At some point, everyone has some stress and anxiety, but chronic and intense episodes can affect your health. Long term and intensive stress not only lowers the quality of your life but can also worsen any current illness you have, lower your immune system, and contribute to heart disease. Of course, we cannot eliminate all stress in our lives, but there are steps to help us better manage stress and anxiety. There are some medications that may help manage symptoms but they can have side effects of their own. As a result, medical researchers are often looking for non-pharmacological ways to reduce stress. Two approaches that have shown some success are relaxation techniques and regular physical activity. Yoga is a mind-body exercise that combines both relaxation techniques and physical activity. Because of this unique approach, yoga has become a common tool for people with stress or anxiety.
Researchers from the United States reviewed several previous trials to determine if yoga was actually an effective way to manage stress. The systematic review, published in Alternative Medicine Review, found that yoga appears to be effective at decreasing anxiety and stress symptoms.
The systematic review included 35 previous randomized and non-randomized trials that evaluated the effect of yoga on stress and anxiety symptoms. A total of 1,794 participants were involved in the trials. The participants varied between the trials with some reporting anxiety because of a chronic medical condition or illness like cancer or rheumatoid arthritis. Others had job related stress such as losing a job or job performance anxiety in participants like firefighters, medical students, or musicians. Stress and anxiety levels were categorized by scores from standard anxiety/stress evaluation tests before and after each intervention. The type and duration of yoga interventions also varied between studies.
In 25 of the included trials, participants reported a significant decrease in symptoms of stress or anxiety after an intervention of yoga.
A systematic review is considered a very reliable form of research. Pooling a large amount of outcomes increases the likelihood that those results are true and not due to chance. However, the systematic review is only as good as the trials that make it up. In this case, the trials included in the review were of low quality. This means the results are not quite as reliable as most systematic reviews. There was also a lot of variability in the yoga treatments and the causes of stress. This makes it difficult to determine what types of yoga are more beneficial or if the benefits are greater for a certain population, like those with chronic illnesses.
There are a variety of yoga classes and yoga instructors. Start with classes geared towards beginners and explore other types of yoga once you are ready to move on. If you have a current or chronic illness, talk to your doctor before beginning an exercise program. It may be helpful to seek classes that specialize in conditions like arthritis or cancer recovery. If stress or anxiety is interfering with your life, talk to your doctor. Together you can make a plan to help you manage your stress and anxiety symptoms.
Li AW, Goldsmith CA.
The effects of yoga on anxiety and stress.
Altern Med Rev. 2012 Mar;17(1):21-35.
Last reviewed September 2012 by Brian P. Randall, MD
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