Yoga and depression

Depression is a very common mental illness throughout the world. It is estimated that over 264 million people worldwide are affected by depression. There are several degrees of intensity of depression and it can be very serious condition, leading to suicide. In this article we will be talking about the effects that yoga can have on depression. Although I have a degree in psychology, I do not claim to be a mental health specialist. Whatever will be mentioned in the following paragraphs, if you think that you might be suffering from depression, please go and talk to a health professional and do not self-medicate.

What is depression ?

One of the main misconceptions about depression is that people tend to think that “feeling depressed” and suffering from depression are the same thing. While we will all feel depressed at some point in our life, only some of us will suffer from depression. Depression is serious mood disorder. The earliest records of the illness date back to the greek antiquity, when it used to be called melancholia.
According to the DSM (the main diagnostic manual in clinical psychology) in order to be diagnosed as suffering from clinical depression, an individual must have a depressed mood or a loss of interess /pleasure and suffer from at least 4 of the following symptoms :

  • weight loss or weight gain
  • fatigue and loss of energy
  • feeling of worthlessness or guilt
  • difficulty of concentration or indecisiveness
  • thought of death or suicidal toughts/attempts
  • redutions of thought or physical mouvement


As we know very well in yoga, body and mind are connected. It is therefore not suprising that these symptoms are usually associated with many other types of physical symptoms, such as headaches, back pain, tinnitus, muscle pain, digestive troubles…

What causes depression ?

Depression is a very complicated disease. Dispite all the research made on the subject, there are still a lot of grey areas regarding the etiology of depression. There are many possible causes to depression which can be combined, such as environmental, psychological, social or genetic factors, as well changes in the brain’s neurotransmitters.

How is depression treated ?

There are several methods that are traditionally used to treat depression, depending on its level of intensity. For a mild depression exercising or simply talking to a doctor, a psychologist or even just a relative to express feelings might actually be a sufficient treatment to help the individual to get better.

For a mild to moderate depression a talking therapy might be helpful to get out of depression. There are different types of therapies which can successfully treat depression, such as the mindfullness cognitive behavioural therapy (MCBT), which is basically a therapy working connecting the patients to the present moment instead of being in their head in recognizing their pathological behavioural pattern.

Counselling can be as well a way to handle depression, this is a form of talking therapy which aims to help patient to express their feelings and learn how to handle their emotions on their own, by finding their own way to deal with their illness.
For a moderate to severe depression professionnal usually recommend the use of anti-depressant medication which regulate the levels of neurotransmitters (brain chemicals), such as serotonin or neurodrenaline, which are linked to mood and emotion. These can be coupled with one of the above mentioned psychotherapies.

How can yoga affect the treatment ?

The asanas of yoga are a form of physical activity. Any form of physical activity will have an effect on self-esteem. When exercising, the body releases endorphin, which is a group of hormones which reduces physical pain. They also have an effect on the mood : they make the individual happy and feeling energized.

On top of the physiological aspects, another advantage of the practice of yoga to tackle depression is that it is not only a physical practice. Through meditation, practioners learn to anchor themselves in the present moment and to take distance with their thoughts. This is exactly what mindfulness cognitive behavioural therapies are doing. This type of therapy is unsurprisingly based on buddhist meditation and it proves to be an efficient way to treat depression. Through the practice of meditation, the subject is able to disconnect from the negative thought patterns (ruminations) which are an important part of the depressive state.

Yoga has as well an effect on our emotional landscape. Mind and body being connected. When we work on the body, we work on the mind. It is an effective way to release stucked emotions, come to term with them and accept them for what they are. It is not unusual to see people crying in a yoga class. The chakra system connects certain parts of the body with certain emotional states.

The breathing techniques of pranayama help us to gain control over our breath. And when we do so, we can actively impact the physiological effects of our emotions, such as stomach pain when anxious, increased heartbeat when angry… Ultimately when we successfully erase the symptom associated with an emotion, this emotion tend to disappear, because -once again- body and mind are connected.

The strength of yoga is that it is an integrative practice, unlike the traditionnal treatments, which tend to focus either on the mind, either on the body.

What does science tell us ?

There has been a substential amount of researches on the effect of yoga on depression. Most of them seem to indicate that the practice of yoga diminishes the symptoms of depression efficiently.

A systematic review from 2017 found that yoga could reduce depressive symptoms in many populations, including people with depressive disorder, pregnant and postpartum women, and caregivers.
Furthermore a research from 2017 looked at people with depression that had not responded well to antidepressants. Study participants who completed 2 months of Sudarshan Kriya yoga experienced a reduction in depressive symptoms, whereas the control group showed no improvements.
Researchers also suggest that yoga may lower symptoms of depression by reducing cortisol, or the “stress hormone.”

Conclusion

Although yoga seem to have positive effects on all types of depression, it might be advised depending on the situation to use yoga in combination with another type of treatment. This is why it is very important to refer to a health professional to seek advice.
Most of the research focus on the benefits of yoga to treat depression, but I strongly believe that is an equally successful way to prevent it. I recommend you to build your own regular practice, for this is only one of the many benefits of the practice of yoga.

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