According to a recent survey, as little as 14 percent of US adults feel “very happy.” The World Happiness Report has found that Americans and many other populations from developed countries are the unhappiest they’ve been in decades. At the same time, there’s a rapid increase in mental illness, with one in five Americans living with a disorder and 31.1 percent of adults experiencing an anxiety disorder. Although part of this rise is attributed to the fact that more people are seeking mental help, it could also be the result of “overstimulation.”
But the solution goes beyond seeking therapy – it requires making a fundamental change in how you spend your time and the stimuli your brain is exposed to (or isn’t exposed to). Let’s have a look at how yoga can be beneficial for your mental health by helping you achieve inner peace and clarity.
What Is Yoga?
In the traditional sense, yoga is a spiritual discipline that focuses on achieving a balance between the mind and body. It puts you in a meditative state to encourage self-discovery and liberation. In the West, yoga usually refers to a form of Hatha yoga, which includes different postures and physical techniques for relaxation and stress relief.
But why do so many mental health practitioners recommend clients try yoga? It’s also a common activity at inpatient treatment centers like URP Behavioral Health. If you’d like more information on the activities and amenities provided, check out urpbehavioralhealth.com. Here are some of the benefits of yoga for mental health.
Yoga and Stress Reduction
It’s a common saying that yoga reduces stress, but how? One review of multiple studies shows that it’s due to the inhibition of the posterior hypothalamus, which is responsible for emotion, arousal, and processing of memories. By inhibiting this part of the brain, yoga prevents it from going into a state of hyperarousal, i.e., when you’re stressed. Additionally, it decreases the level of salivary cortisol, which is commonly known as the stress hormone.
Keep in mind that stress is associated with increased activity of the sympathetic nervous system, which puts you in a fight or flight mode. While occasional stress can be beneficial for keeping us alert, it’s unhealthy when the sympathetic nervous system is constantly active.
Activation of the parasympathetic nervous is important for stress reduction, and that's what yoga can help with. One study found that 90 minutes of yoga stretching can increase activity in the parasympathetic nervous system, which reduces stress levels and helps you feel calm.
How Yoga Helps with Anxiety
Because of yoga’s stress-reducing benefits, it’s able to alleviate feelings of anxiety as well. Studies show that practicing yoga can stimulate the vagus nerve. This increases vagal tone, an internal biological process that activates your parasympathetic nervous system. And with a higher vagal tone, your body is able to relax at a faster rate after experiencing stress. In this way, it alleviates symptoms of anxiety.
Similarly, it takes your mind away from other worries by making you focus on the present moment. That’s because yoga requires you to breathe a certain way and maintain balance during certain postures. So, even if you feel like you can’t relax, it acts as a distraction from negative thoughts by giving you something else to focus on.
Yoga Balances Mood
In addition to reducing symptoms of anxiety disorders, yoga can also help people struggling with mood disorders like major depression. Since it’s a low-impact exercise that requires you to maintain various postures, yoga can stimulate the release of endorphins. These are feel-good chemicals with morphine-like qualities, and they’re present in various natural reward circuits. And most importantly, they can improve your mood.
Another way that yoga can enhance your mood is by elevating GABA-related activity, which is reduced in mood disorders. GABA is a neurotransmitter that blocks specific impulses between neurons, which induces a calming effect.
Not to mention, combining yoga postures with meditation can reduce limbic system activity. Because the limbic system is dedicated to emotions, doing so will reduce your emotional reactivity in a stressful situation.
Using Yoga to Reduce Insomnia
Many people with mental disorders experience a drastic shift in their sleeping patterns. Some may have trouble sleeping, while others sleep too much but don’t feel well-rested. In yoga, taking slow, controlled breaths is a crucial technique that stimulates the vagus nerve. This leads to increased activity in the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for rest functions. That means it reduces your heart rate and ensures optimal conditions to help you sleep.
Another way that yoga improves your sleeping habits is by increasing melatonin levels. According to one study, practicing it for three months led to an increase in plasma melatonin levels. While the hormone doesn’t make you sleep, it can put you in a state of quiet wakefulness during the evening so you can sleep better. It does this by managing your body’s circadian rhythm, which is disturbed due to poor mental health.
Enhancing Cognitive Performance by Practicing Yoga
Research indicates that practicing yoga on a regular basis can lead to improvements in the brain’s functions by enhancing its structure. Brain imaging studies show that yoga practitioners have increased grey matter density and volume, as well as increased cortical thickness, than non-practitioners. This shows a correlation between practicing yoga and grey matter volume. Another study shows that participants demonstrated increased accuracy in cognitive performance after practicing yoga.
Achieve Mental Clarity with Yoga
When practicing different yoga positions, you focus your breathing on maintaining balance. Doing so shifts your focus from stressors and complex stimuli toward the way you move and breathe. This helps clear away the brain fog so you achieve a state of mental clarity.
Because your mind is free of all the extra clutter after a session of yoga, you’re able to think more clearly and come up with effective solutions to problems. Therefore, taking a few yoga sessions, whether you’re at a residential treatment center or in outpatient treatment, can support the recovery process and help you lead a fulfilled life.
Photo by Oluremi Adebayo