Studies in respected, peer-reviewed medical journals began to report on the positive connection between regular exercise and relief from symptoms of depression – proving exercise, in some cases, to be as effective as standard psychotherapy. There is no question that movement is a form of medicine and a crucial part of our physical and emotional well-being.
“The most impressive physical result of regular exercise for patients with depression, is regrowth of the network of nerve cells in two parts of the brain: the amygdala and hippocampus, which atrophy, or shrink, during major depression,” says Lawson R. Wulsin, M.D., author of Treating the Aching Heart: A Guide to Depression, Stress, and Heart Disease (Vanderbilt University Press, 2007), and professor of psychiatry and family medicine at the University of Cincinnati. “Exercise also helps regulate the stress response system, making it easier for depressed people to respond to stress and to relax. And of course, exercise improves sleep, which is so essential to recovery from depression.”
Even a regular walking program has proven to be remarkably effective in relieving and controlling depression. “Walking alternately stimulates the left and right sides of the brain in a complex set of automatic reflex circuits. Similar left-right rhythmic stimuli such as watching a pendulum, listening to a tone that shifts from left to right, and alternating touches have proven beneficial in variations on a treatment for anxiety called EMDR, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing,” adds Wulsin.
Muscles and Memory
Does the body store emotions in muscles and tissues? Bodyworkers and massage therapists often speak of sudden emotional releases experienced by clients during deep tissue or therapeutic massage, as though physical touch might actually facilitate the release of deeply held feelings.
“It helps,” explains Wulsin, “to think of a feeling as the mind’s interpretation of a complex set of signals from the body about a particular state of certain parts of the body. As the neurologist Antonio Damasio has written, ‘a feeling is a momentary view of a part of that body landscape.’ So what I call anger may be the peculiar combination of tightening of my stomach, flushing of my face, rising heart rate, and drying in my mouth. Sadness, on the other hand, might be a slackening of the muscles in my cheeks, heaviness in my limbs, numbness in my skin, and tension in my lower gut. So bodyworkers can affect mental states by changing the physical landscape, changing the signals sent to the brain from the muscles, skin, joints – and, sometimes, deeper organs, for interpretation by the mind. Exercise, food, sex, sauna baths – all work through altering the body landscapes toward creating more pleasant feelings in the mind.”
Yoga teacher Amy Weintraub, author of Yoga for Depression: A Compassionate Guide to Relieve Suffering Through Yoga (Broadway Books, 2004), has seen the positive results of yoga therapy in dealing with depression.
“If you are practicing yoga with attention to your breath and to the sensations in your body, you are cultivating what yogis call ‘the Seer,’ or the observing mind,” Weintraub explains. “This is how we learn to dis-identify with negative mind states. We begin to shift from saying, ‘I am depressed,’ to ‘depression is present,’ or, ‘I am not my depressed mood.’ We begin to recognize that we are much bigger than one particular mind state.
“Often, when we’re depressed,” Weintraub continues, “the breath is shallow and we’re breathing from the upper part of the lungs. Yoga, when practiced with breath awareness, reverses this. The chest is opened, the breathing is deeper, and as a result, there is more oxygenated blood moving to the brain. It’s no accident that kapalabhati kriya, a rapid breathing exercise that is one of the best practices for depression, literally means ‘skull shining.'”
Weintraub explains that when the focus is on the breath during posture (asana) practice, we are likely stimulating a cranial nerve known as the vagus nerve, a known treatment for depression.
“On the mat, with our asana practice, we are strengthening the container to hold what life sends our way. It’s not only self-awareness that’s developed on the mat and the meditation cushion,” explains Weintraub, “it’s also compassion. Many yoga masters believe the highest spiritual practice is self-observation without judgment. This self-accepting attitude is essential for shifting from a negative mind state to a more positive mood.”
Kit Yoon is a licensed acupuncturist, certified health coach and hypnotist, and owner of Bexley Acupuncture and Wellness in Columbus, Ohio.
“Depression is a manifestation of an imbalance within the body, specifically, of the yin-yang energetics,” Yoon explains. “Yin and Yang are relative to each other, and can not exist without one another. Physical and emotional health depends on the balance of these two essences.”
Yin is quiet, internal, and introspective while yang is active, external and energetic. Yin is cool and dark while yang is warm and bright.
Yoon also acknowledges how seasonal affective disorder and how to combat the effects. “As the seasons change, the yin-yang balance becomes challenging. Winter time is naturally more yin, so for individuals who tend toward yin qualities already, they may be lacking enough yang energy. This can increase the likelihood of depression. For these people, cultivating healthy yang energy (sunshine, creative projects, movements and exercise) during the dark and cold (yin) months will give them positive health benefits.”
“Too much yang energy during the yin time of year can throw the body out of balance as well,” says Yoon. “For people who tend to have more yang (overwork, overactive, overstressed, not enough sleep), it is crucial for them to slow down and rest to restore their yin.”
“Acupuncture therapy can alter and unblock the flow of energy by balancing your yin-yang. In addition, a combination of mind-body practices like yoga, exercise, hypnosis, and a healthy diet will keep you balanced physically and emotionally.” Visit Yoon’s website for more information on acupuncture, healthy lifestyle, and hypnosis.
From a practical perspective, the use of acupuncture can alter and unblock the flow of energy along various energetic meridians, helping to restore overall harmony.
Don’t underestimate the power of a long conversation with a good friend or family member – or getting involved in a community activity such as collecting food for the needy during the holidays. Any number of activities can help you move the focus from yourself to the larger world. Psychotherapy, too, can be a powerful tool in dealing with depression, allowing you to discuss and explore personal fears and underlying issues with a professional qualified to help you sift through them and move into a more balanced place in your life.
“Social connections are very important,” says Brunschwig. “Contact with others helps both with mood and problem-solving. Some people have real issues around the holidays that can be intensified by being isolated or alone.”
Depression can take many forms and might be preceded by or include feelings of despair, hopelessness, sadness, anger, or a sense that your life is out of control. Inability to sleep or concentrate, excessive crying spells, upset stomach, anxiety, poor memory, worry, and a disinterest in activities you previously enjoyed are also symptoms that should be examined. Professional help is recommended if these feelings interfere with your daily life, your job, or your relationships with others.
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