by Lisa Danylchuk, L.M.F.T.
Depression and anxiety are two of the most common mental health complaints in the nation. According to the World Health Organization, depression was the third most important cause of disease worldwide in 2004, and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that anxiety disorders are the most common class of mental disorders present in the general population. As a therapist, these are the most common complaints I hear from clients reaching out for support; they are also common aspects of responses to traumatic stress. In the wake of trauma, yogic practices can help bring balance to these two aspects of emotional experience.
While anxiety is associated with a hyperaroused, or overactive, nervous system, depression is considered a manifestation of hypoarousal, or under-activation in the nervous system. What complicates things for many trauma survivors is what trauma therapists refer to as a freeze response and what yogis would call rajasic depression. Both of these terms describe simultaneous hyper and hypo arousal of the nervous system, and make for complicated presentation of symptoms and a very skillful approach to cultivating balance in the nervous system.
A freeze response happens when the initial activation of the nervous system is not enough to ensure safety. When the urge to fight or flee is not sufficient to keep us safe, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in and shuts the body down. Thus, the body has just experienced a flood of intense activating energy, followed by the very opposite. This energy, when not acted on or discharged, can remain trapped in the nervous system and can manifest as symptoms of both anxiety and depression; sometimes these symptoms alternate with one another, and other times they can be present at the same time.
What can you do if you have experienced this freeze response in reaction to trauma, and feel it continues to impact your functioning in daily life? There are multiple avenues to pursue, both through the body and the breath. Yoga offers a way to incorporate the body in a gentle, attuned manner, but it is not the only mindful movement practice that can help. As you read, consider what types of movement feel energizing and soothing for you, and how you might incorporate aspects of these practices into your daily life.
Since this freeze state includes both over and under-activation of the nervous system, it is crucial to address both of these aspects. In general, poses that open the front of the body have a stimulating effect on the nervous system, while poses that close the front of the body have a soothing impact. Consider integrating expansive postures that open the front body in order to bring energy, and forward bending postures to reduce anxiety and over-activity.
In addition to postures, breath work can have a regulating impact on the nervous system. A long, smooth, regulated breath brings balance to the nervous system. Breath that is short and fast and focuses on the inhale tends to stimulate the body, mind and emotions, while slower, longer deeper breaths bring a soothing quality. Holding the breath can increase blood pressure and thus is not recommended in times of anxiety or anytime doing so increases a sense of discomfort.
In choosing which types of postures to incorporate into your mindful movement practice, consider your current state, i.e. how you feel in the moment, as well as your long-term experiences. If you feel anxious in the moment, but more frequently feel depressed, it may be helpful to do some forward bending and slow to breath to soothe your system, but end with some backbends so that you feel a sense of life in your chest as you wrap up your practice.
In addition, consider how the environment of your practice supports your health. Our nervous systems are intricately connected with our social interactions, so engaging with others who make you feel safe can help support your nervous system coming into balance. Seek out a friend or therapist who you feel listens to you without judgment and cares for you, keeping your best interests in mind. These types of relationships can be immensely healing. Combine them with simple movement and breath practices repeated regularly over time, and you will have long-term supports for fostering balance in your nervous system.