually reach a point where nothing can faze us. Regardless of how insane the world is, we stay balanced. This is the message of all the ancient sages of the yogic tradition.

Of related interest, click on: Managing Anxiety with Pratipaksha Bhavana

*Rae Indigo is ERYT500

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