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  • Writer's pictureTheia Jones

Yoga and Anxiety

Updated: May 17, 2023

What you need to know about managing anxiety through your yoga practice.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is an unpleasant part of our lives and, put simply, is a continuous feeling that encourages us to imagine that situations are worse than they actually are or than they actually could be. In the 21st century, cases of anxiety are most commonly linked to money, work and relationships; with anxiety caused by social media on the up. Anxiety differs form stress in that it is continuous, whereas stress can come and go intermittently. Anxiety can prevent us from confronting things in our life that cause fear and worry - we imagine that the confrontation will cause catastrophic situations that are irreparable. Some cases of anxiety can be linked to a traumatic incident, powerful life events (divorce, the death of a loved one), multiple stressors experienced at one time but, more often than not, there is no one identifiable root cause of someone's anxiety. It is a natural part of our psychology and can develop like the rest of our emotions. Anxiety can become a learnt behaviour that we develop over time, rather than a behaviour that we are just born with.

Anxiety and the Body

Even though anxiety is an emotional and psychological occurrence, it has a physical presence too. The body works in tandem with the brain - they feed messages backward and forward to each other all day long. These messages affect how we move, speak, our heart rate, the hormones we produce, the levels of salts and our electrolytes in our bloodstream...they control everything. These messages are sent as signals via the nervous system. However, we don't jsut have one nervous system dedicated to governing our entire body! What a job that would be! Like any well structured corporation, the nervous system is subdivided into the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system.

To keep things simple, the CNS (Central Nervous System) consists of the brain and spinal column. It contains the majority of the nervous system and it controls thoughts, movements, emotions and our breathing, heart rate, some hormone secretion, homeostatic functions and much more. The other half of the nervous system is the PNS - the Peripheral Nervous System - which refers to any part of the nervous system outside of the CNS. The PNS is amazing in that it has the ability of regeneration - it can regrow cells, whereas the CNS cannot, but it is also prone to toxicity and disease because it is not protected like the CNS is. The main function of the PNS is to connect the CNS to the limbs and organs - like a relay between the brain, spine and the rest of the body. Within these categories we have the Autonomic Nervous System - which governs everything that we don't think about: the heart beating, the uterus contracting - we don't consciously move them. It is an automatic process. We also have the Somatic nervous system, which refers to things that we do consciously control: moving our arms and legs, speaking, etc.

The nervous system is then further split into 2 categories: the Parasympathetic Nervous System and the Sympathetic Nervous System. The Parasympathetic Nervous System is also referred to as the "Rest & Digest" phase - it slows the heart rate, constricts the pupils, stimulates the digestive system and puts us in a relaxed state - and the Sympathetic Nervous System does the opposite - it is known as "Fight or Flight" - putting us in an hyper-alert state with an increased heart-rate, dilated pupils, the release of adrenaline and glucose into the blood stream, lowers immunity and temporarily inhibits the bowels and stomach, bringing our digestion to a halt.

When we are anxious, we deploy the Sympathetic Nervous System and our bodies move into this phase that is designed to help us move out of dangerous and stressful situations very quickly - it is one of the inherent, Neanderthal reactions that is deeply sewn into our DNA. It is natural for us to occasionally be in the "fight or flight" phase, and that does not pose so much threat to our health, but, being in this phase for prolonged periods of time can cause physiological issues.

When we are in this state of physical stress, the body will depress certain bodily systems (such as immunity and digestion) in favour of systems (such as respiration and metabolism) that it deems more important to the situation. Depressing these systems long term can cause issues such as IBS and the recurrence of viruses and infections as the immunity is weakened. Remember, when we are trying to hunt or forage for food and a hungry lion claps eyes on us...our body's don't want to spend energy digesting food or sending white blood cells around the body looking for foreign invaders - the brain and the body want you to get as far away from that lion, as quickly as possible!

Managing your Anxiety

Although anxiety is a naturally occurring emotion, as with anything, it can develop into a problem. A low-level of anxiety (e.g. before boarding a flight, or going on a long journey) is usually not an issue; it comes on a little stronger when we are in that situation and resides at the back of the mind, but generally does not impact day to day life. When anxiety does start to impact day to day life, it becomes a disorder. The level of anxiety will attract different medical and therapeutic treatments (such as medicines, cognitive behavioural therapy) - if you are concerned about anxiety impacting your daily life, it is always best to visit your GP and seek professional medical advice; particularly if you are experiencing physical symptoms, such as nausea, hyperventilation, dizziness, heart palpitations and an increased heart-rate.

Often, GP's will refer patients to mental health services but they will also make recommendations on how to manage your anxiety yourself. This usually shines a light on nutrition, exercise and leisure activities.

Anxiety and the Diet

If you do need to visit your GP regarding anxiety, the advice you receive will largely link to 'serotonin'. This is known as our "happy" hormone, found in our nerve cells and effects how they send their "signals" to each other. Sometimes the signals are interrupted and have to take a detour, taking a little longer to do their relay, which can cause issues such as anxiety and depression.

Serotonin is involved in mood regulation, wound healing and bone health. It is a bi-product of an amino acid (amino acids are the building blocks of proteins) called 'Tryptophan'. Low-levels of tryptophan can contribute to sleep issues, low mood and feelings of anxiety. Serotonin is largely produced in the bowel so ensuring you are eating adequate amount of fibre (to keep things moving...) is vital. The RDA for women is 25g and 38g for men. However, most of us are only eating around half the RDA. All fruits and vegetables, wholegrains (oats, rice and whole wheat pasta), nuts, seeds, legumes and pulses have high amounts of fibre. Even popcorn and 70-95% dark chocolate have fibre - just opt for plain popcorn and changing your diet shouldn't seem so difficult!

Pears: 5.5g in a medium sized pear

Strawberries: 2g per 100g

Avocados: 6.7g per 100g

Apples: 4.4g in a medium sozed apple

Raspberries: 2.6g per 100g

Lentils: 7.9g per 100g

Kidney Beans: 6.4g per 100g

Quinoa: 2.8g per 100g

Oats: 10.6g per 100g

Dark Chocolate: 10.9g per 100g

As well as keeping the gut regular, to promote serotonin production and absorption, tryptophan may be mentioned by your GP. As tryptophan produces serotonin, it is important to ensure that you are not deficient in this super important amino acid.

Tryptophan is more commonly known for its contribution to regulating sleep, which is important in regulating mood and helping to ease feelings like anxiety. Tryptophan cannot be made by the body so we have to consume it through our diet. Plant sources of tryptophan include:

Dark green leafy vegetables: Spinach, kale, chard, cabbage, beet greens are all good sources of tryptophan.

Seeds: Pumpkin, sunflower, hemp, chia - my Theia Oat Breakfast Bars contain pumpkin seeds, click here for the recipe!

Soy Products: Tofu, tempeh, soy milk, yoghurt and even soy sauce will help increase tryptophan levels in the body.

Nuts: Almonds, cashews, brazil nuts, peanuts (try to eat plain, unsalted peanuts), walnuts, macadamias...the list goes on! All are good sources of plant-based protein and sources of tryptophan.

N.B. If you are not plant-based, good sources of tryptophan include turkey, salmon and eggs - turkey, in particular, is a rich source of this serotonin producing amino acid.

As well as eating a diet rich in fibre and protein (to keep tryptophan topped up), it is important to eat enough - anxiety and other emotional issues can cause disruption to appetite and eating patterns, so try to eat things that you enjoy and, if it helps, little and often. Under-eating will only exacerbate anxiety and mood, so try to keep adequate nutrition. Keep yourself hydrated as dehydration can wreak havoc with the brain and how it functions and try to steer clear of alcohol and other substances that may alter regular brain chemistry.

Eating a well balanced diet that is rich in healthy fats, protein, complex carbohydrates, minerals and vitamins, is the first step in managing anxiety and will help to keep the chemistry side of things in check!

Yoga and Anxiety

It is becoming more and more commonplace for GP's and other health professionals to "prescribe" yoga to patients whom exhibit symptoms of anxiety disorder and other mental health issues. Exercise in general releases an array of hormones which help to elevate mood, improve sleep, regulate homeostasis and generally keep the body and mind in good working order. Quite a few issues can be put to rights when pounding away on a treadmill! However, balance is the key to using exercise as a therapy for anxiety. Exercise can become addictive due to the hormones that it releases (the term "runner's high" is often used), so ensuring you exercise in moderation and with variety is key. You may think this sounds complicated, but it is much easier than you think! A brisk 30 minute walk during your lunch hour, followed by 20 minutes of yoga and some bed-time breathing exercises is an easy way to get variety in your daily activity - as with the nutrition, little and often can be key as you will get consistency in hormone production and release - so you won't overwhelm your system and then experience a come-down afterwards. Making small changes often leads to big improvements.

Yoga could be one of those small changes that you make - introducing this wonderful practice into your life. Most people start a yoga practice either as a way to combat stress and anxiety or as a way to getting fit and healthy and then they end up going down a different path altogether - a path of self exploration and introspection. Yoga is an all encompassing philosophical system which has the exercise portion (the asana practice) but also looks at diet, community involvement, charitable endeavours and devotion to others, as well as self-care and how carry ourselves through this life.

In regards to the physical practice of yoga, where we flow through sequences or hold postures for a certain amount of time, there is an array of "styles" to choose from.

Yin Yoga: In this practice, postures are held for an extended period of time - often between 3 and 5 minutes. The postures ('asanas') are predominantly mat based and work deep into the body's tissues. Yin Yoga is calming and is considered "passive" - the body is unstimulated - making it an excellent class if you are suffering from anxiety that is causing tension, headaches and IBS. It can also help to slow the heart-rate if that is symptomatic with anxiety.

Hatha Yoga: If your imagination is running wild and you find yourself fantasising about how situations could become catastrophic, before anything has even happened, then Hatha yoga would be the class of choice for you. Hatha is the foundation on which all yoga is based. Ina typical Hatha class you would focus on breath work (Pranayama), physical postures held for a period of time and meditation at the end. The combination of holding physical postures - which may prove challenging - and mediation, help to calm and focus the mind; slowing down the thought process and retraining the brain, bringing out of "over-drive".

Vinyasa Yoga or Ashtanga Yoga: Usually, one would need some experience of yoga before attending a vinyasa or ashtanga class, as they tend to be a little faster paced and include more challenging postures. Both encourage the practitioner to flow form one posture to the next, in a sequence, synchronising the movement with the breath. This type of synchronicity and repetition in sequences has a meditative effect and can be excellent for low-grade anxiety: if you feel like you need ot blow off some steam and have an hour of more rigorous movement to clear your head, this type of class is for you. You may see these classes referred to as Power Yoga, Vinyasa Yoga or Ashtanga Yoga, but they are all relatively similar and based on a similar principle.

Yoga works to combat anxiety, and other mood disorders, by engaging the Parasympathetic nervous system - the "rest and digest" phase - that we learnt about a few moments ago. Yoga helps us to reduce a heightened stress-response, thus, reducing anxiety, stress and the physical symptoms that come with them. Through stabilising the mind, conscious control of the body and the breath, yoga helps to reduce heart rate, lower blood pressure, eases respiration and stimulates digestion. New evidence is showing that yoga can also help with the variability of heart rate, which indicates the body's ability to respond to stress more flexibly. Yoga also helps us to form a relationship with our breath and bring it under our conscious control. Bringing breath (and oxygen) into the body correctly, in adequate amounts, will have a calming effect on both body and mind.

Yoga helps us to build a better relationship with ourselves - it helps us to start conversations deep within ourselves - within our hearts and our souls - and teaches us to listen to what these parts of us are telling us on a daily basis. Often, we live our lives in auto pilot - going through the motions, adhering to social conventions and serving other people in a way that does not benefit us: worrying about what we look like to other people, other people's opinions of us, what we can do to get people to like us, without ever really establishing what we think of ourselves first. Building a relationship with yourself will reap benefits for you in every aspect of your life and will be conducive in helping to liberate you from anxiety and stress.

This article is not intended as medical advice and should not replace any advice from a medical professional. If you are worried about your anxiety and stress levels, or those of anyone else, please speak to a qualified GP and obtain medical advice.


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