Yoga for Treatment of Generalized Anxiety Disorder

People in yoga class
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Though anxiety is a common, shared human experience, the persistent and uncontrollable anxiety that is characteristic of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) affects a subgroup of individuals; approximately 3% of people will have this condition within a given year (i.e. 12-month prevalence rate). Individuals with GAD often struggle with other psychiatric problems, such as depression or another type of anxiety disorder. Even in the case of so-called “uncomplicated” GAD, an individual’s functioning in school, work, and relationships can be negatively impacted by the physical and psychological symptoms.

Good treatments for GAD exist. Scientific studies have shown clear support for cognitie behavioral therapy (CBT) as the first-line psychotherapy of choice for GAD. Mindfulness-based approaches also appear to effectively target anxiety symptoms. In addition, there are a number of medications that can successfully target anxiety symptoms.

Barriers to Classic Treatment Options

Unfortunately, the available treatments are sometimes inaccessible to those people struggling with GAD. Barriers to seeking out evidence-based treatment include (1) cost, (2) access to clinicians trained in a specific approach, and (3) sufficient time for routine face-to-face appointments. For these reasons, research about how to improve existing treatment approaches is ongoing. For example, within the field of psychology, scientists have tested guided self-help approaches based on CBT in which a patient meets less frequently with a non-specialized clinician and are beginning to test the use of telemedicine (e.g., video, phone or text contact with a clinician) and ecological momentary interventions (e.g., smartphone applications that target anxiety symptoms) as well.

Yoga as an Alternative Treatment Strategy

Alternative treatment strategies are also under investigation. Yoga is a standout among the alternative options for several reasons.

First, the practice of yoga has become much less alternative over time.  It is among the most widely adopted alternative approaches. A report on trends in the use of complementary health approaches among adults, using data from a National Health Interview Survey completed in 2012 in the U.S., indicated that 9.5% of the approximately 90,000 people surveyed had used yoga in the past year; this was up from 5.1% and 6.1% in 2002 and 2007, respectively. All age groups showed an increase use of yoga over the 10-year period, though in general young (ages 18-44) and mid-life (ages 44-64) adults used it more than late-life individuals (ages 65+).

Second, yoga is an activity that incorporates empirically supported elements of more traditional treatments. It teaches breath regulation, relaxation strategies including meditation and mindfulness, and physical activity, all of which have been shown to help improve anxiety across anxiety disorders. One scientific study of mindfulness-based stress reduction treatment for adults with anxiety, chronic pain, illness, and other stress-related problems found that a home practice of yoga exercises was the largest contributor to the helpfulness of the overall treatment.

Finally, with the expansion of the yoga industry—both in-person studios and classes available digitally—the approach is more accessible than ever to people. For some individuals, seeking out yoga lacks the stigma of seeking out psychological or pharmacological treatment for anxiety. Plus, yoga may be a potentially appealing option for children and adolescents with anxiety disorders like GAD.

Bottom Line

While research is ongoing, yoga does not appear to be contra-indicated for the treatment of anxiety. Speak to your physician if you have concerns about medical or other conditions and yoga practice, and read on for some information on yoga for beginners.

View Article Sources
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  • Clarke TC, Black LI, Stussman BJ, Barnes RL, Nahin RL. Trends in the use of complementary health approaches among adults: United States, 2002-2012. National Health Statistics Reports, 2015 (79): 1-16.
  • Hofman SG, Curtiss J, Khalsa SBS, Hoge E, Rosenfield D, Bui E, Keshaviah A, Simon N. Yoga for generalized anxiety disorder: design of a randomized controlled clinical trial. Contemporary Clinical Trials, 2015 (44): 70-76.