Regular yoga practice may help improve symptoms of long-term anxiety, but it is not as effective as talking therapy, research suggests.
Scientists at the New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine have found that when it comes to treating generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) – a chronic condition that causes anxiousness about a wide range of situations and issues – yoga has short-term benefits but is less effective than cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) in the long run.
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CBT is a talking therapy that can help patients deal with negative thinking by managing overwhelming problems in a more positive way.
But researchers say some people may be unwilling to commit to the process, or don’t have access to this form of therapy and, hence, alternative options may be needed.
Naomi M Simon, a professor in the department of psychiatry at NYU Langone Health, who is one of the authors of the study published in JAMA Psychiatry, said: “Generalised anxiety disorder is a very common condition, yet many are not willing or able to access evidence-based treatments.
“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.”
The study involved 226 men and women with GAD who were randomly assigned to three groups – CBT, Kundalini yoga, or stress-management education.
The Kundalini yoga practice involved getting into different strengthening postures as well performing various breathing techniques, relaxation exercises, and meditation.
Those in the stress-management group received guidance on how to manage anxiety, such as reducing alcohol and smoking, and understanding the importance of exercise and a healthy diet.
All the treatment programmes lasted for 12 weeks, with weekly two-hour sessions and 20 minutes of daily homework.
Results showed that 54 per cent of those in the yoga group saw their symptoms improve compared to 33 per cent in the stress-education group.
The researchers said that among those who were treated with CBT, 71 per cent met the symptom improvement criteria.
But after six months of follow-up, the researchers found that while the CBT response remained significantly better than stress education, yoga was no longer as effective.
According to the experts, this suggests CBT has longer-lasting anxiety-reducing effects.
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However, Prof Simon said that while CBT is considered the gold standard treatment for GAD, alternative interventions, such as yoga, could help manage the condition for those unwilling to explore talking therapy as an option.
She said that future research is needed to understand who is most likely to benefit from yoga for GAD to help therapists provide personalised treatment recommendations.
Prof Simon added: “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.”
She added: “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.”
Reader Q&A: How does physical exercise help reduce stress?
Asked by: Lucie Coltman, via Twitter
Research clearly shows that physical exercise can reduce stress and anxiety, but it’s less clear how this occurs. Multiple mechanisms are likely to be important. Exercise can help to reduce the body’s response to stress by boosting serotonin levels in the brain.
It can also give us a sense of achievement and increase our self-esteem, which can provide psychological routes by which to reduce stress. Finally, research shows that exercise taken in moderate amounts and at appropriate times of the day can improve our sleep. Good sleep quality can help us to regulate our emotions and therefore provides another way in which physical exercise helps to reduce stress.