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6 Common Mental Disorders and How Yoga Can Help

Zoie Konakis
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Writing an article on mental disorders is daunting. I’ve rewritten this piece at least a dozen times. I even contemplated not sharing it, in fear that I might offend someone. How can I begin to talk about such a sensitive subject without generalizing?
 
I could talk about statistics, and how mental disorders affect one fourth of the world’s population. I could talk about stigmas associated with mental illness, and how they can severely impede someone’s recovery or worsen their condition.
 
These subjects are important, but not the main focus of this article. An important part of my own recovery is focusing on the positives in life. Yoga helps me quiet loud thoughts in my head and focus on what’s important.
 

Society’s Perception of Mental Disorders

Americans cast such a poor light on mental health. If you can’t function like “everyone else” then you’re deemed damaged, like an old Mr. Potato Head missing his left ear; just not quite right. Even the term itself – mental disorders can feel like a label or judgment . . .
 
“You’re crazy.”
 
To some, the term is playful like an innocent game of dodgeball. For others, like me, those words slam into your chest leaving you breathless from the fear of wondering, “Am I crazy?”
 

Overdiagnosed and Overmedicated: The Problem With Western Medicine

Prevalence rates for ADHD have increased from 7.8% in 2003 to 11% in 2011 according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. This may not seem like a big deal, but the medications used in treatment are causing major side effects like insomnia, anxiety, hallucinations, and seizures.
 
According to an article published in ADDitude magazine by Dr. Larry Silver,
 
“How do I determine whether a particular child still needs medication? I advise taking children and adolescents off medication once a year. If the symptoms . . . are no longer noticeable, they stay off. Should these behaviors return, medication should be restarted.”
 
Sounds more like an on again off again relationship than a proper treatment plan.
 
ADHD is just one of many mental disorders. Most of them can be categorized as an anxiety, mood, psychotic, eating, addiction, and/or personality disorder. Don’t focus too much on the title though.
 

You are not your disorder.

 
Terms like “illness” or “disorder” have negative connotations. Obviously, no one is thinking, Yay! Schizophrenia! And nobody likes to constantly be reminded that they’re different. Millions affected with mental disorders struggle with the negative stigmas on a regular basis.
 
The UK Mental Health Foundation even agrees. “Stigma and discrimination [could] worsen someone’€™s mental health problems, and delay or impede their getting help and treatment.”
 
We need to take a step back from the diagnosis and treat our bodies. This is where yoga can help.
 

Here are 6 common mental disorders and how yoga can help:

1. ADD / ADHD: Calm the Mind and Find Your Focus

There have been a number of studies that show yoga can improve the symptoms of those with attention-deficit-disorder. A study done in India in 2012 showed significant improvement in students involved in a program called Climb-Up. This was a “peer-mediated interventional program consisting of yoga, meditation and play therapy” taught to children with ADHD by local high school volunteers.
 
After a year of the program being implemented, parent evaluations showed that 91% of student’s symptoms decreased. This is one of a few studies that show the possibilities yoga has on concentration and mental well-being.
 
Practicing yoga can help to calm and center the mind. Check out these 10 Yoga Poses to Increase Your Concentration
 
 

2. Anxiety / Depression: The Science Behind the Calming Effects of Yoga

Yoga has been linked to increased GABA receptors in the brain. Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a brain chemical that regulates nerve activity. Generally, those who suffer from anxiety, depression, or even seizures, have low GABA and generally take medication to mimic this action.
 
Boston University conducted a study in 2010 that compared the MRIs of a group of walkers versus a group of yogis. After weeks of equal exertion, the yogis showed higher GABA level. While this is still new research, it sheds a positive light on the mind and body connection that yogis swear by.
 
Interested in hearing a firsthand account of a yogi who used her practice to cope with anxiety? Read 3 Ways Yoga Helps Defeat Anxiety
 
 

3. Addiction: Find the Strength to Overcome

This topic hits home for many people, and it is estimated that 28 million people (worldwide) struggled with drug abuse. Some may disagree on whether it should be listed as a mental disorder, but according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse,
“Addiction changes the brain in fundamental ways, disturbing a person’s normal hierarchy of needs and desires and substituting new priorities connected with procuring and using the drug.”
 
Even the American Psychiatric Association classifies addiction as a “brain disease.”
 
The results of a steady yoga practice – self-awareness, confidence, self-care and self-love – can all aid in addiction recovery. Yoga cultivates personal development. It increases emotional stability and health on a physical and mental level as well.
 
Perhaps this is why there are now many non-profits, community outreach programs, and inpatient treatment facilities offering yoga as a therapeutic treatment. One such organization is the Trini Foundation, which is dedicated to bringing the healing powers of yoga to those suffering from addiction.
 
Practicing yoga can help calm the nervous system. Yoga cultivates awareness, presence, and can aid in recovery. Check out these 10 Yoga Poses to Aid in Addiction Recovery
 

 

4. Autism: Find a Practice That Fits You

Yoga therapy, when integrated into daily play, could ease some of a child’s autism symptoms. The Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine found significant improvement in their students after two years of yoga therapy.
 
By the end of the testing period, all six kids were able to sit still on their mat, keep eye contact and smile, clearly imitate sound from their therapist, and verbally end the class with a “Namaste.”
 
Shawnee Thornton Hardy published an article in Autism Parenting Magazine saying,
 
“In addition to benefits typically associated with yoga such as increased strength, balance, coordination, and flexibility, benefits such as increased social-emotional skills, language and communication, body awareness, self-regulation, focus and concentration and a reduction in anxiety, impulsive, obsessive, aggressive and self-stimulatory behaviors have also been noted.”
 
If this type of specialized yoga class is out of your grasp, the internet is filled with books, articles, videos, and other resources.
 
Do you have children? Learn tips to help you Calm Your Kiddo Using This Quick and Easy Yoga Sequence
 
 

5. Eating Disorders: A Community of Support

Yoga for those with eating disorders is perhaps more of an exercise in self-love than anything else. In the article Thinking Through the Body: The Conceptualization of Yoga as Therapy for Individuals With Eating Disorders, Laura Douglas writes,
 
“The aim of yoga is to understand the nature of regular human suffering, which is often overlaid on top of, or underneath, eating disorders.”
 
Yoga allows us to take a step back and focus on more holistic well-being. For those who suffer from body image issues, eating disorders, or even compulsive exercising, the communal support found in a yoga studio or class setting becomes much more important than the physical practice.
 
Yoga is an amazing safe place to find comfort, and is also an outlet to work through an eating disorder in healthy and empowering way. A steady yoga practice makes you feel in full control, and helps keep destructive thoughts at bay.
 
 

6. Schizophrenia: The Power of Asana and Tranquility of Pranayama

Pranayama is conscious breathwork that often accompanies the yoga practice. A regular asana (physical yoga pose) and/or pranayama practice has shown to be a positive add-on treatment in conjunction with medications and/or other treatments.
 
The International Journal of Yoga highlights several recent studies related to yoga therapy for Schizophrenia that show positive results.
 
Part of the study’s findings where how the mind/body connection that stems from yoga seems to help alleviate symptoms more than strictly physical methods of exercise.
 
New to Pranayama, or want to learn more about it? Read Pranayama Explained + 5 Techniques to Get You Started
 

Mental Disorders and Yoga: The Takeaway

Yoga is universal. Yoga is for every body, every individual, and every condition. A mental disorder does not need to be a label, and it does not define you. Yoga can be an incredible tool for self-growth, empowerment, healing, and health for those with mental disorders.
Remain compassionate towards yourself. Take small steps in the direction you want to go, and invite yoga into your life as a form of personal empowerment and as a statement of self-love.
 
In the words of Lori Deschene, “At the end of the day, remind yourself that you did the best you could today, and that is good enough.”
 
Namaste.
 

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Zoie Konakis

My name is Zoie and I am your typical amateur wellness enthusiast and wanna-be yogi!. If you ever need me I'll be dying in chaturanga or at home playing play-dough with my daughter!

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