Why are we feeling anxious all the time?
Let’s understand the fight or flight response. In 1915, American physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon noted that when we were in a dangerous situation, our bodies released adrenaline that would lead to bodily changes. Physiological effect includes increased heart rate and increased respiratory rate. This could help us send more oxygen to the heart and increase oxygen in blood. This happened automatically and it helped us survive by getting ready to fight or run in the hunting society. When the threat had gone, our physiological system was back to a normal state.
Our physiological system remains unchanged while living in a modern society
Now, we are in an information society. Our stress is no longer caused by natural threat, but we are constantly stressed by work, personal and family commitments. We are always busy and sometimes we can’t even spend an hour in a week just for ourselves. This keep-our-life-running mode seems to be always there. We can’t stop. Overly intense or inappropriate activation of the fight or flight response may cause distress and anxiety. This automatic reaction shifts our thoughts to find the threat and then escape. We may misinterpret the threat and be catastrophizing, such as ‘something really bad is going to happen to me.’ Our bodies seem to get ready to react all the time.
How does yoga reduce anxiety?
We understand that we increase heart rate and respiratory rate when we are in a difficult situation. Sometimes, when we are no longer in a difficult situation, fight or flight response continues to activate. To counterbalance it, we find ways to reduce heart rate and respiratory rate and bring ourselves back to a balanced state. To slow down and be not over-active, we practice yoga and bring our awareness to our body. We listen to our body to stop or slow down the movement mindfully. When we regulate our breath, we can regulate our heart rate. Lungs and heart work together. Gradually, we notice the body signals, such as feeling agitated, anxious or rapid breathing. When this happens, that is the time we need to slow down and pace ourselves. We then can ask ourselves, ‘Is that a threat?’, or ‘Is that not a threat?’
Research showed that yoga reduced anxiety and improved overall wellbeing. Practicing yoga gives yourself time to watch your thoughts and feel your body sensation, instead of reacting to what’s happening around you. This reallocates your attention to breathe, slow down and pace yourself. Understanding fight or flight response helps us regulate our body physiologically and psychologically. Yoga practice is one of the effective grounding strategies for anxiety. When you already know the grounding strategy, you can effectively use it when you need.
Rachel is the founder of VAI YOGA and an occupational therapist. Her yoga teaching focuses on blending two powerful healings, yoga and occupational therapy solutions, to help people face practical aspects of life.