When 35-year-old Andrea Evenson decided to try meditation, exercise and yoga to deal with her anxiety, she had already been on a myriad of anti-anxiety medications. The Alexandria resident had seen several psychiatrists, who’d prescribed a variety of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications with side effects that ran the gamut from weight gain to lethargy, but never quite controlled her symptoms, which included irritability and mood swings.
“Some of the medication helped with some of the symptoms, but I was never able to find the right combination to help me feel like my old self again,” said Evenson. “I tried a combination of meditation and exercise along with medication, and that is when I began to see a difference.”
Mental health professionals say anxiety is a normal human emotion everyone experiences at one time or another. Common anxiety often manifests itself in the form of a nervous feeling that many experience when faced with common life difficulties. However, anxiety disorders such as Evenson’s can interfere with a person’s ability to lead a normal life; they can be crippling, serious mental illnesses.
“Anxiety is a feeling similar to worry or nervousness,” said clinical psychologist Stacie Isenberg, Ph.D. “To a lesser degree it is adaptive and serves the purpose of keeping us alert and aware so that we perform at our best. For example, having some anxiety about a test can motivate one to pay close attention to the question. To a greater degree, it causes intense discomfort and can be overpowering for example freezing on the test and not completing it, or avoiding the test altogether.”
“Complementary treatments such as meditation, mindfulness, yoga, massage and exercise can also be effective in managing anxiety,” Pamela Schultz, an Arlington-based psychotherapist. “That doesn’t mean that these treatments should be used instead of traditional medicine, especially for a person with anxiety that has reached the level of mental illness and affects their ability to function.”
ONE OF THE MOST COMMON complementary treatments for anxiety is yoga. “Just one yoga class has proven to lower … stress levels,” said Luann Fulbright, director, certified yoga instructor and therapist at Dream Yoga Studio and Wellness Center in McLean. “I also have worked privately with many students on anxiety and panic disorders [called] therapeutic yoga with success. This is a dominant reason folks come to yoga.”
“I’ve had clients who’ve used Reiki, a treatment where a practitioner lays his or her hands on or just above a person, and reported experiencing a sense of calm,” said Schultz. “I’ve also had clients report that yoga nidra, a sleep-like state where a client experiences extreme relaxation, is helpful.”
Exercise, both strength training and aerobic, helps manage anxiety, said
Christian Elliot, founder and CEO of True Health and Wholeness in Arlington. “A lot of it has to do with the chemicals that exercise releases in your brain. They help with mood and digestion” he said. “[Exercise] has benefits across the hormone spectrum. There are not many hormones that it doesn’t benefit positively. Exercise is your body’s way of saying ‘This person is serious. I’m going to have to shut down the system and clean it up.’”
Elliot adds that exercise not only improves sleep, it enables deeper sleep. “Some of my clients will come in feeling grumpy and come out feeling a lot more positive.” Elliot recommends exercising at least three to four times each week.
Bodywork and therapeutic massage therapist Bud Earley, said, “I try to promote ease and responsiveness in my clients by utilizing an eclectic blend of massage techniques geared toward the individual’s needs. I will also employ … breathing techniques to help relax the client and to support the changes from the bodywork.”
Earley says that when a person experiences anxiety of any degree, “their functional field becomes more limited, and thus, more narrow and rigid,” he said. “The ‘fight or flight’ response kicks in in response to threats, real or imagined. The response can become chronic, where the sympathetic nervous system is continually discharging hormones to keep the individual prepared to respond to perceived threats.”
Early says he has seen complementary medical treatments help clients first hand. “I had a client who was an expert in a particular type of kung-fu,” he said. “However, a high level of stress and anxiety prevented him from functioning at the level he desired.”
“I did intensive work with the client, in conjunction with a therapist experienced in neurofeedback, which teaches self-regulation of brain function,” he said. “Over a matter of several months, it was a pleasure to see his countenance change dramatically and to see him functionally and obviously so much more relaxed and at ease within himself and with his surroundings.”
Sara VanderGoot, co-owner of Mind the Mat Pilates and Yoga in Alexandria and Arlington, teaches clients to use meditation and mindfulness, a practice of keeping one’s thoughts in the present moment. “Our team has worked with clients with [post-traumatic stress disorder], as well as terminally ill clients,” said VanderGoot. “In both cases, the practice of yoga, deep breathing and mediation have reduced the stress response significantly, and, in many cases, have been the only practices that these clients could turn to for relief.”
NATURAL ANXIETY treatments can be created on an individual basis. “For some students, having a very vigorous practice, perhaps in a heated room, and then a time to meditate in savasana, [also known as] corpse pose, reduces anxiety,” said VanderGoot, certified message therapist and registered yoga teacher “For others, deep breathing and the quiet repetition of an affirmation, such as ‘I am relaxed,’ does the trick. Either way, these practices must be done consistently over time. Scientific studies have shown that steady practice of deep breathing and meditation can significantly reduce levels of anxiety as well as aid in the healing of depression.”
“Yoga, breath practices and meditation curb the flight or fight response of an activated sympathetic nervous system and aid the practitioner to shift into a state of awareness, where he/she can observe what is happening in his or her body without judgment or a need to change it,” said VanderGoot. “From awareness, a natural sense of well-being often arises and the need to fight or flee disappears. Then the practitioner is able to enjoy full presence in the moment regardless of what sensations arise in the body.”
While Schultz said complementary practices can be effective, she offers a caveat. “The key is complement,” she said. “I would recommend these modalities be used while also working with a licensed mental health professional.”