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Food for Thought

Friday, September 13, 2013 9:00 AM | White Ash (Administrator)

Member Deb Hennen-Bergman, M.A., LMFT of Inner Peace Therapy & Yoga wrote this article on integrating yoga/meditation in treating and preventing mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression.

Food for Thought

Expanding Current Views of Anxiety and Depression to Include Eastern Contemplative Approaches of Yoga and Meditation:  Why integration makes clinical sense. 

Traditional Western psychotherapies have proven beneficial to many clients, and these approaches have provided much relief and ease to those suffering from anxiety and depression.   However, these traditional models can also be somewhat limiting and pathological in nature.  In a search to provide holistic and effective approaches in treating anxiety and depression, and also a model that is inclusive of health and well-being, my path led me to Eastern Contemplative Approaches of yoga and meditation.  Eastern philosophy broadens our current definitions and treatments of anxiety and depression and also contains a framework for health and healing.   In fact, neuroscience is now proving  the ancient healing practices of yoga and meditation actually change the structure of our brain in positive ways and not only treat anxiety and depression, but also prevent these common mental health conditions.   This article explores and expands definitions and treatment of anxiety and depression from a holistic Eastern perspective. 

Definition of Anxiety and Depression

Most of our training and education as therapists has been limited to traditional Western Approaches of assessing pathology and treating clients’ symptoms.  According to Western psychology, we define Anxiety and Depression through a medical model of diagnosing mental health disorders based on symptoms.  Also, in this approach we view the body and brain as separate parts, and the body is often ignored.  Also, according to this model, symptoms are the focus of treatment, and a “healthy individual” is considered symptom free.

Eastern philosophy expands our current view of anxiety and depression and offers a holistic approach to describing them.  According to Eastern Approaches, these two common mental health conditions involve multiple facets including physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual.  This approach says if we engage in thoughts, words, or actions that create imbalances or disharmony in our mental, physical or emotional body, we will experience symptoms of anxiety or depression (if we are vulnerable to them).  Further, we will experience a disruption in the health functioning of our physiology overtime if these imbalances go unaddressed.   Also, this framework expands the definition of “out of balance” as any of us who are not living up to our potential or who are not living fully.  In addition, Eastern philosophy explains that anything that blocks or depletes our life-energy or prevents us from living up to our potential can also be a source of anxiety or depression. 

Eastern philosophy views health on a continuum, in which we all fall somewhere.  A “healthy individual” in this framework is defined as an individual who is living an abundant, fulfilling life on all levels-physical, energetic, emotional, mental, and spiritual.

Treatment of Anxiety and Depression According to Eastern Philosophy          

Eastern Approaches assumes we are whole; we all have imbalances; and healing is internal. Also, it says anxiety and depression are influenced by genes, life situations, and the state of an individual’s general health.  Therefore, treating anxiety and depression involves the whole physiology rather than just treating the brain, and treatment focuses on holistically exploring the causes of anxiety and depression in an effort to reduce symptoms.  In addition, treatment includes opening blockages of life-energy (prana) that create the physiological imbalances which lead to anxiety and depression.  In this framework Treatment/Healing Plans are based on the unique needs of the individual and include the brain, body and spirit. 

According to Eastern philosophy, several practices may be used to unleash our internal healing potential:  First, we understand  we are whole and have an innate ability to heal ourselves (mind, body, spirit approach); second, we learn to identify own unique manifestations of anxiety and depression (our imbalances); and last, we use principles of yoga as a guide to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, relieve stress, boost physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual energy, and expand awareness through meditation as a path for healing. 

Use of Yoga in Psychotherapy  

Yoga is increasingly being used alone or as an adjunct to other therapies as a treatment method for various mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression.  In addition, empirical research is gaining in popularity, and preliminary findings indicate yoga and meditation (mindfulness) can be effective therapeutic tools in the prevention and treatment of anxiety and depression.  Based on current research, yoga has been shown to prevent mental health issues and promote overall health and wellbeing due to its physiological, psychological, ad biochemical benefits.

Yoga Asana (Yoga’s Physical Practice) for Anxiety and Depression

The physical practice (Yoga Asana) offers us many benefits, and its healing methods involve the body, mind, and spirit:  First, yoga asana balances the nervous system and affects the neuropathways toward calm as well as turns of fight/flight response; second, it regulates the breath, and breathing fully has been shown to deeply calm the nervous system and quiet the mind; third, yoga helps to cultivate direct experience, which is the central focus of yoga.  We learn to cultivate emotional balance by being centered in the body and develop friendliness to what’s happening in the moment; forth, it quiets the mind.  By staying anchored in the body, we learn to soothe and comfort ourselves without getting lost; last, yoga helps us change personal narratives.  It allows us to directly and deeply experience our stories from a new perspective.  It also helps us observe stories from intense emotional reactions and negative thought patterns while we are in a state of deep relaxation.        

Final Thoughts

It is an exciting time to be involved in the field of mental health.   Our current understanding and approaches to therapy continue to broaden and expand as a result of a growing body of empirical evidence showing ancient healing practices of yoga and meditation are not only effective in treating anxiety and depression, but they also prevent these mental health conditions.  In addition, not only does Eastern philosophy expand our definition and treatment of anxiety and depression, it’s inclusive to the mind, body and spirit and offer us a framework for overall health and well-being.  In addition, current findings in neuroscience research show Eastern contemplative practices are effective in training the brain towards ease, contentment, kindness, and compassion.  Given the many powerful health benefits of yoga and meditation, it seems reasonable to believe they hold clinical significance and offer deep healing to you and your clients.

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