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How Yoga Can Help Ease Depression

While not a substitute for professional help, yoga asana relaxes the body and restores the brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters to help mitigate symptoms of depression.

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Clinical depression, a serious mood disorder that causes persistent feelings of sadness and detachment, is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States, affecting more than 11 million Americans a year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. And COVID-19 brought a drastic increase in those numbers: Depressive symptoms in adults were three times higher in April 2020 than they were before the virus began spreading, according to a study published in the journal JAMA Network Open.

But know this: You don’t have to be clinically depressed to experience feelings of depression. Depression is also a broad term that includes seasonal mood swings and prolonged feelings of sadness. It’s also the sinking feeling of not having enough energy or resources to find joy or hope, or ruminating on negative thoughts about your own life and the world around you.

If you notice an increase in symptoms of depression—which include apathy, guilt, hopelessness, discontent, loss of interest in once pleasurable activities, mood swings, and sadness—you should seek professional help, not just try to knuckle through it, says Catherine Ettman, chief of staff and director of strategic initiatives for the office of the dean at Boston University School of Public Health (and lead author on the JAMA study). Many professional mental health counselors are available via phone or video call these days, making it easier to find the right person for your needs—even if they aren’t nearby.

Also: Do yoga. When you’re struggling with depression, the brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin get depleted (or are already low to begin with; the cause and effect aren’t fully understood), says Manoj Sharma, PhD, professor of social and behavioral health at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, whose research focuses on how yoga can help to mitigate depression. Asana relaxes the body and restores these happy-making hormones to their natural optimal level, he says. In fact, all eight limbs of yoga may help restore the optimum balance between neurotransmitters (such as dopamine and serotonin) and other hormones.

While there’s no substitute for professional help, we’ve pulled together some expert tips and practices for helping you feel better on days when it seems like it’s you against the world.

This story is part of Yoga Journal’s Special Report: How Yoga Can Improve Your Mental Health

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