Everyone feels a little anxious from time to time. It’s a natural, chemical response that takes place when you’re presented with normal (and abnormal) stressors. But for some people, anxiety isn’t an occasional thing; it’s a perpetual reaction that can seriously interfere with day-to-day life. What’s more, it can lead to stomach pain, nervous system issues, and increased risk of heart disease.
“For those living with an anxiety disorder, feelings of fear or worry aren’t a rational response to external circumstances—they are a disruptive and dominating influence,” says Dr. Sanul Corrielus, M.D., and board certified cardiologist. The good news: There are ways to deal. And if you haven’t tried a simple yoga flow yet (especially one that focuses on deep breathing and relaxation), it’s time to give it a try.
Rates of anxiety are on the rise
One of the often-overlooked side effects of the stress and upheaval of the COVID-19 pandemic is that rates of anxiety have risen substantially. One global study published in the October 2021 issue of The Lancet found that rates of anxiety may have increased as much as 26 to 28 percent as a result of the pandemic. This means that more than ever before, there need to be ongoing discussions about mental health and the importance of having tools and resources for addressing feelings of anxiety, especially when they start to get out of control.
While therapy and medications are a few possible solutions, there are other ways to self-treat feelings of anxiety, often with positive results. In fact, a 2018 review study published in the journal Depression and Anxiety found that “yoga might be an effective and safe intervention for individuals with elevated levels of anxiety.”
Experts tend to agree. “Yoga therapy can help people in this situation because they aren’t being asked to rationalize their way out of anxiety,” says Dr. Corrielus. “Instead, they’re given tools that help them recognize the thoughts, feelings, and actions that lead to heightened anxiety, and enact effective self-soothing methods. In a yoga class, they are unconsciously learning to regulate their stress response and build resilience to stress.”
Calming your ‘fight or flight’ response
Whether you’re stressed out about work, your family life, the pandemic, or the uncertainty of the future, know that there’s nothing wrong with you. But, constant anxiety is not good for you. “When you’re in a chronic state of hypervigilance, your body produces stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline,” says Simone Provenzano, assistant professor of exercise science, wellness coordinator, and a 500-hour certified yoga instructor at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor. “This response is good when we’re dealing with an emergency, but when these hormones are being produced on a long-term basis, they can negatively affect our health and set us up for increased risk of heart attacks, stroke, or cancer.”
Yoga is designed to help you find physical and mental balance. It also empowers you to control your breathing and movements, and, in turn, your mind. “Even a short yoga practice including asana (postures) and pranayama (breath control) can decrease parasympathetic nervous system response (fight or flight) and increase sympathetic nervous system response (rest and digest),” Provenzano says. “The parasympathetic response is calming and restorative, lowers breathing and heart rates, decreases blood pressure, and increases blood flow to internal organs.” The more you can learn to control your anxiety and calm your parasympathetic nervous system response, the better your overall health is likely to be. Even doing a simple yoga flow, like the one below, could be the tool you need to start feeling less overwhelmed.
Try this quick 7-pose yoga flow
You can’t always control your external environment or the things that tend to trigger your anxiety. You can take steps to implement an anti-anxiety “toolbox” of sorts. A short yoga flow, like this one created by Provenzano, may help you find a little more balance in a life that feels overwhelming.
Start with deep breathing
You may think that taking a few minutes to breathe deeply isn’t worth the time, but what naturally happens when you feel stressed out? Your heart rate and breath rate increase, and you’re less likely to take deep, slow breaths. The very act of consciously slowing and deepening your breath can help increase your sympathetic nervous system response.
“Lie down or sit comfortably, and become aware of the area of your body between your rib cage and pelvis,” says Provenzano. “Allow the muscles in the abdomen to relax so the belly can expand without resistance on the inhale. The exhale is a simple relaxation of the breath, with a slight contraction of the navel toward the spine. Imagine your diaphragm contracting and pulling downward as you inhale, and relaxing and moving upward as you exhale.”
Complete this series of poses
This routine isn’t your “power yoga” style class. Rather, it’s a series of individual poses intended to help calm down your system and encourage deep, controlled breathing. Relax into each pose and take your time to enjoy the flow.
“The following postures include deep forward folds that can have a calming effect on the nervous system, mountain pose to energize and extend the body, and a simple backbend at the end to counter the muscle-shortening actions of the forward fold,” says Provenzano. Perform the first five poses, then reverse through poses 4, 3, and 2. You can continue repeating the series as desired before finishing with poses 6 and 7.
Note: For each pose, we’ve provided a step-by-step tutorial, but you can always check YouTube or yoga websites like Yoga Journal for a visual of the asana.
Pose 1: Knees to chest, 1-2 minutes
This pose will help relax you. Some say the posture may even help you feel “safe.” Simply lie on your back on a mat and hug your knees into your chest. Relax your shoulders, neck, and head and continue deep-breathing as you hold the position. Check for tension in your body and continue to relax with every exhale.
Pose 2: Cat-cow, match movement to breath, 1-2 minutes
Move into a tabletop position on your mat with your hands under your shoulders, your knees under your hips. As you inhale, press your tailbone toward the ceiling. Look up, allowing your belly to reach down toward the mat. As you exhale, reverse the movement. This time, allow your head and neck to relax between your arms as your back arches upward and your tailbone presses down toward the mat. Slowly move between the ‘cat’ and the ‘cow’ positions.
Pose 3: Child’s pose, 1-2 minutes
From the tabletop position, press your hips back until you’re “sitting” on your heels and extend your arms forward. Allow your chest, shoulders, and forehead to relax into the mat. Widen your knees to allow your belly to expand toward the mat as you breathe. Hold the position, continuing to relax further with each exhale.
Read More: How to Start a Yoga Practice
Pose 4: Standing forward fold, 1-2 minutes
Stand on your mat, your feet roughly hip-distance apart. Take a deep breath in, extending your arms upward toward the ceiling. As you exhale, fold forward from the hips, reaching your hands toward the mat. It doesn’t matter if your hands touch the mat or not. Simply relax into the position. Bend your knees slightly if this helps take pressure off your hamstrings. Continue breathing deeply.
Pose 5: Extended mountain pose, 1-2 minutes
Maintaining your standing position on your mat, reach your arms up toward the ceiling. Check your posture, pulling your shoulder blades down and keeping your chin lifted high. “Ground” through your feet, keeping your weight balanced evenly between your heels and the balls of your feet. Hold the position and breathe, taking a moment to feel good about your control.
Pose 6: Bridge Pose, 1-2 minutes
Lie on your back on the mat, your knees bent, your heels under your knees, your feet hip-distance apart. Place your arms at your sides, your palms pressing into the mat. Lift your hips from the mat. Press through your heels, creating a slight back bend as you open your chest and lift your hips as high as you can. Hold as long as you can, still breathing slowly.
Pose 7: Savasana, 5-10 minutes
Savasana is one of the best, most relaxing yoga poses. Still, many people like to cut savasana short. When it comes to managing anxiety, though, it’s probably one of the best poses you can give yourself. Simply lie on your back on the mat, your legs relaxed, your feet open and angled outward. Your arms, too, should be comfortably relaxed at your sides, your palms up and open. In this position, simply lie still and breathe, allowing your body to “melt” into the mat.
We don’t know about you, but even just reading this Zen-infused yoga flow makes us feel calmer already. Now, time to hit the mat.