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Using Yoga To Relieve Seasonal Affective Disorder

As houses become festooned with Christmas lights and the weather takes a sharp turn, it becomes clear that the winter season has truly set in. While some look forward to the prospect of hot chocolate, carolling and wooly scarves with pink-cheeked enthusiasm, for others the prospect of months of cold and dark is an apprehensive one.

If you are one of the many people who suffer with seasonal affective disorder (otherwise known as SAD), this feeling of dread in the advancing winter months can be particularly acute. At this time, extra support can be truly invaluable, and making the time to engage in a variety of self-help methods can go a long way in reducing your symptoms.

One such self-help method is yoga therapy. A compelling evidence base has been growing over the last few decades to suggest that yoga isn't just a gentle method of exercise that promotes strength and flexibility, but an efficacious complementary treatment in a variety of mental health issues. By using yoga alongside any necessary medical intervention and other self-care routines, people suffering from SAD can manage their symptoms and get the most out of life - no matter what time of the year it is.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Defined by the NHS guide as “a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern”, this disorder is most often associated with feelings of unshakable low mood, lethargy and anhedonia (loss of pleasure in life), and these symptoms can range from mild to severe.

It's believed that the lack of light in winter (the shortest day in the UK day is just 7 hours long, compared to the longest at 16 hours) may have a negative effect on the production of key hormones such as melatonin and serotonin - influencing both people's mood and energy levels. It also seems that the human body clock - known as our “circadian rhythm” - can be disrupted during winter, upsetting the delicate balance of hormones that tell us when to wake up and go to sleep.

While some people are only mildly affected by SAD, others experience more profound symptoms. If this disorder affects your ability to cope and function in day-to-day life (for example, finding it so difficult to get out of bed on winter's gloomy mornings that you are missing days of work) then it is important to make an appointment with your GP and seek professional support.

Encouragingly, it is possible to utilize yoga in a self-care plan to reduce and even eliminate many of the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. As a accessible form of exercise which can be practiced both in a group setting and at home, yoga is an ideal self-help tool that can facilitate recovery.

How yoga helps to relieve seasonal affective disorder

Using yoga can improve your mood and reduce the impact of SAD over the short and long term in a variety of ways. At the most basic level, exercise can boost our mood, and it's even been shown that exercise can make people feel better about “the winter blues” ( in particular. Yoga acts as an accessible and gentle form of exercise, which provides an outlet for negative feelings and steadily improves your focus and mood in day-to-day life.

Yoga appears to go beyond other forms of exercise, however, in directly tackling the symptoms of depression and anxiety by stabilising our nervous system and tempering the stress response. Our stress response is a key factor in the experience of depression and anxiety, with new neurological insights ( ) suggesting that the way our brain processes stress directly contributes to depressive moods.

The use of yogic breathwork, physical poses and mindfulness appears to regulate our stress response and promotes the physiological state of “rest and repair”, which allows our mind and body to truly relax. This results in a reduction of the stress hormone cortisol (which is elevated in those experiencing depression ), while the practice of mindfulness is also associated with decreased volume in the area of the brain responsible for our stress response known as the amygdala ( ).

Another twelve week study ( ) showed improvements in mood associated with yoga that were greater than a metabolically matched walking exercise, and also was the first time that yoga postures were linked positive correlation between acute increases in thalamic GABA levels - a brain chemical correlated with greater feelings of contentment.

A new study from the Boston University has shown that yoga and breathing exercises can improve symptoms of depression and anxiety in the short term, while also working cumulatively over the course of three months. With these short-term benefits, you can immediately begin to lift your mood through a yoga class, while also gaining the group support available through your teacher and fellow students.

It is also possible to combine your yoga practice with the use of a light box (or even wrap up warm to practice a few poses outside on bright and sunny days), in order to increase your exposure to light and balance those hormones which may have been thrown into disarray.

All this evidence suggests that, by creating a comprehensive self-care plan that includes yoga at its heart, it is possible to truly relieve seasonal affective disorder, and no longer dread the prospect of this often beautiful time of the year.

This post was written by Heather Mason, a yoga researcher, campaigner and founder of London-based yoga therapy training centre The Minded Institute.

Heather advocates for the inclusion of yoga therapy as a complementary treatment in the NHS, and designs evidence-based training programs for yoga teachers and health professionals to apply yogic techniques in clinical settings.

Thu, 5 December 19 : 10:12 : Heather .

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