I’ve been asked a question so many times that I wanted to state the answer very clearly right here: Yes. Yoga can help anxiety.
For a great deal of my life, I found myself plagued by anxiety and by panic attacks that would quite literally leave me gasping for breath, feeling like I might faint or vomit, and worrying that I would never ever feel normal again.
(You can read my description of what a panic attack felt like right here)
I never took any pharmaceutical medication for it, mostly because the warnings scared me; almost everything that they warned as a side effect was something that I felt when a panic attack crept up on me. I didn’t want to pay a lot of money for a pill that would just cause the same symptoms I already had for free.
I tried Kava capsules but they only worked occasionally. I tried (and still sometimes use) Rescue Remedy and it worked beautifully but I had to make sure I always had it on me; on top of that it wasn’t preventative, it only works when I’m already having an anxiety attack. I tried avoidance of places that were most likely to cause an attack, like banks, grocery stores, malls, and churches or really any place where I couldn’t escape easily, but that gets tricky and really limits the ability to live life.
Fear is like those Escher staircases. They lead you nowhere, but you can’t seem to get off.
After years of suffering, I tried yoga and to my shock it worked. I’m not 100% cured, but anxiety no longer controls me. I often joke that yoga saved my life. But then when I look at the ways that I’ve changed and the way I can just LIVE again, I’m not so sure that it’s a joke after all. Here’s how it helped me.
It’s true: Yoga can help your anxiety.
1. It gave my body a physical release.
In panic mode, the worst thing for me was to sit and try to ride it out. My mantra (before I even knew what a mantra was!) was always, “don’t stop, keep moving, don’t stop…” I figured as long as I kept moving I wasn’t going to faint.
Practicing the asana (posture) side of yoga gives me a physical release for built-up tension in my body. The more I move and physically release that energy, the easier it is for me to cope or avoid anxiety altogether.
2. It taught me to breathe.
That always sounds funny, doesn’t it? “Don’t you just do that anyway?” Well, not quite. Of course I knew how to breathe, it’s something we’re born able to do. Yoga, though, taught me the magic of breathing in a way that slows down that panic-pounding heart rate and makes me calm. Whether it’s alternate nostril breathing (practically an instant panic-stopper) or just remembering to breathe fully, slowly, and into my belly instead of my chest, yoga breathing has brought me down from the ledge more times than I can count.
3. It taught me to let go.
Anxiety forced me to try to find control. I have to sit near an exit. I need to know where the bathrooms are. I can’t sit in the middle of the row because I need to be able to get out. It’s exhausting. Luckily, yoga has taught me that control is a myth and in letting go of that control, I find it easier to cope with anxiety. I still don’t like to sit in the middle of a row but I can. I let go every time I’m on the mat and it makes it possible to let go in the rest of the world too.
4. It taught me to accept without judgment.
Yoga is supposed to be all about acceptance and not competing, not judging – not myself or others. In that acceptance without judgment, I learned a powerful way to deal with anxiety. When I fought my panic it was like losing the war. With yoga, I learned to accept anxiety when I feel it creeping in. I acknowledge its presence, observe it as an outsider, and I don’t judge it as being something bad. It just is. Amazingly, in accepting it without fighting it, it seems to lose steam and doesn’t affect me as much or for as long.
5. It taught me to quiet my mind.
With yoga came meditation. I blew that part off for a long time, deeming it too hard to shut my brain up. Even Savasana, the final resting pose was difficult as my mind would immediately start to chatter away at me. Finally I started taking steps to include it too.
It’s not perfect, my meditation is still a work in progress, but it’s getting there, and in that occasional quiet I’m able to still myself enough that anxiety doesn’t come knocking as often. When it does, I use my meditation techniques in conjunction with the breathing and the accepting and it usually beats a hasty retreat.
I’ve been using a free app called Insight Timer and it’s helped me to make meditation a daily practice whether it’s for five minutes or 20 minutes. It makes a huge difference.
Anxiety can be frightening, the first time or 700th time. My yoga practice has changed me so that it doesn’t happen as frequently now. When it does, it’s no longer terrifying. It’s just that annoying neighbor that tries to stop in and visit at inopportune moments once in a blue moon.
My life is so much more joyful without anxiety and I credit yoga so much for that.
Do you deal with anxiety? Have you ever had a panic attack? Leave me a comment telling me what has helped you to deal!