Brain and Body

Can Yoga Help People With Depression, Anxiety, or PTSD?

March 11, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

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Scientists and yoga instructors weigh in.

In the recent years, there’s been a growing interest in using yoga as an option to treat people with mental health problems. Many health and human service providers have started using yoga as a means of helping people with depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

So can the practice of yoga really help treat people with mental illnesses?

Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill decided to take a closer look at the scientific evidence behind yoga and its therapeutic abilities.

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"I really wanted to know if yoga is something we should be suggesting to people who have post-traumatic stress disorder, or depression, or anxiety or various traumas. What does the evidence really say?," Rebecca Macy, one of the study researchers who works with violence and trauma survivors at the UNC School of Social Work, said in a press statement.

The researchers analyzed 13 literature reviews in order to conduct a meta-review of 185 articles published between 2000 and 2013. Overall, they found that yoga has a promising potential to help alleviate the symptoms of anxiety, depression, and PTSD — but only in the short term.

The results of the study are published in the journal Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, and they suggest that clinicians and service providers should consider recommending yoga as a therapeutic intervention in addition to “evidence-based and well-established treatments” like psychotherapy and medication — not as a standalone treatment.

"Even though I do think yoga is, in general, incredibly beneficial, I also think there needs to be a whole lot more education about how to use yoga specifically to treat survivors of trauma in order to be the most effective and helpful," said Leslie Roach, a certified yoga instructor and massage therapist who co-authored the study.

"So as a standalone treatment right now, it's just not viable. However, I think with more education, more research, and more experienced instructors, it will be."

Importantly, Macy added that since yoga is a holistic practice, researchers and doctors must be careful not to undermine the approach.

"One of our recommendations was that researchers and yoga instructors partner together so that we use holistic methods in future research," Macy said. "We need to ask ourselves if we're taking these Western research methods and trying too hard to fit a round peg in a square hole. As a researcher, I don't want to undo the potential benefits of yoga by making the practice unnecessarily standard and systematic."

Next, the researchers are considering a number of potential future studies surrounding yoga, including one that would investigate the practice within a rape crisis center or domestic violence shelter.

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