Anxiety is a mental and physiological condition that is recognised by a continuous level of stress in an individual, consisting of the following symptoms.
- increased heart rate
- continual restlessness/difficulty concentrating
- trouble sleeping
- feeling worried all the time
- tiredness or exhaustion
- shaking and sweating
- indigestion or diahorrea
- muscle spasms and pains
Panic attacks are an increased state of anxiety that have particular symptoms in addition to the above. These include
- heart palpitations
- dizziness and nausea
- black areas at the edge of vision
- intense sweating and feelings of feverishness
- lack of bodily awareness/spatial awareness
- feeling everything pulsating
- sudden overwhelming sense of fear/sense of loss of control
In a person with anxiety the ‘fight or flight’ response is constantly activated. This is the biological response designed to save our lives when confronted with a threat, and is how animals deal with an attack in the wild. This response floods the system with adrenaline, increases the heart rate, sharpens the senses, and focuses the brain on the situation at hand, making escape much more likely. The problem arises when this response is activated either when a threat does not exist, or when the situation at hand does not require this level of physiological reaction. A person can then be diagnosed as suffering from anxiety and panic attacks.
It is likely that the person has some traumatic situation that triggered this response at some point in their lives, and has not processed the overwhelming nature of that event. Physiologically, and perhaps also on other levels, the person does not realise that they are now in a ‘safe’ space, their body is still waiting for the threat to leave so that the system can normalise. Instead they have “normalised at a high level of stress” (Heather Mason).
Anxiety can therefore be described as living in a state of fear. In the mind there can be obsessive thinking about a certain thing that 'could' happen and there is a hyper-awareness or hyper vigilance of everything surrounding the person. This overrides the rational capability of the brain and the person is not able to think realistically, or respond in a normal manner. Often something like receiving a bill or a conversation at work suddenly seems completely overwhelming and that it is impossible to ‘live through’ whatever is happening. This is because the system believes that it is in danger, under threat and needs to escape. This can be very confusing for the individual because what is going on in their mind and body does not match the situation in front of them. Severe panic attacks can leave the person feeling like they have gone insane.
Yoga can provide a lot of help for this ailment. One of the most important issues is the breath, which will always be high in the chest for an anxiety sufferer, activating the sympathic autonomic nervous system - the ‘fight or flight’ response. Bringing the breath into the abdomen activates the para sympathic autonomic nervous system, ‘rest and digest’, where the breath goes naturally when the system is in a safe and relaxed mode. Becoming aware of the breath and the associated level of stress in the system can be a turning point for the individual, instead of being totally involved in the biological response they are suddenly conscious of it.
Furthermore, the posture work allows an opportunity to work with the mental and physical aspects of this condition and begin to change the chemistry in the body. Entering a yoga posture will be challenging for the individual, and thoughts such as ‘I don’t want to be here’, ‘this is not bearable’ will arise. There may be a sudden frantic need to escape in some postures that remind the system of the original threat or trauma. However remaining in the pose, breathing and watching the system react will repattern the brain into realising it is in a safe space, there is no threat, and the physiological response can quieten. Anxiety and panic lessen.
Gentle posture work is recommended when facilitating yoga practice for a student with anxiety, preferably a routine that can be easily repeated. Maintaining a safe space around the individual where you do not move too quickly or come into their space unexpectedly is important as a teacher as sudden movements can trigger the ‘fight or flight’ in their state of hyper alertness. Mindfulness is encouraged, however meditation on its own can be extremely difficult for the individual. They are rooted in a very strong mental process, which can be made worse by focusing on it. More important is to take awareness to the body and what is going on, beginning to bring awareness to the response instead of only being the response. Bringing attention to the feet and legs can help to bring the person ‘down’ from the constant mental activity.
Particularly recommended are inversions as these place the body in a very different place from ‘normal’, which can help to loosen the mind and body out of the rigidity of anxiety. Using the wall or a chair may also help the system relax into being supported while inverted. Care should be taken with postures that cause a marked increase in anxiety for the person, approaching gently and staying for short periods of time often.
References – Yoga of the Heart, Jenny Beeken, Wikipedia, BBC Health Website, NHS, Interview with Heather Mason (author of Yoga for the Mind) on ConsciousTV, Personal experience