Depression and anxiety are on the rise in America.
According to the ADAA (Anxiety and Depression Association of America), 40 million people struggle with an anxiety disorder, and 16.1 million experience major depressive disorder every year.
They’re also common in dual diagnosis.
These are scary numbers.
Anyone with the misfortune of having one of these conditions knows how debilitating they can be.
The negative physical, social and emotional impacts of substance abuse and mental health disorders can be severe and long-lasting.
Thankfully, both can be treated effectively.
However, traditional approaches, like medication and psychotherapy, are far from foolproof.
For instance, medication (if it works in the first place) can lead to all manner of side effects. And therapy can last a long time, costing a lot of money in the process.
As a result, alternative approaches are in high demand.
One such alternative treatment that’s becoming increasingly popular is yoga.
13 million people practice yoga in the U.S. every year, and 58% of them practice it to support their health and well-being.
Keep reading to discover the many amazing benefits of yoga for depression and anxiety.
What Actually Is Yoga?
Some describe yoga as a literal union between yourself and your unconscious. But in practice, it’s a form of physical exercise that combines stretching, breathing, and different body poses.
There are different types of yoga, too.
There’s Hatha, Vinyasa, Ashtanga, Iyengar, and Bikram – among others.
While there are similarities between them all, each offers slight variations in intensity, approach, focus, and speed.
For thousands of years, yoga has been used to enhance spiritual, mental, and physical well-being.
However, only recently has research looked into its specific effects on depression and anxiety.
Of all the different forms, Hatha yoga has been studied the most in relation to its impact on these mental illnesses.
Hatha yoga helps you enter deep states of relaxation by focusing on slow, gentle movements and breathing exercises.
It’s ideal for beginners and could be an excellent place to start if you’re new to the practice.
The Benefits of Yoga for Depression and Anxiety
Scientific studies have begun to prove the benefits of yoga for depression and anxiety.
Below are some of the ways it’s been shown to help:
Yoga Equals Exercise
Yoga can be a tough physical exercise, especially when you first start.
You’ll be twisting, contorting, using small muscle groups, and generally building strength in many different areas of your body.
Potential pain and discomfort aside, research has shown how this can help the way you feel. For instance, a study by Duke University in 2000 showed an inverse relationship between exercise and depression.
The more we exercise, the less depressed we feel.
Exercise was shown to be as effective as medication at reducing symptoms of depression. Participants who exercised throughout the study experienced a greater reduction in symptoms compared to people who took medication.
Building exercise (such as yoga) into your routine is beneficial to naturally improve periods of depression and anxiety.
Yoga Equals Meditation
Mindful meditation is a practice of non-judgmental awareness in the present moment.
It’s also a recognized clinical treatment for anxiety and depression.
Yoga involves deep, controlled breathing and a focus on the present moment.
Together, these act to produce a mindful state.
How does it help? Well, things often feel overwhelming when you’re anxious and depressed. Your thoughts and emotions may feel out of control, or you may feel nothing at all. Yoga helps by giving you something to focus on.
Whether it’s a mantra, your breathing, or body posture, it grounds you in the present moment and pulls your thoughts back under control. It also makes you more self-aware in the process.
Yoga enables you to see and experience the way you feel.
Over time, you become more self-aware in general, even outside of your yoga practice. Being self-aware like this helps you spot potential problems and find ways to prevent relapse from occurring.
Yoga Impacts Your Brain
Yoga impacts brain chemistry too.
We’ve seen how exercise is great for depression and anxiety.
It works because it’s a natural way of producing chemicals called serotonin and endorphins in our brain. Low serotonin levels play a big role in depression and anxiety.
Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) are common medication types that help raise the amounts of serotonin in our system. This decreases the symptoms of anxiety and depression as a result.
Yoga helps to modulate the levels of these chemicals in precisely the same way.
Yoga Lowers Stress Levels
Stress is a big component of depression and anxiety.
It’s hard to feel positive emotions when you’re stressed.
Thankfully, yoga helps to reduce stress levels, as well.
One way it does so is by increasing the production of Galanin, which is a neurochemical that reduces the brain/body response to stress.
Interestingly, studies also suggest a link between yoga, stress, and pain. Essentially, the more susceptible you are to stress, the less tolerant you are of pain.
This Harvard article discusses research where yoga teachers had the highest tolerance to pain and the lowest activity in areas of the brain that respond to stress.
If yoga develops our tolerance to stress and pain, then it may also build resilience against depression and anxiety.
Yoga and Physiology
The emotional aspect of depression and anxiety is often linked with a physiological reaction, too.
For instance, anxiety tends to involve an increased heart rate and sweaty palms. Yoga helps decrease this physiological arousal. Your heart rate goes down, your blood pressure lowers, and your breathing slows.
It is also said to increase our heart rate variability (HRV).
HRV is the time difference between our heartbeats. It’s thought that a higher HRV makes it easier to self-monitor and adapt to stressful situations. The higher your HRV, the more emotionally resilient you’re meant to be.
Yoga and Sleep
Some types of yoga positions, such as the ‘corpse pose’, are also known to help with sleep issues.
Sleep problems are often linked with various mental health disorders, including depression and anxiety.
It’s a vicious circle.
The more tired you are, the more susceptible you are to depression and anxiety. And the more depressed and/or anxious you are, the harder it is to sleep.
Yoga and Community
A final benefit of yoga for depression and anxiety is the community aspect that can come with it.
This is an indirect bonus of yoga, but important nonetheless. After all, these mental health disorders can make you feel exceptionally lonely.
Though yoga can be done alone, group yoga is also popular and provides social interaction that’s beneficial in improving one’s mental well-being.
Yoga helps foster a sense of belonging by coming together as a group, doing the same thing, struggling over the same poses, and bonding via a shared attempt to become physically and mentally healthier.
The Best Yoga Poses for Anxiety and Depression
The below yoga poses are some of the poses that are meant to alleviate anxiety and depression:
We already know that this one helps with sleep. It also lowers your blood pressure, gets rid of headaches, and reduces fatigue.
Simply lay on your back, play dead, and breathe deeply.
Here’s another nice and easy one that has many of the same effects.
Get into the same position on your hands and knees, like a child about to start crawling. Next, sit on your heels and drop your stomach between your knees, with your hands extending far out in front of you.
Legs Up the Wall
Lay on your back, place your bum against the wall, and extend your legs upwards.
Lie there with your palms up and on the floor, to your side, for 30 seconds or so.
It’s surprisingly relaxing and helps calm your breathing and lower your blood pressure.
Important Considerations for Yoga, Depression, and Anxiety
As we’ve seen, yoga can have fantastic benefits for depression and anxiety.
However, there are certain things to consider.
For instance, it might be less suited for people with lower levels of flexibility.
It is likely to be more challenging as a beginner, and the poses can sometimes be uncomfortable initially. There’s also a risk of injury, too.
Equally, taking classes can get expensive. It might be harder for people with less expendable income to engage with.
Check with your local group or health center to see how much classes would cost.
Finally, people receiving support for depression and/or anxiety shouldn’t just drop their medication or therapeutic support.
Yoga is only recommended as a complementary approach to current treatments.
Always consult with a medical professional before changing your treatment program.
Time to Wrap Up
Anxiety and depression are debilitating mental illnesses.
Thankfully, they can be effectively treated.
Yoga treatment is one particular alternative treatment that can have significant positive effects on the way you feel.
As we’ve seen, there are many benefits of yoga for depression and anxiety.
The exercises help stimulate chemicals that improve our moods.
Its meditative nature focuses us in the present moment, enhances our self-awareness, reduces physical arousal, and helps us sleep.
It supports our response to stress and provides a sense of community that allows us to interact with others.
We hope you experience the immense benefits that yoga can bring if you decide to give it a go.
For more information on alternative treatment options, contact one of our addiction specialists today.