Find yourself worrying all the time? This ancient discipline can help

During a normal year, it’s estimated that 6.8 million American adults struggle with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). This year, though, has been anything but normal. So, it’s reasonable to speculate that even more people are feeling particularly anxious these days.

If you find yourself worrying much more often lately, or have been dealing with GAD for quite some time, researchers from New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine just released a new study that may be of interest to you. They conclude that yoga offers tangible worry-reducing benefits and can help alleviate GAD-related symptoms.

GAD is characterized by constant feelings of nervousness and worry. While it’s true that pretty much everyone feels anxious from time to time, the situation crosses over into disorder territory once those anxious feelings start to interfere with everyday life. An individual is usually officially diagnosed with GAD if they report being unable to control their worries on most days over a six month period. Most people with GAD say they frequently experience intense worries about fairly straightforward problems like grocery shopping or responding to emails.

Yoga, meanwhile, is an ancient discipline that can be traced back thousands of years. Fast forward to modern times and it’s probably most synonymous with difficult (and seemingly impossible for beginners) physical poses, breathing techniques, and exercise mats. At its core, yoga is all about strengthening and disciplining both the body and mind to achieve a greater sense of balance and control over one’s being.

When described in these terms, it makes sense that practicing yoga would help with an anxiety disorder. So, the team at NYU set out to gather some scientific evidence to that effect. By the end of their work, they found that yoga is significantly more effective at helping treat GAD than standard stress management techniques.

“Generalized anxiety disorder is a very common condition, yet many are not willing or able to access evidence-based treatments,” says lead study author Naomi M. Simon, MD, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health, in a release. “Our findings demonstrate that yoga, which is safe and widely available, can improve symptoms for some people with this disorder and could be a valuable tool in an overall treatment plan.”

However, as helpful as yoga can be, researchers also made a point to note that CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) is still more beneficial for GAD patients. CBT is a form of talk therapy focused on identifying and doing away with negative thought patterns. Still, they say yoga represents a great anxiety-relief avenue for anyone looking to try a different approach.

“Many people already seek complementary and alternative interventions, including yoga, to treat anxiety,” Dr. Simon adds. “This study suggests that at least short-term there is significant value for people with a generalized anxiety disorder to give yoga a try to see if it works for them. Yoga is well-tolerated, easily accessible, and has a number of health benefits.”

A total of 226 men and women, all of whom were diagnosed with GAD, took part in this study. Each of the participants was randomly assigned to one of three groups: a Kundalini yoga group, a CBT group, and a standardized stress-management education group. Each of those three programs consisted of weekly two-hour sessions for a total of three months.

Subjects in the CBT group were taught muscle-relaxation techniques, psychoeducational principles, and cognitive interventions centered on recognizing and correcting negative thought patterns. Yoga participants were taught how to meditate, various physical poses, breathing techniques, and relaxation exercises. Finally, those in the stress-management group were given lectures on the overall negative health implications of stress and educated on how lifestyle changes (exercise, healthy diet, cutting back on alcohol/tobacco) can lead to less frequent anxious feelings.

At the end of those three months, researchers checked in to see just how much the three programs had helped reduce anxiety.

Immediately after the classes ended, it was already apparent that both yoga and CBT are superior options in comparison to traditional stress-management education. Specifically, 71% of GAD patients enrolled in CBT saw their symptoms improve, and 54% of those practicing yoga met the same “meaningful symptom improvement” criteria. Comparatively, only 33% of participants receiving stress education enjoyed GAD symptom improvement.

Then, after another three months had passed, they followed up with study subjects once more to gauge the long-term effects of the three strategies. CBT showed the most staying power in terms of anxiety reduction, but to be fair, one can’t expect a yoga session from three months ago to help with today’s anxiety. To reap the anxiety-relieving benefits associated with yoga one must continue to practice it regularly.

In summation, yoga isn’t a guaranteed cure-all for anxiety, stress, and worry. That being said, it can help calm the body and mind. Perhaps most importantly, it promotes a greater sense of control over one’s thoughts – which would be a welcome relief for most GAD patients.

“We need more options to treat anxiety because different people will respond to different interventions, and having more options can help overcome barriers to care,” Dr. Simon concludes. “Having a range of effective treatments can increase the likelihood people with anxiety will be willing to engage in evidence-based care.”

The full study can be found here, published in JAMA Psychiatry.