There are many physical health benefits of yoga, such as improving gut health and digestion, and building strength and flexibility, but what does research say about its effects on mental health? Some say that those who practice yoga develop the ability to remain calm and focused, but is there scientific evidence that yoga can have a positive effect on conditions such as anxiety and depression?
Mental Health at a Glance
There are millions of adults in the United States who suffer from mental health disorders. The National Alliance on Mental Illness states that nearly 20% of individuals over the age of 18 struggle with their mental health each year. More than 48 million people struggle with anxiety, while more than 17.5 million struggle with major depressive episodes. Others struggle with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), borderline personality disorder (BPD), and dual-diagnoses with substance abuse.
Experts state that nearly 1 in 6 Americans, or 17% of the population, take at least one psychiatric medication. However, the trend of also using holistic treatment options is on the rise as individuals increasingly look for alternate ways to help manage medical conditions. Some try acupressure to help cope with anxiety while others use therapeutic worksheets to work through their negative or intrusive thoughts.
Causes of Mental Health Disorders
While the precise cause of mental health disorders is not fully understood, researchers note that biological changes in the brain contribute to underlying conditions such as depression and anxiety. Chemical imbalances that interrupt the proper release of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine significantly impact mood. Chronic imbalances can lead to ongoing issues with mental health. However, only half of those who take medication report a notable decrease in symptoms. This presents the need for an augmented course of treatment for many individuals. Often, they turn to practices such as yoga.
While many consider yoga to be a mindfulness practice, several studies showed that it can have a neurobiological impact on those struggling with conditions such as anxiety and depression. This means that yoga, physically, may help improve mental health symptoms.
Yoga and the Brain
Studies show that there is a difference in brain structure and function among yoga practitioners. MRIs show that those who participate in yoga classes or sessions on a regular basis have an increased volume of gray matter in the left hippocampus, an area in the brain that may be linked to emotional regulation, anxiety, and stress. These findings show that there may be a positive effect of yoga on the brain.
Additionally, yoga may help promote levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA in the brain. GABA helps regulate nerve activity, and those with anxiety disorders often present with low levels of the brain chemical. By increasing GABA levels with the practice of yoga, individuals may see a reduction in their anxiety symptoms.
However, the direct cause and result is not yet thoroughly understood. Other studies showed that those who practice yoga report lower levels of stress, fewer episodes of depression, and a better ability to cope with anxiety and intrusive thoughts. Researchers believe that this is the result of the mind-body connection of the practice.
The Mind-Body Connection
There is no known cure for mental health disorders and they are chronic conditions that must be treated as such. Some individuals may suffer from a single major depressive episode throughout their lifetime, but for most, symptoms come in waves that they must manage as they occur.
Yoga focuses on a mind-body connection that may help those with mental health disorders better manage symptoms. The practice teaches individuals to quiet their minds, acknowledge thoughts yet let them pass, and release tension and stress in the body. While this is not a cure for depression or anxiety, it can help those who struggle to cope with the feelings they experience as they arise.
Many who struggle with anxiety or panic disorder report racing thoughts and physical sensations such as increased heart rate, shortness of breath, or sweating. Experts often recommend grounding techniques to help bring awareness back to the here and now. Experienced yogis root their practice in this theory as they focus solely on the breath and body.
Similarly, those with depression often report overwhelming feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, with the inability to control these thoughts and emotions. Yoga presents the opportunity to pause and clear the mind of negative thinking, while focusing only on the current moment.
While these practices do not cure mental illness, they do present individuals with a coping mechanism. One study shows that adults who regularly participate in the practice report better psychological health, a better quality of life, and fewer reports of distress. However, the researchers note that it is not yet possible to prove a direct correlation, biologically, between the two.
Yoga and the Use of Mantras
Positive mantras are part of many yoga classes. They are phrases or affirmations that participants repeat to themselves, either silently or out loud. Mantras include only positive sentiments and are a form of self-talk. Practicing positive mantras and gratitude can reduce stress, a primary symptom that often accompanies both anxiety and depression.
Self-talk is a cognitive training mechanism that many therapists encourage patients to try when combatting negative thoughts or anxiety. Studies show that it can help reduce feelings of anxiety and improve self-image and self-worth. However, it is important to note that results are mixed. While the use of positive affirmations reportedly helps some who struggle with mental health disorders see an improvement in symptoms, others note that there is no significant difference.
Therapists often incorporate positive self-talk in the process of Cognitive Behavioral Training (CBT). Cognitive Behavioral Training is one of the most widely used techniques in treating anxiety. It encourages individuals to counteract every negative thought with an opposite positive thought. This type of positive self-talk can be beneficial to those who struggle with intrusive, repetitive thinking. Over time it becomes second nature that the mind jump to the positive thought before the negative cognition. It can significantly reduce anxiety and help individuals shorten the duration of panic attacks.
Learning to use these mantras and positive self-talk through the practice of yoga can be a GR8 thing. For beginners, or those who are new to the concept of positive self-talk, incorporating the process in a structured yoga class can help get you started. Then, carry that skill out into everyday life. Use your favorite mantras from yoga class when your thoughts start to race or when you start thinking negatively. Over time this can help reduce symptoms.
Physiological relaxation is the process of relaxing the body and the mind at the same time. Many forms of yoga, particularly yin yoga, focus on decompressing the muscles and joints and letting go of any physical tension while also focusing on the breath to clear the mind. This is a practice that can promote physiological relaxation and therefore reduce stress.
Researchers suggest that while this process may help improve the immediate presenting symptoms of mental health disorders, further studies are needed to confirm the direct correlation. They believe that the physical effects may also impact the neurobiological process, or the process that takes place in the brain, but can not yet identify the cause. It is believed that the deep breathing that accompanies the practice may play a role.
If you are looking to see whether yoga has a direct impact on mental health, scientific conclusions vary. While there is no doubt that the practice can help settle the mind, quiet thoughts, and promote relaxation while reducing stress, there is little-to-no evidence that it has a direct impact on clinically diagnosed mental health disorders. That is, researchers cannot identify that it results in a change in the brain over time.
However, this is not to understate the benefits of yoga. Many therapists and mental health professionals do recommend mindfulness techniques such as yoga and meditation as a way to help patients manage symptoms.
While yoga may not treat mental health disorders, it can certainly help those who struggle to incorporate more positive thinking and relaxation into their lives. For those who struggle with anxiety or depression as a primary diagnosis this can be a GR8 oasis.
Similarly, for those with a dual-diagnosis of mental health and substance abuse disorder, yoga can provide a constructive outlet in which to funnel emotion. Often, those with dual-diagnosis disorders find that when they have a hobby they are passionate about that their symptoms and cravings become more manageable.
One of the most significant benefits of yoga, though, is that unlike with medication or dietary supplements, there is little-to-no risk involved in trying the practice. If a patient tries yoga and finds that it does not help symptoms, or that they do not enjoy the practice, no harm is done. There are no side effects of the physical activity. However, if you do have a secondary physical diagnosis such as arthritis or are undergoing treatment for another condition you must seek guidance from your treating physician.
If you or a loved one is struggling with mental health it is important to seek the care of a licensed professional. Only a doctor or licensed therapist can provide a diagnosis and recommend the best course of treatment based on your unique circumstances.
If you are looking for more resources on coping with stress and mental health, as well as the benefits of yoga, check out the resources below.
At GR8NESS, we recognize that mental health is a very real, very serious topic. While we are not a substitute for medical advice, we seek to serve as a source of information and ideas.
- Acupressure to help with anxiety
- FREE therapeutic worksheets used by professional therapists
- Ways to focus on improving your mental health
- Understanding Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
- How to bring mental health awareness to your environment
Although not scientifically proven, yoga can have many benefits in regard to mood and overall wellness. If you’re interested in learning more about the practice, get involved in the GR8NESS yoga community.
- Yoga videos to help you stay calm
- Practicing yoga to prevent mental burnout
- Positive mantras to use during your yoga practice
- Positive mantras for self-love
- What to know before your first yoga class