Yoga can improve anxiety but it is not as effective as talking therapy – study

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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.

CBT is a talking therapy that can help patients deal with negative thinking by managing overwhelming problems in a more positive way.

Two women perform yoga exercises in a shaded spot in Green Park, central London (Victoria Jones/PA)

But researchers say some people may be unwilling to commit to the process or 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.

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“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.”

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

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% of those in the yoga group saw their symptoms improve compared to 33% in the stress-education group.

The researchers said that among those who were treated with CBT, 71% 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.

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.

According to the experts, this suggests CBT has longer-lasting anxiety-reducing effects.

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.

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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.”

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