Fear is one of the most common and overwhelming reactions to those three little words, “You have cancer.” For most of us, if not all of us, it puts us into a tailspin of fear of pain, the impact on family, loss of income, and ultimately, death. As a cancer survivor adjusts to a life-threatening disease, an additional alarm system emerges: uncertainty. From that point on, every tweak, pain, or twitch, even old familiar ones, creates anxiety. Anxiety about what is and is not cancer becomes a new threat and constant companion. This undercurrent of anxiety and fear impact mood, causes depression, and affects quality and length of sleep. These then impact our body’s natural systems to heal and restore, further weakening a survivor’s physical and psychological status. It’s a nasty downward spiral.
Yoga is well known for its powers of relaxation. Many are unaware of the physical benefits though they are easily understood and recognized in popular and modern culture. I want to provide some fact-based reasons for why yoga can help reduce anxiety and fear to essentially calm the nervous system.
The nervous system is complex network of trillions of cells and countless communication pathways throughout the body. Information is delivered to the brain in the form of sensations through sight, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching, and feeling. And the body responds to these sensations, or signals, with pleasure or discomfort and pain. Both responses are interpretations made by the brain to protect us from harm, maximize health, and enhance well-being. If we were in freezing weather and didn’t have a nervous system, we wouldn’t know how cold we were and wouldn’t protect ourselves with winter clothing, risking serious conditions like hypothermia. Without the nervous system, we would not know what is happening in the body, and it would be impossible to take care of ourselves. So an anxious nervous system not only impacts the way we emotionally feel but how our body functions and the power of our immune system.
Research about yoga’s positive impact on the nervous system, especially in reducing anxiety and fear, is plentiful. In 2013, a study conducted by the University of Calgary showed that practicing yoga led to improvements in mood, stress factors, and health-related quality of life (HRQL).15 Participants saw an improvement within the seven-week trial and then in three- and six-month follow-ups. Another study suggests that yoga can be more effective on mood than walking, which is a common recommendation for cancer patients and survivors. Yoga participants reported greater improvement in mood and a reduction in anxiety levels over the control group that only walked.16
Anxiety causes sleep disruption. It’s estimated that between 30 percent and 90 percent of cancer survivors have problems sleeping. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology in 2013 reported that 90 percent of cancer survivors who participated in a yoga program saw improvement in their sleep; they had better sleep quality, less daytime sleepiness, better quality of life, and reduced use of medicines.17
Some psychological principles that help us are the relaxation response, the power of positive expectations, and pranayama, breath control using the practice of various breathing techniques. The latter is a key technique for inducing relaxation in the body This is the science behind yoga that invites you to enjoy safe and relaxing positions, respect your body, settle the monkey mind, work past the normal distractions of daily life, better manage fears and anxiety, and help you make time for healing.
- 15. Mackenzie et al., “Affect and Mindfulness as Predictors of Change in Mood Disturbance, Stress Symptoms, and Quality of Life,”
- 16. Streeter et al., “Effects of Yoga Versus Walking on Mood, Anxiety, and Brain GABA Levels,”
- 17. Mustian et al., “Multicenter, Randomized Controlled Trial of Yoga for Sleep Quality Among Cancer Survivors.”