During the holiday season—and let’s face it, throughout the year as well—stress can outweigh our joy to the point where even copious amounts of pie and carols fail to lift our spirits. Some of us may even become depressed, which feels terrible whether it is seasonal or more long-term and clinical. Depression is not shameful, and does not indicate weakness or frailness, but it is conditional, and help is available.
Sometimes, medication and therapy may be necessary to treat depression depending on the type and severity, because when a change in the chemical function of the brain occurs, you can’t just decide to feel differently. However, much of the time, and especially when depression is brought on by significant or prolonged stress, a yoga practice can immensely improve our outlook, if not manage stress and depression completely.
A study published in 2013 looked at the effects of yoga therapy alone versus drug therapy alone, or a combination of the two, for people diagnosed with major depression. The study measured subjects’ subjective changes, reported through the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale, as well as physical changes expressed in cortisol levels before and after the interventions. Cortisol is a steroid released by our adrenal gland (on top of the kidneys) along with adrenaline when our hypothalamus (in the brain) raises a threat alarm, prompting our pituitary gland (also in the brain) and adrenals to go to work to help us escape danger, like a swarm of angry bees or an ax-murderer. When these hormones are released, our blood pressure and heart rate increase thanks to adrenaline. And cortisol works to increase sugar availability to give us energy for the running and the fighting, improve our ability to repair tissue, and suppress processes that are unnecessary, like digestion, reproduction, and disease-fighting. Your brain function is even altered by the fight-or-flight response, affecting memory, focus, and mood. The thing is, these processes are supposed to be short-term, so what happens when we stay stressed for hours, days, weeks, or months at a time?
It makes sense, based on what we know about the systemic changes that occur during a stress event, that long-term exposure to cortisol and other hormones might contribute to weight gain, heart disease, digestive disorders, problems with memory and cognition, difficulty sleeping, and mood issues such as anxiety and depression. According to the aforementioned 2013 study, increased cortisol in the bloodstream has been well-established as a physical measurement present in people diagnosed with depression. In the study, the only subjects with significant decreases in cortisol levels were in the yoga alone or yoga and medication groups, and these were the same subjects with decreased depression according to the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale. The reduction in cortisol may cause changes in brain chemistry that help to decrease depression symptoms, but to think of it in simple terms, decreasing stress and the hormones associated with that stress should improve how our brains and bodies function.
Yoga is one great way to reduce stress for many reasons. The physical practice of yoga not only provides us with a little exercise, which is a little happy pill in itself, but it also connects us more to our breath, our bodies, our inner Selves, and each other. Whether our yoga practice involves advanced asana, gentle poses, or meditation and breath work alone, the breathing and centering techniques help activate our parasympathetic nervous systems, which counters the physical effects of a fight-or-flight stress response. As we practice and become proficient at interrupting the stress response, we become better able to shift our focus away from stress-producing thoughts, which makes a huge difference, even if it is only for small amounts of time daily. Yoga also teaches us that we have complete control over our reactions at any point in time (whether your yoga teacher is making you hold chair pose for 5 minutes or you got called out at work for something that was not your fault). The ways in which we react to different situations are patterns that we learn and practice, and they will create physical responses that match up to the threats our brains perceive. In yoga, we practice mindfulness, where we observe what happens to our breath, physical posturing, and thoughts when put into different positions, and then empower ourselves to learn healthier responses. After all, “pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.”
Chronic stress, anxiety, and depression make frequent appearances around the holiday, and for some of us year-round, but just because they are common doesn’t mean they are normal or okay. It takes some work and dedication to fully engage practices like yoga that manage these issues, but at stake is our physical and mental health, and our health and attitudes dictate the way in which we experience our lives. Each of us deserves to enjoy healthy bodies, happy and agile minds, and joyous relationships with others. Perhaps this can be our gift to ourselves this holiday season.
Thirthalli J, Naveen GH, Rao MG, Varambally S, Christopher R, Gangadhar BN. Cortisol and antidepressant effects of yoga. Indian J Phychiatry 2013;55:405-8