Yoga and CBT great for treating anxiety, says new study

By Geoff Harris

Just as it looks like 2020 couldn’t get any worse, Covid-19 infection rates are steeply climbing again and although we can hopefully avoid another full national lockdown, chances are your stress levels are rising, too.

One benefit of the pandemic is that more and more yoga teachers, for example, have taken their classes online, making this ancient system for unifying body and mind more accessible than it’s ever been. Some good news has also come from the New York University Grossman School of Medicine – a recent study shows yoga is much better for treating generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) than standard stress management techniques. GAD is a growing problem in the UK, characterised by incessant worrying, a sense of impending disaster and an inability to concentrate. As you can imagine, the risks and uncertainty swirling around Covid have significantly exacerbated the symptoms for a lot of sufferers.

"Generalised anxiety disorder is a very common condition, yet many are not willing or able to access evidence-based treatments," said Naomi M. Simon, MD, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health and lead author of the study. "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."

For the study, a group of 226 men and women with GAD were randomly put in three groups. One focussed on Kundalini yoga, a popular synthesis of a traditional yoga disciplines, the other on stress-management education and the third on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) – a widely used toolbox to help with cognitive distortions. After three months, CBT and yoga came out on top. Some 54 percent of participants who did yoga reported “meaningfully improved” symptoms compared to 33 percent in the stress-education group. Over 71 percent of CBT students, however, reported positive effects. After six months CBT was still on top, while the yoga students weren’t reporting so much difference. This was more than mere dabbling: the participants in all three groups had weekly two-hour sessions for 12 weeks, with 20 minutes of daily homework.

The Kundalini yoga included physical postures, breathing techniques, relaxation exercises, yoga theory, and meditation and mindfulness practice, while the CBT focussed on psycho-education, cognitive interventions (focused on identifying and adapting maladaptive thoughts and worrying), and muscle relaxation techniques.

"Many people already seek complementary and alternative interventions, including yoga, to treat anxiety," said Dr. Simon. "This study suggests that at least short-term there is significant value for people with generalised 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." According to Dr. Simon, future research should aim to understand who is most likely to benefit from yoga for generalised anxiety disorder to help providers better personalise treatment recommendations.

“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,” she says. “Having a range of effective treatments can increase the likelihood people with anxiety will be willing to engage in evidence-based care.”

Credit: Berkshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust

So if you suffer from GAD and have been considering yoga, now seems a great time to try it. This interesting study would also suggest that by combining yoga bodywork with CBT, you will get a powerful combination for battling the anxiety bully – the best of both worlds. A great place to find a yoga teacher is the British Wheel of Yoga, which only lists properly registered and trained teachers. That is not to say that a local yoga teacher who isn’t listed on there is not any good, but be careful to check out their credentials, experience and ensure they have proper insurance. The last thing you want to get from yoga is in injury, as that would be really stressful and defeat the object. If you are interested in CBT, your GP can refer you for free treatment on the NHS but there is likely to be a long waiting list. Properly qualified private therapists are listed by the BACP website with typical prices starting at £40 an hour. There are also a lot of free or relatively cheap CBT resources online, including phone apps such as BeMindful and CatchIt.

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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