How to Use Yoga and Meditation to Relieve Stress and Anxiety

woman practicing yoga in a parkThere are many ways to help people who are in psychotherapy. Sometimes talk alone works fine. Other times a more multidisciplinary approach is called for, especially with someone who is very anxious, someone who could benefit from calming methods that may include yoga, breathwork, and meditation. Paying attention to the breath calms the body and provides a focus for meditation.

One such person was Julie—not her real name—who came to my office for help with chronic anxiety and anxiety attacks. I’m both a psychotherapist and a yoga therapist, and she liked that combination of Eastern and Western techniques. I know from experience that practicing yoga and meditation can naturally reduce stress and anxiety in a person’s life. These simple, proven relaxation techniques can help you feel better.

Chronic anxiety is a fearsome state that feels like second nature to some. You wake up in the morning and there it is—shallow, fast breathing accompanied by a clenching, jumping stomach or a pit of emptiness. You want to pull the covers over your head and hide, or, worse yet, you can’t fall asleep in the first place. You’re frightened all the time, simply not at home in your own skin. You might even feel like you have no skin; your nerves are just exposed, reactive, and painful.

Anxiety attacks are even worse. They strike suddenly, seemingly without warning. You might faint. You might feel like you are going to die. Julie was having frequent attacks on the subway, and was afraid to go to work or out to meet with friends. She was becoming a recluse.

As part of treatment, I often employ a positive health approach including, when appropriate, an introduction to yoga breathing techniques, which synchronize body and breath, calling up the relaxation response.

People who are anxious breathe from the chest—it’s part of the fight-or-flight mechanism, which is useful in an emergency. Anxious individuals always feel like they are in an emergency, and chest breathing creates a body that is ready to react to danger all the time; the body becomes habituated to taking quick, short breaths, a vicious loop begins, and soon the body is in a continually stressed state, ready for fight or flight. Clearly, my first step with Julie was ending this vicious cycle, so I decided to teach her the three-part breath, which involves breathing from the diaphragm instead of the chest.

We are born breathing from the diaphragm. Anyone who has ever watched an infant, dressed only in a diaper and lying on his or her back, can see the process very clearly. Belly goes out, ribs expand, collarbone goes up—that’s an inhale. Collarbone goes down, ribs go in, belly goes in—that’s an exhale. You can see the diaphragm move. This is not part of the repertoire for people with chronic anxiety, and what was once natural, diaphragmatic breathing must be consciously practiced and learned—a chore, yes, but valuable because it reduces body stress and anxiety.

The three-part breath, or, as yogis say in Sanskrit, deergha swasam, stills the mind, creating a feeling of peace and spaciousness, providing a perspective from which to view, experience, and investigate thoughts, feelings, time, and space in the moment. Anxiety can be worked with as an entity with boundaries. Shaping anxiety makes it more approachable; it has a beginning and an end, a handle to grasp, and the person becomes less reactive.

Breath is both automatically and consciously controlled, a bridge between mind and body, as both ancient yoga teachings and current research affirm. As you know if you go to yoga classes, we consciously use the inhales and exhales while we go through a series of asanas, or postures. We inhale when we do an expansive, opening movement, and we exhale when we do a closing movement. If you want to try it, inhale your arms up over your head; exhale as you bring them down. That’s a simple yoga way to move, riding the breath.

Julie knew a little about yoga, and she was willing to attend gentle classes at a well-known school that emphasizes calming breaths and helps people learn to be centered and quiet. This studio offers classes in gentle yoga, restorative yoga, and deep relaxation, as well as more vigorous classes. Julie enjoyed the gentle yoga classes and found the calm atmosphere of the school helped her to feel less nervous. She was too antsy for deep relaxation, but enjoyed restorative yoga. Once she learned the different yoga postures, she started taking vinyasa, which links the breath with a series of movements in flowing sequences, almost like a dance.

Meanwhile, we continued to meet for talk therapy and meditation. We began our sessions with breathwork, a brief meditation which helped her center, and with time she learned to use her breath and the memory of the peaceful feelings she enjoyed when doing yoga, breathwork, and meditation, and she calmed down considerably. Her anxiety attacks stopped, and she might have stopped treatment then and there, but she decided that she had another big problem that she wanted to resolve. She was in a relationship, and she was pushing her partner away. Her severe anxiety issues had taken up all her attention, and now she knew there was more to deal with. Julie is a determined and persistent woman.

We continued to work using yoga, meditation, and talk therapy to bring Julie closer to her body and more aware of her emotional life. Guided meditations helped Julie to feel safe and grateful. This combination of safe feelings and self-acceptance helped her develop a more empathic, positive response to herself and to others. Julie is a good example of what can happen when you combine talk and body work.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lynn Somerstein, PhD, E-RYT, therapist in New York City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Calliope

    August 18th, 2014 at 10:47 AM

    Any thoughts on how to slow down enough to actually enjoy yoga? Any time I have ever tried it I feel like I am rushing through it and I guess that leaves me feeling like I am not getting out of the process all that I should or could. So any thoughts on how to actually let go of that little bit of anxiety before I even lay down the yoga mat would be quite helpful to me.

  • Bibi

    August 19th, 2014 at 3:39 AM

    I find that yoga can help with many different problems. It is a great way to unwind and block any stress from your mind for a while. I also feel a lot more relaxed afterwards. This article is really interesting to see how much yoga can help those with anxiety. It’s such a simple, effective and enjoyable way of dealing with stress.

  • Stephanie AC.

    August 19th, 2014 at 10:06 AM

    Calliope, it sounds like you need to find the right teacher or class. The current trend in Western yoga is to provide cardio, an aerobic workout, and so many classes go at a pretty good clip. But some of us need a slower practice in order to stay in the present moment, keep connected to the breath, and not feel rushed or stressed by the practice itself. I teach a Beginners class in Los Altos, California, where we move pretty slowly — still enough to get a bit of a workout, but with plenty of time to stay grounded and really explore the inner landscape. Or, if you can’t find a teacher in your area that works this way, learn a couple of sequences by heart (like Sun Salutations) and do them at home, very slowly, with two or three deep breaths at every pose in the sequence. Finish with forward bends, hold them for eight or ten deep breaths (or as long as is comfortable). Good luck!

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    August 19th, 2014 at 10:27 AM

    Hi Calliope,
    Thanks for this question. There are many different ways to approach this problem, as many ways as there are many different people who have this experience. So here are a few suggestions–
    1. Is it usually hard for you to sit still? If it is, then a faster more energetic class might help you burn off some of that excess energy.
    2. Are you drowning in “head talk”? You know, where your head doesn’t shut up no matter how many times you tell it to? A calm walk, focussing on your breath, might help you get more focussed.
    3. Or maybe you would benefit from some individual or semi-private lessons.
    If this problem devils you in other areas of your life, it might not hurt to consult a psychotherapist too.
    Remember, there are many kinds of yoga, and ways to combat anxiety; you just need to find the right fit.
    Take care,
    Lynn

  • Calliope

    August 19th, 2014 at 12:16 PM

    Thanks Lynn, I know that there are so many benefits to this but I have never had much luck with getting into the moment quite enough to experience those benefits> I think that I will give it another try though and try to find something that is a little more my spedd but with the same healking benefits of yoga. And I know that if I would just give it a chance then I would probably really appreciate the results that I see. Your suggestions are great so wish me luck!

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    August 19th, 2014 at 5:17 PM

    Hi Calliope,

    I do wish you great luck. I was thinking that you might like jogging, also.
    Let me know how things go.
    Take care,
    Lynn

  • Lora

    August 20th, 2014 at 3:44 AM

    I started yoga as a low impact way to get in some exercise but didn’t realize how much better I would also feel in other ways as a result of the classes. I am far more calm that I used to be, and this have given me some tools to use in everyday work situations too, with breathing and being more mindful of the moment.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    August 20th, 2014 at 1:27 PM

    Good for you, Lora!

  • Maureen

    August 22nd, 2014 at 3:30 PM

    I am pressed, and this type of exercise& breathing has reduced my convulsions a lot !!!

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    August 22nd, 2014 at 4:00 PM

    Thank you for telling us, Maureen. Would you like to say a bit more? Only if you have the time and are in the mood, of course.
    Take care,
    Lynn

  • Barrie-Lee

    August 23rd, 2014 at 7:10 AM

    Thank you for your piece on reducing anxiety through meditation. Mark Epstein, Pema Chodron, Matthew Brensilver, Jon Kabat Zin, Jack Kornfield, Marsha Lenahan, the pioneer of DBT, all are advocates of mindfulness and meditation practice to relieve suffering anxiety. Attending weekly meditation support groups, joining a Zen Center, and learning as much about the benefits, I have come to work with my own run away horse of fear, anxiety.

  • PLWILKSY

    September 2nd, 2014 at 8:34 AM

    I agree that meditation and yoga can work well with anxiety. you will have to practice the technique regular to experience positive results.

    The three part breathing also work a treat when feeling the need to experience almost immediate relief from anxiety.

  • jennifer

    February 8th, 2015 at 8:33 PM

    Hey everyone..yoga relieves u frm al sort of stress n tensions..i believe dat too..but i hav a doubt..i hav ds conscious breathing problm..wen i stand i keep thinkin abt my breathing n i feel i dnt get enif oxygen at times n dt irritates me..i thot il tk an ecg n it ws normal..so this is my anxiety problm or consciouness prblm..wil yoga relieve me from dis consciousness prblm..??plz reply

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    February 9th, 2015 at 10:01 AM

    Hi Jennifer,
    Perhaps you should be checked out by a medical doctor to make sure.
    Take care,
    Lynn

  • Kathleen S

    May 4th, 2015 at 9:48 PM

    Hi there! Great article you have, I would also want to share my thoughts that Meditation indeed has positive effects not only in the body but also in the mind, a total holistic wellness that brings us to know our inner-self better. It gives us a peace of mind that helps us have a much better perception about our lives.

  • Jill

    April 20th, 2017 at 10:42 AM

    Thanks for the info. I’ve just found some new yoga studio, I will let you know how i feel…

  • Lynn

    Lynn

    April 20th, 2017 at 4:54 PM

    That’s great!
    Take care, Jill,
    Lynn

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