In a world driven by “hustle,” constant global connection, and overwhelming sensation stimulation, it is no wonder that stress and anxiety have become so prevalent in our society. For ways to reduce yours, let’s talk what stress really is, how you can counter it, and what type of yoga is best with anxiety.
Defining what stress and anxiety really are (and why we constantly deal with them)
Hans Selye, an endocrinologist who has been called the father of stress research, said, “Stress is a biological term which refers to the consequences of the failure of a human or animal to respond appropriately to emotional or physical threats to the organism, whether actual or imagined. It includes a state of alarm and adrenaline production, short-term resistance as a coping mechanism, and exhaustion.”
One of the key takeaways from Seyle’s definition is: stress responses happen due to real or imagined events. This means you can think about a future stressful event or past memory, and your body will still have the exact same reaction as if it were happening in real time. So, if you’re not mindfully living in the present moment, you might constantly experience stress and its symptoms. You could be chronically irritable, suffer with tight muscles, and lose focus. Or, have headaches, sweat, or see your heart rate go up.
It’s important to note that there are two types of stress. Think of one as good stress—called eustress. We function well with a healthy amount of stress, like working out or anticipating an exciting event or moment. But when our stress levels are out of balance, it becomes problematic. In this case, it’s bad stress, or distress. Distress leads to physical and mental impairments. When you get stuck in a chronic loop of it, the stress becomes anxiety (usually defined as consistent for 6 or more months).
3 things that happen when our bodies undergo stress and anxiety
Many healthcare providers and researchers consider stress to be one of the underlying causes for almost all diseases. This is because three things happen when our bodies experience stress:
Alarm, or stage 1: Activation of the sympathetic nervous system and secretion of cortisol (stress hormone).
Resistance, or stage 2: The body attempts to adapt to a persistent stressor and resources gradually deplete.
Exhaustion, or stage 3: The body becomes depleted and optimal function becomes impaired. As a result, long-term damage may result from extended stimulation of the organs and impairment of the immune system.
Symptoms of anxiety and stress
Stress isn’t just any one feeling. Physical, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral symptoms can manifest from stressors. Some common emotional and cognitive symptoms are:
- Memory problems
- Inability to concentrate
- Poor judgment
- Seeing only the negative
- Anxious or racing thoughts
- Constant worrying
- Irritability or short temper
- Agitation, inability to relax
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Sense of loneliness and isolation
Physical or behavioral symptoms of stress and anxiety
Stress also causes different physical and behavioral symptoms. You might experience:
- Aches and pains
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Nausea, dizziness
- Chest pain, rapid heartbeat
- Loss of sex drive
- Frequent colds
- Eating more or less
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Isolating yourself from others
- Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
- Using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax
- Nervous habits (pacing, nail-biting, leg-shaking)
How can I determine what yoga is best for my anxiety?
So when it comes to trying to tackle your anxiety with yoga, where do you begin? One of the most common questions I get asked: “What is the best type of yoga for anxiety?” It depends. Reason being, every individual is so unique in their experience and symptoms. Therefore, needs are different too.
With that being said, anecdotally, based on my personal experience and those of clients’ through the years, the best type of yoga for anxiety generally includes a mixture of:
- vinyasa flow
- yin yoga
- breath work
- on some occasions, myofascial release with the use of yoga therapy balls
What type of yoga is best with anxiety?
Essentially, the structure of a yoga class that’s best with anxiety can be summed up as: flow slow. When we have anxiety, stress hormones such as cortisol build up in our entire body on a cellular level. In order to move through the built up stress, we need to move our bodies because movement helps metabolize these hormones. As a result, a yoga session that starts off with some dynamic movement (think vinyasa flow or hatha flow) makes for a great way to burn off excess energy in the body. This is so commonly needed for those who are experiencing symptoms of anxiety.
After you have warmed up and moved your body dynamically, you are more prepared to allow yourself to ground down, find some stillness, and help nourish your nervous system. Incorporating a few yin yoga poses that target the tissues on a deeper level can help to release physical and emotional tension (if you’re anything like me, having a box of tissues close by can be a great idea!).
Breathing aspects, or pranayama, are naturally woven into every yoga class. However, there are a few breathing techniques that specifically help with anxiety. Below, take a look at four breathing techniques that can be practiced any time. Even if all you do is one minute of intentional breathing, you are able to assist your anxiety. As always, please note that just like practicing physical postures in yoga, especially with anxiety, focused breath work is not always easily accessible. Approach it slowly and with caution as it could trigger an emotional response.
Using a yoga therapy ball for myofascial release with anxiety and stress
If available, I highly recommend trying out rolling on a yoga therapy ball (or any small rubber ball) for self-myofascial release. Self-myofascial release, a massage technique, applies continued pressure to an area of myofascial tissue that contains restrictions, tightness, inflexibility, adhesions or lacks proper movement. As a result of chronic stress and anxiety, our bodies become stiff and feel as though we are “stuck.” Working with myofascial release starts to break up or release these restrictions.
When we use self-myofascial release, pressure gets put on these adhesions and then released. Quite often we don’t even realize how much tension we hold onto until we apply specific pressure onto an area.
Steps for self-myofascial release
If you have a rubber or tennis ball available, try out the technique below. It helps target your thoracic spine and shoulder girdle.
- Lie on the floor. Then, bend your knees. Rest your head on a pillow or folded blanket.
- Pull one arm across your chest. Then, place a tennis ball under your upper back. You want it next to the shoulder blade and close to your armpit.
- Find one particularly tight area, and hold to release tension. Next, explore different areas. Slowly move the same side arm across the chest. Or, up and down the body, etc.
- Finally, move the ball gently to another spot. Again, hold to release any tension. Aim for about 30 seconds in each spot, or minute on each side or spot. Then, repeat.
Try this exercise out at the end of your next yoga practice before savasana. Or, do it on its own and notice how you feel.
Try a yoga class that’s structured for anxiety
No one type of yoga is best with anxiety or stress. Instead, it’s more of a mix of styles that have I’ve found to be incredibly effective for my students. Below, I’m sharing a full class that’s tailored for anxiety. I hope you find some time for yourself and try it.
With anxiety, exactly what you need may vary from day to day. Always listen to your body and your needs. One day might be a class that combines all of the styles in this article. Another day may be focusing on just one approach for only 10 minutes. The “best” yoga for anxiety nourishes you in that moment.
Wondering if you can do yoga after a COVID vaccine? Check out this article.