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  • Writer's pictureTheia Jones

Yoga & Anxiety: Silencing the noise

Updated: May 21, 2023

Everything you need to know about turning down the volume on anxiety.

If you have ever suffered from anxiety you will be familiar with mind chatter. Inane and incessant noise that perpetuates every moment of your day. And the more you try to ignore it, the louder it gets.

It's noise about things that haven’t even happened. Things that will probably never happen. And the can make you absolutely miserable. We all experience a regular amount of mind chatter. Our human subconscious likes to keep a dialogue alive about the tens of thousands of impressions it gets every day. From things we see, smell, hear and feel, to our physical responses to things. The subconscious turns all these things into impressions and shapes how we behave in response to different things. Some responses are positive and some are negative.

90,000 thoughts, 1 day

On a regular day we can safely recognise negative reactions and move away from them – acknowledging them as passing thoughts that come and go. This might happen quite frequently in one day. We have around 90,000 thoughts a day and the majority of these are repeats. It’s like flicking through the same 100 TV channels and finding the same programs on repeat. We don’t acknowledge most of these thoughts as they run in the background, in the subconscious, and they are there to help us stay safe.

In a mind that suffers from anxiety, these negative thoughts make themselves known a little more and we have difficulty silencing them. They may start to filter into the conscious mind, and become louder and more vivid. They have a bigger impact on us and can create negative responses to things that haven't happened and may never happen.

Anxiety vs. stress

Anxiety differs from stress. When we're stressed, it's normally a temporary emotional experience. Moderate amounts of stress are typical to the human body. Anxiety is much longer lived and has a significant impact on our cognitive function and how we behave in response to various situations.

Anxiety often accompanies stress. Being exposed to stressful and traumatic events can cause a rapid change in our behaviours and how our brains process information. This can lead to anxiety.

In part one we discussed how anxiety is a natural part of our human emotions and psychology. Anxiety can be moderate and have little harm on our general health – feeling anxious about starting a new job, or butterflies before a first date. It's a form of excitement and mild nervousness. These are typical feelings. But when these feelings become more intense and start to impact us everyday is when we might have an anxiety disorder.

Our brain chemistry is like any other chemistry in the body – a little abnormality may have a huge effect. Atypical chemical activity in the brain has been linked to depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety disorders; particularly when there is familial history of them - but society and environment also play a huge role in the creation of an individual's anxiety.

A sympathetic state

Researchers have identified that anxiety has many effects on the human body. The brain of an anxious person is more susceptible to stress, and the brain will start to prepare the body for a stress response, engaging the sympathetic nervous system. This branch of the nervous system is s key part of our ability to avoid danger and is also known as the 'fight or flight' response. When this system is governing the body, it's usual to experience a set of physical symptoms:

  • Increased heart rate

  • High blood pressure

  • Lung dilation

  • Release of glucose, from the liver, into the blood stream (lowering insulin resistance)

  • Sweating

  • Tense muscles

  • Tightness in the chest

  • Irritable bowel symptoms (like trapped gas, cramping, alternating diarrhoea and constipation).

  • Heartburn

These reactions are designed to quickly remove us from danger. In 2023, we don’t usually need to escape great physical danger. Most of our dangers (or stressors) have an emotional context. Work, money, relationships - all trigger the stress response. But the brain doesn't know the danger isn't physical. The escape process is the same. The brain will cue the body to flee or fight with this stress response. The fundamental function of your brain doesn't have much concept of what year it is – the basic chemistry is the same today as it was 5,000 years ago.

*******These reactions will usually come and go as stress comes and goes – this is “acute” stress - but, in a person with chronic anxiety, these reactions become symptoms. Anxiety disorders cause a person to be in a constant state of stress – this is “chronic” stress. This causes a great imbalance in the body.

A chemical called norepinephrine is involved in onset of anxiety. When norepinephrine is released into the brain, it signals the body to panic. This can cause panic attacks in some people.

Why do we panic?

Panic is a state of frantic activity and concern – rooting from uncontrollable fear. Panic is so strong that it dominates and prevents our ability to think logically and rationally. We replace logic and reason with frantic agitation and the fight or flight response. The purpose of panic is to get us away from danger – pronto. The fight or flight response is engaged but the difference between panic and other stress responses is that it can be “infectious”.

If you walk down a country lane and see a field of sheep, you will notice that virtually all of them are doing the same thing. Munching on grass, climbing on top of logs of wood – typical sheep behaviour! But if something then startles one of them, the others will become startled and the one sheep that originally panicked, causes a domino effect -they will all start to panic. This is a herd behaviour and is commonly associated with sheep, but we do it as well. Our buildings and city streets are, in fact, designed to accommodate for this type of behaviour, during an emergency situation! So, if you suffer from anxiety, you will be more prone to acute stress, your anxiety may be a subsequence of chronic stress and you may also be more prone to panic disorders and having panic attacks.

Chatter, Chatter.

All these symptoms provide a little voice at the back of your head that chatters. The more you try to ignore the voice chattering away at you…the louder it becomes.

After a state of acute stress or panic, the body will regulate itself and come back into a state of balance. It will move from the fight or flight state, back into the rest and digest state: where the parasympathetic nervous system is dominant. When a person suffers form ongoing anxiety, it is not quite that simple. Over time, the cognitions may have changed, which change our behaviour and reactions; and the brain knows this. It will put a person, with heightened anxiety, on red alert – all the time. The severity may differ from person to person, but the red alert is running in the background – collecting new data and impressions form the environment and analysing most things as potentially harmful. It also starts to imagine things that have not even happened or could not happen. This can be incredibly troublesome and impact a person’s day to day life. The brain constantly looking for threats to you, perceiving things as threats which aren’t and conjuring up situations that have not even happened, may all lead to other issues such as paranoia, agoraphobia and insomnia.

If you feel that your anxiety is impacting on your physical health (vomiting, diarreoah, tension headaches, trembling) or is leading to other mental health problems (depression, paranoia, agoraphobia, etc.) please do contact your GP immediately and seek professional medical advice. They will be able to have an initial consultation with you and refer you to a specialist who can help you manage your problems. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a powerful tool in helping people to change their thoughts and behaviours. Follow the link below for more information on how the NHS can help you.

Self Care

If you feel as though you are becoming a little more anxious than what is normal for you (remember, we all have a natural, moderate amount of stress and anxiety!), there are tools at your disposal that are pretty powerful in changing your behaviours, thoughts and reactions.

They all start with you.

Self-care and self-love have been hot topics for some time now – and quite rightly so. We do live in an age where we are under pressure and that pressure comes in at so many angles and from so many sources. Social media, work, friends and even family can be very pressurising. We have a natural human instinct to be the best, to be “perfect” but that does not exist. Striving for excellence and achievement is a good thing if it is channelled the right way. Where we are going wrong is that, if we don’t succeed at something first time, we brand ourselves failures and feel “pressure” to hit the nail dead on the head at the second attempt! Pressure from other people can be very much real but, much of that pressure is what we place on ourselves. This excessive pressurisation is usually impressed upon us by our environment – I am sure you are all familiar with the pressures of social media and the general media! We feel the need to match up to what is fed to us on the television, in magazines and, more recently, on the internet. The rational part of the brain tells us: “It’s not real”. “It’s airbrushed”. “They are using a filter”. But the irrational part of the brain says “You haven’t achieved that…why haven’t you achieved that? You should be achieving that!”

We are programmed to listen to that irrational part because we are trying to protect our evolution – it’s that Neanderthal behaviour again! We want to survive, and part of that survival is outliving everyone else – in rudimentary terms. Of course, in the 21st Century, it is not just about survival of the fittest. It is about excelling in education, getting a well-paid job, getting the nice house, the nice clothes, the nice car…So, the irrational side of the brain will talk to us and place the pressure on us to achieve these things and this is what can cause heightened anxiety in a person.

Yoga as self-care

Putting yourself first, accepting setbacks (we will try to avoid the word failures – nothing is a failure, it is just a temporary set-back) and moving on from them is a triumphant, profound first step to take. Affirmations can be incredibly powerful in helping you to move on from setbacks and encourage you to approach something with an even stronger will, the next time around. Affirmations are positive statements that are repeated several times. Often, a person would look at themselves in the mirror whilst repeating them – that intensifies the experience and cements that you are doing something positive for yourself. The affirmation could be something as simple as:

I am beautiful”

“Everything will be ok”

“I am confident”

“I deserve love”

Repeating the statement as many times as you need to, in order to make your brain start to accept and agree with the statement. Hearing yourself repeating the words – and even watching yourself say the words, is an incredibly powerful tool in changing your thoughts and your behaviours towards yourself. In yoga, Japa is a meditative mantra repetition. Mantras are like affirmations, but they are more like quotes rather than personal statements. The principle of Japa focuses on repetition in order to achieve a meditative state – in a meditative state, we do not hear so much of the “chatter” that occurs in the background of the brain. So, repeating affirmations can be instrumental in helping to silence that chatter and bring the brain back to what it should be focusing on: you, and your general, everyday happiness.

Japa principles also refer to the way that we move – repetition of sequences may also help to settle the chattering mind and help to focus the brain. Surya Namaskar – the Sun Salutation – is fundamental to all schools of yoga and is utilised for its centring properties. It is a set of 12 asana that are performed in a flowing sequence, several times over, with the intention to centre the mind and bring the breath into alignment with the physical movement. The more we repeat the same movements, the more the mind stops wandering and starts to truly focus on what the body is doing. A secondary benefit to repetition of sequences, like the sun salutation, is the alignment of the breath with the movement. Our breath is also incredibly powerful in settling a talkative mind as it gives the mind something to focus on. Ensuring rich breaths are drawn also delivers an adequate dose of oxygen, which is naturally calming for the brain. Therefore, when a person is having a panic attack, or even getting a bit too frustrated, they are told to breathe – to take long deep breaths. To help calm the mind down.

Sama Vritti Pranayama

Another common tactic for calming a person is to encourage them to count. Going slowly, from 1 to 10, often works in calming the mind down. Again, like the breath, the action of counting gives the mind something to focus on – it is a distraction technique – drawing the attention away form the stressor.

When it comes to silencing chatter, as well as diverting the attention away from the stressor, combining the long breaths and the action of counting can be even more powerful. In yoga, we use breathing techniques (pranayama) to help us into a meditative state – to silence chatter and focus the mind, helping to relax the body, which is exactly what we need when we feel a little too anxious or stressed.

Sama Vritti Pranayama is a type of “equalised” breathing. It is often considered a “basic” pranayama technique but I (personally) feel it is the most powerful! Pranayama techniques vary and should be utilised depending on the benefit you want. Sama Vritti is my favourite because it has helped me to overcome my panic disorders, my chronic hyper-anxiety and has helped me to silence the chatter at the back of my brain. For me, it is not basic at all – it is the foundation of every other aspect of my yoga practice.

How to Practice Sama Vritti Pranayama

* Sit in a comfortable position either on the floor – it may be helpful to perch on the edge of a yoga block or folded blanket – or on your sofa/bed, with your back supported. It is important to sit up tall through the spine so, if you are new to pranayama and yoga, sit against a wall or the headboard of the bed/back of the sofa, until the spine is a little stronger.

Place the palms on top of the knees or the thighs. Grow up tall form the sit bones to the crown of the head. Very subtly tuck the chin in toward the throat – to elongate and protect the back of the neck.

*Softly close the eyes. Allow the shoulders to relax down away from the ears – feel some heaviness in the elbows as the shoulder blades slide down the back of the rib cage. Feel the collar bones widening and the heart centre opening.

If you are not ready to close your eyes – if you do not feel comfortable completely closing them – soften the gaze. Allow the eyelids to become a little heavier and gaze past the end of the nose. Maybe softly focusing on something or not focusing on anything at all. Whatever suits you in this moment.

*Relax the muscles of the face: the jaw, the cheeks, the muscles above the eyebrows. *Unclench the teeth and allow the face to completely relax. The eyelids become a little heavier.

*Notice the breath coming in through the nose and going out through the nose. Just naturally rolling into the body and rolling out, like a little wave. Stay here for a few moments, bringing the breath into your conscious awareness.

*When you are ready, begin to deepen the breath. Draw in a big inhalation to the count of 4 – whilst you are drawing the breath in, count to 4 in your head. Try to take the breath down into the abdomen as you draw it in and count.

*When you have counted to 4, retain the breath for a count of 1 and then begin the exhalation – again, exhaling to the count of 4. When you have exhaled to the count of 4, count to 1 and then begin to draw in another inhalation – again, counting to 4.

*Retain the breath in the body for a count of 1 – noticing how full the body is – then begin your exhalation. Exhaling for a count of 4 – completely emptying the body of breath.

*Count to 1 as you notice how empty the body now is. Then begin another round.

*After a few inhalations and exhalations to the count of 4, you may start to notice more capacity in the body – you may be able to draw in a little more breath and extend the count. *Start by increasing in increments of 1: starting with a count of 5, then a count of 6 and work your way up.

*If you wish to stick to a count of 4, that’s absolutely fine too – it is whatever suits you and whatever is right for your body.

*After a while, of performing Sama Vritti Pranayma, you may lose the count altogether. The mind may completely clear and you will be in a meditative state, naturally elongating the breath to fill the body and then empty it. However, this can take practice and, the more you perform Sama Vritti Pranayama, the more you will start to notice the benefits!

*When you are ready to come out of the formal pranayama practice, simply open the eyes nice and slowly. Blink a few times and let go of the count but try to keep the integrity of the breath – if you can help it, try not to rush back into shallow breathing. Circle the wrist a few times. If you are in a cross-legged seat, slowly uncross the legs and extend them out in front of you. Circle the ankles a few times as well.

*Perform a few shoulder rolls and gently stretch the neck form side-to-side, stretching the ear down to the shoulder. Roll the eyes (slowly) from side to side, then up and down.

The body will now be ready to move again. Slowly ease yourself up – only when you are ready.

…and Finally!

The greatest thing about Sama Vritti Pranayama and affirmations is that they can be performed anywhere. Whilst it is useful to look at yourself in a mirror, whilst repeating affirmations, they can also be repeated silently in your head. Imagine a calming, soothing voice, repeating the words slowly. The benefits can be felt at home, at the yoga studio, on the tube…anywhere you like! Give these techniques a go and reap the wonderful benefits that they have to offer in silencing a chattering mind, relaxing the body, calming panic and anxiety and making you more aware of yourself. After all, you deserve it!

Love and Light, Kate

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