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13 Dec 2018 , by heatheryoga

Yoga and mental health at Christmas

Yoga and Christmas may not be two things you’d instantly associate with each other, at least not outside of Instagram. But as a way to manage feelings of stress, anxiety and sadness during the holidays, and even as a means of social outreach, yoga can be extremely helpful. 

Marked by family gatherings, goodwill and high expectations, Christmas is something in which we invest a significant amount of emotional currency. Driven by the festive nostalgia of our childhoods, we often pour our hearts and souls into attempting to make Christmas the happiest time of the year.

However, even our best efforts can be undone by the emotionally challenging nature of this season. For those affected by mental health issues (whether they are experiencing them personally or living with someone who is), the festive period can be one of particular vulnerability. This is especially true when we consider that the NHS can struggle to cope with the extra demands of public health during the winter.

Self-care over the holidays is an important part of keeping ourselves as happy and healthy as possible, allowing us to enjoy this happiest of holidays. Through mounting scientific research, yoga is proving itself a helpful tool for people experiencing mental health problems – and by extension those who support them.

Why can we find Christmas so difficult?

All of us face certain emotional strains at this time of year. Whether it’s the stress of trying to pull off the perfect Christmas for your young children, the ache of knowing a loved one won’t be around that year, or simply the pressure of tightening purse strings, Christmas can be pretty fraught.

Perhaps the defining aspect of Christmas is the (sometimes overwhelming) expectation that’s attached to these festivities. We all know how Christmas is supposed to look and feel, so finding that our reality is quite apart from what we imagined can be a real sting. The family focus and prescribed happiness of the season can throw our own struggles into sharp relief, making feelings of loneliness, stress or trauma all the more stark.

This strain is reflected in the statistics about people’s mental health. In 2014, 21,000 people spent the Christmas period in hospital due to being mentally unwell. As well as having personal ramifications, this would also have had a knock-on effect for their friends and family, who had to spend Christmas without their loved one.

According to a poll by Mind, three quarters of people have had problems sleeping at Christmas, while nearly 60% have experienced panic attacks. A quarter of people also experience anxiety over social gatherings, while 83% found they struggled at Christmas due to loneliness. The weather and lack of light may also have an effect, with as many as one in three people in the UK suffering with seasonal affective disorder.

Vulnerable groups such as the aged, homeless people and those contending with poverty can find it particularly hard. While many volunteers do wonderful work reaching out to these groups at Christmas, it’s undoubtedly difficult for people who are naturally isolated or ostracised to cope with the additional pressure on their mental health.

Yoga at Christmas

Yoga and Christmas may not be two things you’d instantly associate with each other, at least not outside of Instagram. But as a way to manage feelings of stress, anxiety and sadness during the holidays, and even as a means of social outreach, yoga can be extremely helpful.

We tend to think of the holidays as a time where we put aside any “healthy” activities for a bit of indulgence – and to a certain extent, there’s nothing wrong with that. However, alcohol is a depressant, sugar is thought to worsen fatigue and low mood, and a lack of sleep can impact on our mental health. Yoga can bring some much-needed balance (both literal and figurative) to this time of year.

Multiple studies have supported the curative potential of yoga, and particularly how it can ease the symptoms of anxiety and depression. In one example, researchers concluded that yoga could and should be considered as an ancillary treatment option for patients with depressive disorders, as well as individuals with elevated levels of depression; they also found that yoga has a range of beneficial effects on depressive disorders.

Another study (Smith et al., 2007) judged that yoga can reduce stress, anxiety and improve health status in several key domains. An academic review of previous studies in the International Journal of Yoga determined that, while more research is needed, yoga is both feasible and effective as an add-on therapy for psychosis, and specifically schizophrenia.

For those with serious mental health issues, finding a yoga therapist who has been thoroughly trained to deal with particular mental health issues can be a useful part of a wider treatment plan. It’s important in these cases to ensure yoga therapists are qualified to guide people with a specific mental illness, in order not to inadvertently exacerbate symptoms. For example, a yoga therapist trained in the use of yoga for trauma will understand the psychological and physiological effects of PTSD, and will know which poses could potentially make people feel distressed and vulnerable.

A widely supported self-help tool

In a less formal setting – perhaps for people who are feeling generally well, but are struggling with feelings of anxiety and depression at Christmas, or for carers of people with mental illness who need a form of self care – yoga classes offer some support. Employing yogic breathing exercises, attending group classes and following online tutorials can help us manage any negative feelings, and protect our mental health.

On a wider societal level, yoga classes for vulnerable people can create some of the social cohesion which is so necessary during the holidays. Charitable endeavours (such as Triyoga and Ourmala) that hold classes aimed at older people, the homeless, refugees and more can reduce isolation, and give people a much-need psychological boost when they are in a difficult or lonely situation.

While yoga isn’t a cure-all for sadness, loneliness and other difficulties at Christmastime, it is a widely supported self-help tool, and one that everyone can get involved with. By taking up yoga, we can start to process and understand our feelings – as well as build a resilience to stress which will serve us through Christmas and beyond.

Author: Heather Mason is the founder of Minded, a world leader in the development and implementation of yoga therapy and mindfulness programs for those with mental health and chronic physical health problems. Along with the Yoga in Healthcare Alliance, they are currently campaigning to include yoga in the NHS to help people manage their health and improve wellbeing.

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