Recently I’ve been teaching a Yoga Therapy for Anxiety workshop at a number of great studios in South-East Queensland. In yoga therapy we work from the principle that a human being is made up of five aspects: physical; mental; how they use their energy; their sense of connection to themselves; and how they experience joy and the world around them. These five ‘koshas’ all interact, and it’s this that we work with – we treat the whole person, rather than treating them as just their condition or what ails them. It’s a very practical therapy – rather than being done ‘to’ someone, a yoga therapist works with the client to give them tools which they can take away and use at home to help themselves and improve their own quality of life.
In my anxiety workshop, I share a variety of techniques with the group which they then practise independently. At the end of the session I give them a handout detailing what we’ve covered, so that they can use these tools back at home to continually improve their own wellbeing. These yoga techniques can work like magic – but the magic only works if you actually do it!
If you would have liked to attend the workshop but were unable to do so, I plan to create an online version. But until then, here are my top three takeaway tools for managing and reducing anxiety.
1 – Regulate your breathing.
Anxiety is the disproportionate response of the autonomic nervous system. One of the things that happens when we are anxious is that our breathing becomes rapid and shallow. This is our automatic response to the fight or flight stimulus. However, we have the ability to take conscious control over our breathing pattern, and the link between the nervous system and breathing is a 2-way street – the nervous system can tell us how to breathe; but we can also change our breathing and the nervous system will respond accordingly. Therefore, if we mimic how we breathe when we’re relaxed – equal length inhales and exhales – we can override the nervous response and bring ourselves to a relaxed state.
Tool: Count to 4 as you inhale and 4 as you exhale. Make the count as slow as is comfortable.
2 – Exaggerate your exhale.
Your inhale and exhale are related to different parts of your nervous system. You can think of the inhale as the accelerator and the exhale as the brake. When we breathe in a 4:4 ratio, the nervous system balances us in a state of relaxed alertness. However, if we’re already anxious, we may need to hit the brake a little harder, and we can do this by exaggerating the exhale – breathing out for longer than we breathe in. We still inhale fully, but we slow down the rate of exhale to engage that brake effect.
Tool: Count to 4 as you inhale, and 5, 6, 7 or 8 as you exhale. Increase the length of exhale slowly by one count at a time, and don’t push or force – if a ratio of 4:5 is comfortable but any more is not, stay with that. Don’t go beyond 4:8.
3 – Breathe into your belly.
Of course we can’t actually breathe into our bellies; but what happens when we breathe fully is that the diaphragm below the lungs moves down and slightly displaces the lower abdominal organs, so it looks that way. When we’re relaxed, we naturally breathe like this; and because of the 2-way street between the nervous system and our breathing, if we consciously mimic this, we again override the automatic response and return ourselves to a relaxed state.
Tool: Place your hands on your lower abdomen, beneath the navel. Breathe ‘into’ the area beneath your hands, and feel how it expands and contracts.
These tools are all about using the unique nature of our breath – that it’s both involuntary and voluntary – to mimic a relaxed way of breathing. This utilises that 2-way street to send the message to the nervous system that there is no threat, and it can calm down and return to a relaxed state; one where there is no anxiety.
Try them for yourself, and practise them regularly even when you’re not anxious. Like anything, you’ll get better at it with practice, and doing it regularly has the double-whammy effect of a) familiarising you with what to do when you do feel anxious, and b) reducing your baseline level of anxiety so that you feel less anxious, less often.
I don’t know about you, but I’d call that a win-win.
Check out my free streamed classes for guided relaxations to reduce your baseline anxiety!