By Wendy Kagan
For those seeking to loosen anxiety’s grip, rolling out a yoga mat or sitting pretzel-legged in meditation could be worth a try. More and more doctors are recommending yoga, meditation and other mind-body practices as complementary anxiety therapies to be used in conjunction with pharmaceuticals and other traditional anxiety treatments.
Not just “woo-woo” New Age trends, yoga and meditation are evidence-based practices backed by an increasing number of studies showing their effectiveness at taming anxiety as well as other mental health disorders such as depression and mood disorders. A 2014 paper published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine found that mindfulness meditation reduced the symptoms of anxiety to some degree in 47 different studies on the subject. And a 2011 study at Harvard found that 3 percent of Americans (about 6.4 million people) had been advised by their doctors to try yoga and meditation; more than a third of those patients had a diagnosis of anxiety.
“Meditation, yoga, and particularly mindfulness “a practice that focuses awareness on the present moment” are getting a lot of attention lately in treating lots of different kinds of anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety, PTSD, panic disorder, and even schizophrenia,” says William Perlstein, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Clinical and Health Psychology at the University of Florida. “When you’re exposed to something anxiety-provoking, the aim is to override that anxiety with some sort of relaxation response.”
“Meditation, yoga, and mindfulness could play a role in breaking the connection between anxiety and the object that triggers it,” Perlstein adds. “You can’t relax and be anxious at the same time; they’re mutually exclusive. One of those states is going to win.”
During episodes of anxiety, the brain is on a kind of overdrive; “people can’t mellow out,” says Perlstein. While the anxious tendency is to fixate on the past and to worry about the future, yoga, meditation, and mindfulness may promote a peaceful state by directing attention to the present moment. They can also help people learn how to observe their thoughts objectively, without getting caught up or swept away by them.
How much meditation makes a difference? Researchers for the JAMA Internal Medicine paper found that 20 to 30 minutes of daily mindfulness meditation showed the most promise, but shorter meditation programs were also effective in taming anxiety. When it comes to yoga, gentle practices such as slow Hatha yoga combined with pranayama (breathing exercises) and meditation can help quiet an overactive mind; they’re also accessible to almost all levels of practitioners.
Used in conjunction with traditional anxiety treatments such as pharmacological therapies, mind-body practices are one more tool to fight anxiety. They may even help patients looking to reduce the dosage of medicines such as benzodiazepines, which in higher doses can cause drowsiness, dizziness, and other side effects.
Yet there is no one-size-fits-all approach, says Perlstein, a proponent of individualized medicine. “Anxiety is going to differ from person to person,” he says—and so will its treatment. Coming up with the most effective protocol may involve exploring a range of options with your doctor. And, perhaps, some new adventures on a yoga mat or meditation cushion.