During a time when 70 percent of teens are struggling with their mental health, the need for accessible stress-management tools is greater than ever before. Yoga is one of the most effective all-natural approaches for addressing anxiety and depression, and it’s easily available to teens at home via apps and online classes.
“Yoga and meditation are powerful tools for stress resilience and strengthening teen mental health,” says Nicole Renée Matthews, Director of Yoga at Newport Academy. Yoga is also a wonderful practice for families to do together, to strengthen bonds and enhance family harmony.
During periods of increased anxiety and stress, teens are more likely to turn to destructive coping mechanisms like substance abuse and self-harm. Hence, yoga offers a healthy alternative.
How Yoga for Anxiety Works
How does yoga relieve anxiety? Researchers theorize that the mindful movement and breathing done in yoga activates the relaxation response (rest-and-digest system), via the vagus nerve. Therefore, yoga moves us out of the sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”). Moreover, it moves us into the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”) system. The vagus nerve helps control the parasympathetic nervous system.
Furthermore, yoga increases levels of GABA. GABA is the neurotransmitter in the brain that helps relax the mind. In a 12-week study, participants either walked or did yoga for an hour three times a week. The yoga group showed greater increases in GABA levels. In addition, they showed greater improvement in mood and anxiety.
Another study compared a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) intervention to a CBT intervention with a yoga component. Both groups met every week for two months. One group did CBT and the other practiced both CBT and yoga.
As a result, both groups reported reductions in anxiety and panic-related body sensations. However, the changes were greater for those who did both CBT and yoga poses to relieve stress and anxiety.
Moreover, yoga has also been shown to reduce anxiety in people with cancer. And another study showed that yoga for anxiety was effective for people trying to quit smoking.
The Effects of Yoga for Anxiety on Teen Mental Health
Research shows that teens benefit from using yoga for stress. One yoga study focused on ninth- and tenth-grade students in a public high school in Massachusetts. Forty-seven high school students completed self-report questionnaires assessing mood and affect.
They completed the questionnaires immediately before and after participating in a single yoga class. In addition, they complete questionnaires before and after a single physical education (PE) class one week later.
As a result, participants reported significantly greater decreases in anger, depression, and fatigue from before to after participating in yoga compared to PE. Therefore, researchers concluded that yoga for anxiety and depression is effective in supporting the psychosocial needs of youth.
Mindfulness and Yoga for Anxiety
An increasing number of studies show that mindfulness practices like yoga ease stress. They do so by encouraging us to witness our emotions from a distance rather than getting caught up in them.
When practicing mindfulness, teens observe their thoughts and feelings without self-judgment. Moreover, mindfulness helps teens focus on their current experience. Hence, mindfulness exercises provide freedom from past regrets and also from nagging fears of the future.
In addition, mindfulness practices like yoga and meditation calm the limbic system. The limbic system ignites primitive drives and catalyzes risk-taking behaviors. Plus, mindfulness enhances the work of the prefrontal cortex, which makes decisions and regulates emotions. Therefore, yoga poses for anxiety also increase self-regulation in teens.
“Yoga for teens supports the mind-body connection. This is a link that is increasingly broken for young people. The typical habits of today’s teens include massive tech consumption and less time spent outdoors. Synchronizing breath and movement on the mat helps heal that disconnect, cultivating a deeper awareness of one’s internal state.”
—Nicole Renée MatthewsDirector of Yoga at Newport Academy
Yoga Breathing for Anxiety
“Space in the breath creates space in the mind for quiet and concentration,” says Nicole Renée. Research shows that mindful breath awareness is among the most effective and accessible tools for calming the nervous system. Furthermore, it works in a short amount of time.
Teens can effectively use breathing exercises to relax before tests, calm down when they’re angry, and sleep better. As a result, yoga breathing for anxiety begins with the breath.
“By focusing on and controlling our breath, we can change how we think and feel. We can use the breath as a means of changing our emotional state and managing stress.”
—Tommy Rosen, yoga teacher and founder of Recovery 2.0
An Easy Breathing Practice to Reduce Stress
- Sit comfortably in a chair, with feet on the floor, eyes closed, and hands relaxed and resting on your thighs.
- Breathe in slowly through your nose. As your lungs fill, let your chest and belly expand. You might try counting up to five, seven, or whatever feels comfortable. Or focus on a phrase, such as “Breathing in calm” or simply “Breathing in.”
- Breathe out slowly through either nose or mouth, whichever feels more natural. You can count during the exhalation. Or use a phrase, such as “Breathing out calm” or simply “Breathing out.” And make sure the exhalation is as long or longer than the inhalation.
- If you get distracted, bring your mind back to focusing on the breath.
- Repeat for several minutes.
- Notice how you feel. Is your body more relaxed than before you started? Is your mind calmer?
Yoga for Depression
Yoga has been shown to increase stress resilience and feelings of connection. Therefore, it protects against depression. As a result, yoga for mental health is increasingly used as a complementary therapy in teen treatment centers.
Researchers believe the positive effects of yoga for depression are again due to the stimulation of the vagus nerve. The conscious movement and breathing practiced in yoga raises vagal tone. Low vagal tone is linked with depression and trouble recovering from stressful events. As a result, people with high vagal tone recover more easily.
One study measured brain waves in university students before and after a yoga class. And researchers found that alpha waves, associated with relaxation, increased by almost 60 percent.
Furthermore, yoga increases natural brain chemicals that contribute to optimism and well-being. These chemicals include endorphins, enkephalins, and serotonin.
A Yoga Practice for Well-Being
This simple yoga pose for anxiety and depression comes from the book Yoga for Depression, by Amy Weintraub. Therefore, it helps to calm the nervous system and build energy.
- Place two folded blankets, a bolster, or a firm cushion under your back, just beneath the shoulder blades. Make sure the lift is comfortable. Use more or less support as feels right for your body.
- Place a rolled blanket underneath your neck so that the back of your head rests comfortably on the floor.
- Place a cushion under your knees and allow your legs to be a comfortable distance apart. This is usually about hip-width.
- Allow your arms to stretch out comfortably at shoulder level, with palms facing up.
- Stay in this position for at least five minutes. On each inhale, imagine breathing into the crown of your head and repeat silently “I am.” On each exhale, imagine the breath going to your feet and repeat silently, “here.”
How Yoga Protects Against Substance Abuse
Stress, anxiety, and depression are underlying causes of substance abuse. Teens use drugs and alcohol to self-medicate. Healthy outlets like yoga help them avoid these self-destructive behaviors. Therefore, yoga can help prevent drug and alcohol abuse.
In addition, research has demonstrated the link between mindfulness and recovery from addiction. In one study, mindfulness practice was more effective in helping people stop smoking cigarettes than the American Lung Association’s “freedom from smoking” program.
Furthermore, a study with teenagers, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, indicated that yoga practice decreases adolescents’ willingness to smoke cigarettes.
Yoga for Anxiety and Depression Works
To summarize, yoga is a potent and effective tool for teen mental health. It protects against anxiety and depression. Moreover, it increases well-being and self-regulation. And it helps teens focus better and sleep better. Plus, all these benefits come without side effects.
Therefore, parents can get kids started with easy yoga and meditation practices when they are very young. Hence, this positive habit will support their mental health as they mature into teens and adults.
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