How Yoga Can Help You With Your Trauma-Induced Anxiety

If you’ve found this blog, it’s likely that you’re hoping to reduce your anxiety. Life events like living through a pandemic, deciding whether to travel or not, choosing to take classes on line or in person, relationships at work, opening up to new friendships and basic social interactions might feel overwhelming or daunting. Or perhaps, seemingly pleasant tasks like planning a meet-up with a friend can feel unexpectedly irritating. You may be choosing to avoid situations that put you out of your comfort zone; you do this as a means to avoid an anxiety spike and the cycle of exhaustion that follows it.

I can relate. I know what a struggle it is to hold too many thoughts.  It’s draining to listen to the ruminations chattering. Plus, the busy mind isn’t  allowing us to enjoy the here and now. How do we shift this cycle?

Alas, there’s help. YOU can gather, and start using, tools from Yoga. They will calm your body and mind.

I know what you might be thinking – “Ahh, interesting advice… just add some Yoga to the mix. That seems like a pipedream solution, Sarah.”

And, I hear you. Give me a chance to explain. Keep an open mind. 

As a child and young adult, I had a consistent stream of trauma-inducing incidents. I’ve navigated anxiety, secret turmoil, and constant fear of confrontation. I’ve fretted, felt hopeless and cried, subsumed with inability, not knowing how to change. 

Years ago, I was longing for a breakthrough to stop feeling stuck. To feel freer and happy. As I was floundering I was fortunate to have found the tools of Yoga. As cliché as it might sound, Yoga tools helped me begin to “find myself”. Like, the “who am I?” and “what’s important to me?” kind of find myself. I began to develop clarity and I began to make different choices. Little by little my life changed, on the inside first, then my outer world followed.

Today, over 25 years later, anxiety still happens but I am fully aware of the milder symptoms as they first begin to rise up. I know it’s happening, I get clear about why it’s happening and I know how to shift it. My body’s anxiety responses no longer swirl beneath the surface of my consciousness, shaping my reality. Instead, I see it clearly, I hold it gently and I take better care. Thank you Yoga!

Now, before I show you how Yoga and its consistent practice helped me gain clarity and joyfulness, let’s try to understand what anxiety is, and where it comes from.

Understand that there is a root cause of anxiety. This is an important step when it comes to compassionately witnessing and soothing your symptoms.

What Is Anxiety?

Occasional anxiety is an expected part of life. You might feel anxiety rise and fall in everyday life. Things like solving a problem at work, learning a new skill set, making big decisions and living through global crises are bound to cause some angst.  

However, anxiety disorders 1 involve more than temporary worry or fear. If you’ve developed an anxiety disorder the anxiety is chronic, can get worse over time and at times might become extreme. The symptoms interfere with daily activities such as your job, housework and basic life skills and of course – your relationships.

There are several types of anxiety disorders such as:

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder(GAD),
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder(OCD),
  • Panic Disorder, and
  • Phobia-related Disorders like Aquaphobia, Claustrophobia etc..

People with a disordered experience of anxiety are frequently in a state of mental ruminations, worry, even panic. They might be protective of their anxiety and actively trying to prevent it by avoiding places, situations, or environments they associate as overwhelming or potentially triggering.

Worry about anxiety, and the struggle of trying to avoid it, causes significant problems in various areas of a person’s life.

Understand that there is a root cause of anxiety. This is an important step when it comes to compassionately witnessing and soothing your symptoms.

Let’s talk about one reason for Anxiety and the disordered mind-body response that comes along with it.

Though there are many reasons that can cause anxiety spikes, one of the major reasons is a past Traumatic Experience and the body’s continued memory of it.

What Is Trauma?

Trauma is the body’s response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event. It can cause lasting overwhelm and disruption of an individual’s ability to cope with everyday life. The effects of trauma can cause feelings of helplessness, it can diminish a person’s sense of self and it affects their ability to feel a full range of emotions and experiences.

Apart from the immediate or short-term response to an original event, trauma may also give rise to longer-term symptoms in the form of: rapid and often exaggerated changes in mood, flashbacks, impulsiveness, and strained relationships. Besides the psychological symptoms, trauma can cause physical symptoms, such as headaches, lethargy, and nausea. 

I know, it’s a little heavy isn’t it. Many people are living with the effects of trauma “stuck” in their body and they may have no idea that it’s the cause of their struggles.

Getting a little more technical, let’s gain some understanding about what’s happening in the brain.

Your brain consists of several parts, each taking care of different physical and emotional functions of your body. Without going into too much detail, I will talk about 2 parts that influence your reaction to Trauma.

The Frontal Lobe and The Amygdala

  • The Frontal lobe is the most anterior(front) part of the brain. The frontal lobe is responsible for higher cognitive functions such as memory, emotions, impulse control, problem solving, social interaction and motor function.
  • The Amygdala helps in storing and classifying emotionally-charged memories. It plays a significant role in producing emotions, especially fear and jealousy. The amygdala is recognized as a component of the limbic system of your body.

    The limbic system
    is a set of structures in the brain that deal with emotions and memory. It regulates our physical and emotional response to a external triggers (perceived dangerous situations) by creating a memory of past events. When a traumatic body based memory is activated it makes your body react in the same way it did to the original traumatic event. You might have heard about the fight-flight-freeze response. Well, the Amygdala is responsible for that kind of response in the body. When the effects of trauma are at play we can (over)react to circumstances as if we are in a truly life threatening situation, even though we are not. 

The hopeful thing is that with intention you can shift your body and brain’s reactivity!

Your  body can regulate its emotional states in 2 major and opposite ways:

  • Top-down regulation relies on the frontal lobes for understanding the situation based on the accumulated knowledge and explaining emotional feelings in that context.
  • Bottom-up dis regulation or regulation relies on the the brainstem and limbic system to assess the potential threat. If your limbic brain perceives muscle tension and shock, it means the situation is dangerous; this is where Trauma Induced Anxiety (also known as a “trigger” kicks in). On the other hand if you have a relaxed and calm body your limbic brain has no need to go into a state of reactivity.

Now You Might Be Thinking, All This Information Is Good But What Has It Got to Do With Yoga?

To answer that, I’ll invite you to begin to understand the “behind the scenes” of Yoga.

Yoga helps your body learn to regulate and redirect its exaggerated reaction to external stimuli (a trigger). To the body, even though it’s unpleasant, a trigger is a familiar response and therefore easy to duplicate. The trigger is an experience of your past repeating itself. It happens quickly without consulting Frontal Lobe thinking. 

Going back to the science of it, here is what Yoga does in your mind and body:

  1. The practice of Yoga engages both top-down and bottom-up methods for regulating the emotional states of your body. Yoga is a method for practicing both types of self-regulation.
    • Access top-down emotional conditioning by: practicing non-judgmental observation; commitment to conscious self-healing; showing self-compassion.
    • Access bottom-up emotional conditioning by: activating and strengthening (toning) your body’s nervous system with breathing techniques and mindful movement; creating a rhythm of healthy stress(eustress) and relaxation by moving in and out of specific yoga poses.
    • The parallel and consecutive use of top-down and bottom-up emotional conditioning in each yoga session iteratively teaches the Frontal Lobe and the Amygdala to work well together.
  2. Yoga reduces Cortisol levels in your body
    • Cortisol is the main hormone involved in stress and the fight-flight response. This is a natural and protective response to a perceived threat or danger. Increased levels of Cortisol result in a burst of new energy and strength but when cortisol remains chronically high it’s depleting and damaging for your system. 
  3. Yoga increases levels of GABA(Gamma aminobutyric acid ) in our body.
    • When GABA levels get too low, it’s difficult for the body to relax after a stress-induced neurotransmitter release. Low GABA activity leads to anxiety, depression, insomnia, and mood disorders. GABA is a natural brain relaxant that makes us feel good.
  4. Yoga transforms your relationship with your body, mind, and self into a positive one.
    • Yoga provides and teaches tools for self-regulation and may help process and release body tension and emotions without having to talk or think about it with your cognitive brain. Yoga encourages you to send your awareness into your body without judgement or shame, it helps you keep focus on what’s happening at present. Therefore, yoga helps in counteracting negative thinking patterns.

“Don’t let the Trauma of Your Past Dictate the Triumphs of Your Future”

Yoga’s core aim is to find peace with yourself; it is a multidimensional process of actively inhabiting one’s own body while choosing the quality of, and attachment or nonattachment to, one’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

Note : *If you are a victim of trauma induced anxiety and have thoughts of hurting yourself, please talk to your doctor. Therapy helps. Support is important. Psychologists and therapists can help you find constructive ways of managing your thoughts and emotions.

How Yoga Further Helps with Anxiety 

Quite simply put Yoga means “Union”. Union of your mind, body and experience. When practiced correctly that’s exactly what you get out of it.

The practice of Yoga, including both Asana (Movement or Poses) and Pranayama (Breathwork), can help you achieve a state of inner ease and calm. It can help you learn to compassionately manage your stress and anxiety levels.

Here’s a list of a few things that you are “doing” when you’re practicing yoga:

  • Mindfully experiencing the Present Moment
    • Yoga helps you explore your body and the sensations you feel. Discover which parts of your body feel numb, sore, tense, tingly or pleasant.
  • Bringing Skill and Awareness to your Breath
    • Each pose when combined with breathwork helps you learn to use your breathing, and the muscles associated with breathing, as tools for self-regulation.
A study shows that breathwork can decrease stress and anxiety levels and increase the sense of ease and comfort.2
  • Developing an awareness of your body’s limitations
    • Yoga helps you to notice your vulnerabilities in a gentle way, which helps you to accept the limitations of your body, thus developing self-trust and becoming comfortable in your own skin.
  • Gradually improving flexibility, mobility and Muscle Strength
    • With an appropriate and consistent practice of yoga, you will experience an improvement in your body’s flexibility, mobility and muscle strength.
  • Helping yourself sleep/rest better
    • Yes, with your body relaxed and serotonin levels increased, you are more likely to get some of the quality sleep you have been missing out on.

A study shows that consistent yoga practice can increase serotonin levels, improve flexibility, build muscle strength and decrease stress levels.3

Is Yoga Right for Me? And, What’s The Catch?

If you still have skepticism, I get it! If it’s so beneficial then why isn’t everyone onboard?

In all honesty, Yoga is not a quick fix. It is a slow but consistent process. It is a big change. If you are used to a certain lifestyle, or to numbing your feelings, committing to this new approach will be difficult. Yoga has a word that sums up the resistance and challenge we experience with changing behaviors – samskara.

Something to remember is that most people have resistance to change. Use that fact as a means to NOT give so much weight to your unique reasons for why you’re resistant. Resistance is what makes a lot of people quit Yoga before they’ve started to experience its benefits. So, notice how you create a resistance story in your head about why it’s particularly challenging for YOU to start a consistent practice of yoga. Your reasons are your own but the resistance itself shows up for most people, it’s non personal. 

It is absolutely possible to transition from an ingrained lifestyle that you KNOW is heading you down a self defeating path – towards the path of your integrity, strength, and delighted spirit! You CAN move towards your goals of overcoming of stress and anxiety. When you make the shift, initially, your mind and body will feel out of place. But you’ll also start to feel better. Discomfort at first is normal. Your mind will try and talk you out of doing the new things. BUT with time, and your commitment to show up, your internal system will rewire. The pleasure will outweigh the discomfort. 

 I promise, if you embrace this change you’ll discover a fresh version of YOU with a heightened sense of self-awareness, self-love and access to joy.

Yoga has helped me learn about my relationship with anxiety, my reactivity and my ability to change both. On the daily, I practice self-awareness and opening to joy.

I’m inviting you to join me. Let’s settle down and practice being easeful while we Practice Yoga, Together!

With High Regard,
Sarah

P.S. An at-home or in-studio yoga practice can be your ally to living well. When you devote the time you will be caring for your nervous system, and in return live a more easeful and joyful life.

Don’t neglect the one and only body you get! Start building your in-home and/or in-studio yoga practice today. I’d love to help you with private sessions, group studio classes or live virtual sessions! You can get Started Here.

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