Yoga has been proven to have benefits to your mental health, and a wealth of research has gone into how practicing yoga can improve the lives of those with mental health conditions. The results are staggeringly positive, proving that yoga can help with many common mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, as well as others.
There is now one in every four people affected by mental health disorders, so more and more people are looking for effective ways to help protect and restore mental health. Yoga is becoming more and more accepted as a way to manage mental health conditions. It’s already used to reduce stress, improve flexibility and promote a more ‘zen’ state of mind. However, more people are digging deep to understand the therapeutic benefits of yoga on mental health.
These findings are also backed up by studies which show that yoga practice can change the structure and function of your brain, proving that yoga can improve your emotional health in a neurological way. Here are some of the ways yoga can support your mental health.
Studies on how yoga and meditation can improve your brain function have been conducted since as early as the 1960’s, but a landmark study happened in 2007. Chris Streeter undertook a study which proved that one hour of yoga practice by experienced yoga practitioners showed a significant positive increase in GABA. GABA is a chemical that acts as your brain’s inhibitory neurotransmitter. In 2010, this study was taken further, and GABA increase levels in yoga were found to be significantly higher than a matched walking exercise.
The GABA chemical is one that works by inhibiting signals in your brain. This chemical primarily prevents your brain from becoming too overwhelmed and busy by inhibiting fear circuits and fleeting thoughts that are often associated with anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. If you suffer from chronic pain, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder and depression, you may have lower levels of GABA. This can manifest as an inability to change your perspective. Practicing yoga can help to increase your GABA levels and help you change your view.
Another way yoga can improve your mental health is by improving the performance of the brain. Yoga is unique in the way movements have constant stopping and starting as you move from one pose to another, which helps boost the link between the motor areas of your brain. Also, the mental task of planning while moving from one yoga pose to another, with control and attention, boosts the energy flow in the frontal-cortical area of the brain, further stimulating it and improving its performance.
This means some major things for the use of yoga to help your mental health. Certain mental health issues such as depression and bipolar disorder mean that people have less activity and stimulation in the frontal-cortical areas of the brain - in particular the prefrontal cortex. A strong prefrontal cortex allows you to manage thoughts and responses easier, and shift your attention easier. And if practicing yoga stimulates these areas in the brain, it can help manage those mental health conditions.
Yoga has also been shown to reduce anger levels in people. In one study undertaken in 2012, a group of adolescents were studied. Participants who practiced yoga showed greater ability to control their anger, compared to those who undertook other physical exercise. Other studies, such as one undertaken in 2013, have proven that yoga decreases anxiety symptoms, improves sleep - even decreases post traumatic stress disorder.
In 2014, adult women diagnosed with PTSD were part of a study which proved that yoga significantly reduced the symptoms in women who undertook a 10 week treatment, compared to a control group. After the study, over half of the participants who practiced yoga no longer had symptoms of PTSD.
As well as improving GABA levels and stimulating your brain, many people believe that yoga improves mental health due to its ability to increase your heart rate variability. An increased heart rate variability will help to calm your autonomic nervous system, the place where the body stores trauma.
Research shows that meditation and yoga can help to increase your heart rate variability. Your heart rate variability is the distance between one heartbeat and another. An increase in heart rate variability is shown to calm your autonomic nervous system, which in turn helps to regulate your emotions. When you’re stressed and anxious, your heart rate gets quicker, and your breathing is shallow. This is decreased heart rate variability. If you’re relaxed, your heart rate is slower, and you breathe deeper - which is an increased heart rate variability and can help you to feel calm.
Decreased heart rate variability can be associated with anxiety, stress, anger and PTSD. Individuals who suffer from these can find it hard to regulate their emotions which can lead to them being thrown off balance mentally easier. If something relatively small manages to set you off crying or feeling angry, you may have a poorly regulated autonomic nervous system. Yoga can increase your heart rate variability, helping to regulate your autonomic nervous system and help you feel more relaxed.
Finding the right yoga practice for you may be hard, but there’s lots of different styles of yoga to choose from. Regardless of the type you choose, the mental health benefits are amazing, making yoga an integral part of the therapeutic process.
By Amy Cavill
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