Life and stress often seem to be synonymous. To be human is to endure difficult challenges and stressful events, all whilst bearing the expectation that we must cope with these mental pressures with grace and ease. Despite the fact that mental health is easily one of the most important components to our overall well-being, it’s not something we often discuss to peers, coworkers, or even our innermost circle. Many of us would feel totally comfortable with engaging in an in-depth discussion around the water cooler about a recent knee surgery, or the chronic headaches we’ve been experiencing. It’s curious that in that same setting, divulging about one’s panic disorder or OCD diagnosis would likely be considered a serious faux pas. The taboo nature of mental health precedes the perception that mental illness bears a low affliction rate. However, such disorders are much more commonplace than one would assume. In recent years, numerous studies have been conducted to measure the effects of yoga on mental health. This booming emergence of yoga-centric scientific studies is likely the result of climbing statistical rates in anxiety disorders. According to the ADAA, 40 million Americans suffer from one or multiple anxiety disorders. As mental health illnesses have become more prevalent than ever before, many Americans are desperate to seek relief and return to a life free of stress and anxiety. That being said, it’s not uncommon for people to exhibit skepticism when presented with a holistic solution to a vast and substantial condition. So, can yoga relieve stress and anxiety? In short: yes. But don’t just take our word on it; let’s hear what science has to say on the matter!
To understand how yoga can reduce anxiety, we first need to understand how the brain and body responds to stress. Imagine, for example, that you’re running out of time to submit your project before a school or work deadline. Your heart rate shoots up instantaneously, you perspire through every layer of clothing, you may even engage in some nail-biting action. In scenarios like these, your stress hormones are activated, alerting the rest of your body to respond to external stressors. These stress hormones are designed to equip your body to take on nerve-racking situations and power through them. While this is a natural biological reaction, our stress response systems are not intended to operate for extensive periods on end. Perpetual stress subsequently impacts other aspects of our health, including imbalances in our nervous systems, as well as decreased GABA levels.
In a study conducted to measure the effects of yoga among participants suffering from anxiety, it was discovered that practicing yoga an hour a day, 3 times a week had a substantial impact on their GABA system. GABA is classified as an inhibitory neurotransmitter, as it inhibits certain brain signals and lowers activity within the nervous system. GABA plays a very important role in various aspects of our daily lives – apart from promoting good mood, this neurotransmitter reduces mental and physical stress and lowers anxiety levels. Many anti-anxiety drugs actually enhance the effects of GABA in our brains in order to achieve the feeling of reduced anxiety and calmness in patients. The study revealed that, following 3 months of consistent yoga practice, participants demonstrated a considerable increase in GABA levels and reported observable improvement in mood and stress.
A German study followed a similar timeline and format. 24 individuals, all of which identified with the symptom of ‘emotional distress’, were instructed to commit to a 90-minute yoga session twice a week, for 12 weeks. A control group was also set in place, with those participants being instructed to not engage in exercise or similar stress-relieving programs. By the end of the study, those in the yoga group reported significant improvements in areas of “perceived stress, depression, anxiety, fatigue, and well-being…depression scores improved by 50% and anxiety scores by 30%.”
As we always like to say, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. We all sustain stress and anxiety in different forms, levels of severity, and frequencies; all of these factors can influence viable treatment options as well as efficacy. It’s also important to express that while yoga can have a significant and positive impact on your anxiety levels, it is always best to consult with your clinician before making drastic decisions regarding your mental health. Certain mental health disorders can’t be resolved solely with yoga and may require psychiatric or clinical intervention. That being said, we often hear that when anxiety treatments are compounded (for example, attending a cognitive behavioral therapy program and practicing yoga), the results tend to be even more impressive. For those looking for more yoga resources, feel free to check out MixPose, an online yoga platform that hosts live yoga classes daily!