The practice of yoga, which began over 3,500 years ago, has traditionally been practiced to alleviate physical and mental suffering as well to train the mind to be effortlessly quiet, focused, and self-aware. It’s known that severe or chronic stress can have serious long-term consequences. If it’s not addressed, it can lead to a range of physical health problems as well as mental health problems such as persistent anxiety and depression.
Although the most commonly used treatments for such mental health issues involves traditional psychotherapy and/or medication, both of which have been found effective for many people, some may not always seek out professional support or they may find these to not be effective enough by themselves for their particular problems (Smith et al. 2017). For these reasons, there is a need for appropriate self-help strategies which can be used alone or in combination with psychotherapy, medication, or both. Along with the well-known benefits of yoga for physical health, there are a growing number of scientific studies that are demonstrating that yoga, especially traditional hatha or other forms of meditative or mindful yoga, can help people suffering from anxiety, depression, and other emotional stress (e.g., Streeter et al. 2010; Gard et al., 2014; Hoffmann et al. 2016; Falsafi 2016; Patel et al. 2016).
How Can Yoga Help?
On a physiological level, it’s thought that practicing yoga can increase a person’s ability to cope with anxiety symptoms by increasing levels of GABA (Gamma amino butyric acid) in the brain, triggering the parasympathetic nervous system to allow the body to be less reactive and decrease stress levels. In other words, the symptoms are experienced less often, less intensely, and for shorter periods of time.
In addition, the postures, breath-work, and mindful meditation aspects of yoga can help to give the practitioner greater control of their focus, the content of their thoughts, and the feelings connected to those thoughts (Garde et al., 2014). These aspects of yoga can be beneficial in decreasing symptoms of depression as well as addressing the distorted thinking that underlie the symptoms.
For example, highly focused attention on a specific body part or an external focal point during yoga postures can raise awareness of tension in your body and then allow you to act to consciously release that tension. When this bodily awareness is combined with breath control to calm the mind, awareness of your thoughts and feelings is increased. This allows you to have a more objective (less judgmental) view of your experiences and to focus on the present instead of the past or future. This can yield a greater sense of self-control and confidence, decreasing negative self-talk that contributes to depression and other mental health problems.
Yoga and Psychotherapy
Although common daily stress may be alleviated by yoga or mindful meditation alone, many of us have more severe or chronic stress or mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. In these cases, it may be necessary to include psychotherapy as an additional treatment in order to dislodge entrenched negative self-beliefs, increase understanding or insight of one’s experiences, or even just to have someone to listen with compassion.
Additional research is demonstrating that yoga and psychotherapy can work effectively together in treating anxiety and depression or even help to reduce symptoms in PTSD, ADHD, and schizophrenia to increase a person’s quality of life (Balasubramaniam et al., 2013; Gerbarg et al., 2017). In combination with psychotherapy, yoga can lead to increased self-awareness, positive self-image, self-confidence, increased concentration and productivity, sleep regularity, healthier social skills and relationships, and increased emotional regulation and resilience by reconditioning our behavior patterns (Tiwari 2016).
If you are experiencing anxiety or other mental health issues, we at Mindful Ways to Wellness offer yoga classes, private yoga sessions, and mental health counseling. Please feel free to comment or ask any questions below. Click here to learn more our mental health and yoga services at Mindful Ways to Wellness in St. Petersburg, Florida. We look forward to hearing from you!
John Whitaker, LMHC
Licensed Mental Health Counselor
References and Further Reading
Balasubramaniam, M., Telles, S., and P.M. Doraiswamy. (2013). Yoga on our minds: A systematic review of yoga for neuropsychiatric disorders. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 3(117):1-16.
Cerqueira, J.J., Almeida, O.F.X., and N. Sousa. (2008). The stressed prefrontal cortex: Left? Right! Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 22:630–638.
Falsafi, N. (2016, August). A randomized controlled trial of mindfulness versus yoga effects on depression and/or anxiety in college students. Journal of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association, 22(6): 483-497.
Gard, T., Noggle, J.J., Park, C.L., Vago, D.R., and A. Wilson. (2014). Potential self-regulatory mechanisms of yoga for psychological health. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8(770):1-20.
Gerbarg, P.L., Muskin, P.R., and R.P. Brown. (2017). Complementary and Integrative Treatments in Psychiatric Practice. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association Publishing.
Hagen, I. and U.S. Nayar. (2014). Yoga for children and young people’s mental health and well-being: Research review and reflections on the mental health potentials of yoga. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 5(35):1-6.
Javnbakht, M., Kenari, R. H., and M. Ghasemi. (2009). Effects of yoga on depression and anxiety of women. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 15:102-104.
Parasuraman, S., Wen, L.E., Zhen, K.M., Hean, C.K. and A.T. Sam. (2016). Exploring the pharmacological and pharmacotherapeutic effects of yoga. PBT Reports, 2(1):6-10.
Patel, N., Baria, D., and V. Joshi. (2016). Effect of yoga on stress in women. Journal of Research in Medical and Dental Science, 4(3):224-227.
Ross, A. and S. Thomas. (2010). The health benefits of yoga and exercise: A review of comparison studies. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 16(1):3–12.
Roberts, E. (1988). The establishment of GABA as a neurotransmitter. In: GABA and Benzodiazepine Receptors, Squires, R. F., Ed., pp. 1–21, CRC Press: Boca Raton, FL.
Smith, C., Hancock, H., Blake-Mortimer, J., and K. Eckert. (2007). A randomised comparative trial of yoga and relaxation to reduce stress and anxiety. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 15:77—83.
Streeter, C.C., Whitfield, T.H., Owen, L., Rein, T., Karri, S.K., Yakhkind, A., Perlmutter, R., Prescot, A., Renshaw, P.F., Ciraulo, D.A. and J.E. Jensen. (2010). Effects of yoga versus walking on mood, anxiety, and brain GABA levels: A randomized controlled MRS study. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 16(11):1145–1152.
Tiwari, G.K. (2016). Yoga and mental health: An underexplored relationship. The International Journal of Indian Psychology, Volume 4, (1(76)):19-31.
Uebelacker, L.A. and M.K. Broughton. (2016). Yoga for depression and anxiety: A review of published research and implications for health care providers. Rhode Island Medical Journal, 99(3):20-22.