The great American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.” This, of course, is easier said than done for the person who experiences extreme anxiety. When in the throes of overwhelming nervousness, worry, and uncertainty, going inward to find peace seems as appealing as jumping into a pit of snakes.
About 40 million U.S. adults suffer from anxiety (that’s around 18 percent of Americans age 18 and over), making it the most common mental illness in the country. This number is gradually increasing; even some who have not been diagnosed are prone to experience stress, tension and anxiety in their day-to-day life. Today, many are even anxious about how to deal with their anxiety!
Little bit anxiety is okay
Stress, fear, anxiety – if we start counting all those instances in life when we have experienced these emotions, we may lose count! Anxiety and nervousness over passing an important exam like the SAT, a first date or a job interview, catching an early morning flight, trying some extreme sports, a flat tire, a rainy forecast or a parking ticket – we have all lived through moments like these.
A little bit of fear is normal. In fact, just like salt in food, some small amounts of fear can be good, helping us stay disciplined, focused and dynamic.
So it is very important to remember is to be gentle on yourself. It’s ok! Just as you experience happiness sometimes, experiencing anxiety is also natural.
Symptoms of severe anxiety
But when fear becomes so intense that it interferes with everyday life that is something which needs attention. When every small decision seems colossal and overwhelming, and the very thought of social situations prevents the formation of relationships, anxiety is most likely surging beyond a normal, healthy level. You might experience following symptoms recurrently:
- Unusual feeling of panic, fear, and uneasiness
- Difficulty sleeping
- Muscle tension
- Rapid heartbeat or palpitations
- Cold and sweaty palms and soles
- Constricted breathing
- A mind whirling in a swirl of thoughts that feed the problem
Eventually, it can become an anxiety disorder, a state of excessive, chronic uneasiness, worry, or fear of the unknown. When anxiety reaches a debilitating point, treatment may be necessary. Depending upon the severity of the anxiety, your doctor may recommend treatments such as therapy and medication. However, more than ever doctors are now recommending stress-management techniques for self-regulation and overcoming of anxiety. This is where yoga and techniques for managing the mind can help.
How yoga helps overcome anxiety
Humans have innate ability to heal naturally, and what stops that healing are all the stresses of daily life. Yoga helps our entire system calm down. All around the world yoga is synonymous with peace of mind, relaxation, and stress reduction. By transferring focus and attention to the body and breath, yoga can help to temper anxiety while also releasing physical tension.
Knowingly or unknowingly, most of us have been practicing yoga techniques to calm our mind. For instance, you must have advised yourself or your near and dear ones to take some deep breaths or take a chill pill in anxious situations.
Regular yoga practice can help you stay calm and relaxed in daily life, and can also give you the strength to face events as they come without getting restless. Yoga practice ideally includes the complete package of asanas (body postures), pranayamas (breathing techniques), meditation, and the ancient yoga philosophy, all of which has helped many anxiety patients recover and face life with new positivity and strength.
The following yoga techniques can help calm an unsettled mind.
1. Yoga postures for anxiety
The following yoga sequence can help achieve a happy and healthy mind and body. In addition to many other benefits, asanas help release tension and stress from the body by regulating hormones and increasing endorphins (which explains the “yoga high”).
- Gentle Neck Rolls (Kantha Sanchalana)
- Cat Stretch (Marjariasana)
- Child Pose (Shishuasana)
- Downward Facing Dog (Adhomukha Shwanasana)
- Standing Forward Bend (Hastapadasana)
- Tree Pose (Vrikshasana)
- One-Legged Seated Forward Bend (Janu Sirsasana)
- Two-Legged Seated Forward Bend (Paschimottanasana)
- Bridge Pose (Setubandhasana)
- Shoulder Stand (Sarvangasana)
- Fish Pose (Matsyasana)
- Bow Pose (Dhanurasana)
- Corpse Pose (Savasana)
At the end of the yoga posture session, lie down in Yoga Nidra to give your mind and body a few minutes of thorough relaxation. This technique is helpful in flushing out body toxins, a primary cause of stress, from the system. I use the CD by Art of Living in which Sri Sri Ravi Shankar guides us into Yoga Nidra in his soothing voice and prayerful chants. Download your free MP3 here.
2. Breathing practices to relieve anxiety
Practicing breathing exercises for anxiety is an extremely powerful tool that can clear the mind and release tension within a matter of seconds. The moment you feel anxiety coming up, try any of the following breathing practices for about 5 minutes and you will see the grip of anxiety getting looser:
- Deep yogic breath
- Alternate nostril breathing (Nadi shodhan pranayama)
- Victory breath (Ujjayi breathing)
- Bellows breathing (Bhastrika pranayama)
- Bee breath (Bhramari pranayama)
Above all, the Sudarshan Kriya, taught in the Happiness Program, is one of the most powerful and effective tools available for overcoming chronic anxiety. Over 60 independent studies on four continents have been published in peer-reviewed journals, demonstrating the comprehensive range of benefits.
Click here to learn more about scientifically-proven health benefits of the Sudarshan Kriya.
3. Meditate and relax
One of the best ways to get rid of anxiety is to catch it early. Anxiety grows extremely fast. Practice catching it as soon as the feelings of anxiety start to come up. The moment you become aware of it, you will experience grounding and stability. Here meditation can be very helpful.
Meditation produces a deep state of calm by increasing alpha waves in the brain, creating a coherent state called “restful alertness.” Meditation is an excellent tool for relaxing a distracted mind.
When we’re anxious, the adrenal glands release adrenaline, the so called “adrenal rush” putting the body into “fight or flight” mode. When this happens, the heartbeat quickens, causing the muscles to tense and the body to sweat profusely. However, when the body is constantly firing adrenaline due to persistent anxiety (rather than occasional environmental threats), the adrenal glands reach a point of fatigue, resulting in an inability to handle stress, along with symptoms of depression, insomnia, and a weakened immune system. Research from Harvard has demonstrated that regular meditation practice (mantra meditation) can help significantly reduce cortisol levels, calming the nerves and restoring the adrenal system.
Click here to find guided meditations and right away get relaxed and centered.
4. Try these simple but very effective yogic mudra (hand gestures)
Mudras have been used for thousands of years to help ease the mind and body, providing relief from a number of different conditions including dealing with common anxiety issues.
Take a comfortable seat and practice any of these mudras with slow and gentle breaths for 5-10 minutes.
- Gyan Mudra
Join the tips of the index finger and thumb and keep the other 3 fingers stretched, relaxed and joined.
- Kalesvara Mudra
Touch tips of middle fingers. Touch the first two joints of the index fingers and touch your thumbs. Bend the remaining fingers inward. Point your thumbs toward your chest and spread your elbows to the outside. Observe your breath and lengthen the pause after inhalation and after exhalation.
- Uttarabodhi Mudra
Hold the hands in front of solar plexus. Interlock the fingers. Index fingers and thumbs of both hands should be joined together. While the index fingers point to the ceiling, thumb point to floor.
- Apan Vayu Mudra
The tip of the index finger should be pressed slightly against the root of the thumb and second and the third finger should touch the inner tip of the thumb.
- Agni Shakti Mudra
Touch fingers of both the hands to the palms and join both the tips of thumbs together.
5. Apply yogic philosophy to life
Knowing and applying ancient yoga knowledge, which talks about some simple yet profound principles (Yamas and Niyamas) of yoga, can be the secret to happy and healthy living. For instance, the Santosha (contentment) principle teaches the value of contentment. The Aprigraha (non-possessiveness) principle can help us overcome greediness or the desire to keep possessing more, which can be a cause of stress and anxiety. Also, the Shaucha (cleanliness and purity) principle talks about cleanliness of the mind and body. This rule can particularly help if you tend to get too anxious about catching infectious diseases.
The Yamas and Niyamas of yoga will also help us eat nutritious food and live a healthy lifestyle, both of which greatly help to overcome anxiety and stress. To understand yoga philosophy, you may consider listening to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Commentary on Patanjali Yoga Sutras.
6. Pray, trust, and smile!
Prayer is an excellent form of reassurance and support for freedom from anxiety. Creating a daily practice of prayer and chanting increases positive energy and helps still the mind. While prayer does not come in pill form, and is therefore difficult to research, the power of faith is one of the keys to living a stress-free life. When you have faith, there is no reason to worry about the future, as there is a higher power at work supporting and guiding you. Also, by making a conscious effort to smile (even if you don’t feel like it!) you can instantly experience increased levels of confidence, calm, and positivity. As the saying goes, fake it ‘til you make it!
7. Help others
When we remain stuck in an egotistical mental space of ‘me and mine’, feelings of stress and anxiety increase. Rather than worrying about yourself, shift your attention to how you can be of use to others around you. Energizing yourself with service activities provides a sense of satisfaction and joy; research on volunteerism has even found a correlation between performing acts of service, increased feelings of happiness, and decreased rates of depression.
8. Remember impermanence
When this realization sets in that everything around us is temporary and will change, we become relaxed and settled from within. A feeling of ‘this too shall pass and not remain forever’ arises in us and frees us from anxiety.
9. Recall similar experiences
Bringing to mind anxiety-causing events of the past and your methods for overcoming them can provide immense relief and act as a reminder of your strength and ability to persevere.
10. Keep positive company around
Always remember: environment is stronger than willpower. Surround yourself with positive-minded people, as you are influenced by the company you keep. The quality of the company we keep reflects in our own attitude towards life. So surround yourself with positive, happy, progressive people, and watch your own levels of optimism increase!
Here are some other ways you can manage your anxiety:
- Sing, dance and celebrate. The very intention to celebrate will pull you away from anxiety to a more harmonious state.
- Have faith and surrender to the Almighty and know that there is a supreme power who loves you and accepts you totally. This will bring a total sense of security.
- Remind yourself of the big picture and that you are committed to a greater goal.
- Be unpredictable for a while. Anxiety is always related to some anticipated action. Do something completely irrelevant and unpredictable.
- Readiness to face the worst will leave you with stability in the mind.
- Get rooted in the reality that you are not just this body, or mind, or emotions. The more we can be rooted in this reality that the life force within us is a witness to the actions, the thoughts and emotions, the less we get affected by them.
It’s important to note that yoga is more than a one-time activity. It is a way of living. While an allopathic doctor helps you understand the type of anxiety disorder you may have, a yoga teacher will guide you to handle your life with a broader perspective. It is recommended that you learn yoga systematically from certified yoga teachers.
Although yoga can positively impact one’s health, it is not a substitute for medicine. It is important to learn and practice yoga postures under the supervision of a yoga teacher. In case of any medical condition, practice yoga postures after consulting a doctor and a trained yoga teacher.
By Sejal Shah, E-YRT 500 Sri Sri Yoga Teacher, YACEP, Art of Living Teacher, NYU Post Graduate Medical School approved Yoga-CME retreat facilitator, Mind-Body Wellness Writer, Homeopath