A Mantra on Mental Health

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Health professionals are claiming that today’s young people are in a mental health crisis, with higher recorded rates of depression, self-harm and anxiety than ever before.

Although it sounds a bit dramatic, as someone falling smack-dab in the middle of the “young person” demographic, I can see how labelling the current state of affairs a ‘crisis’ might actually not be that far off the mark. There are times where I’ve been so stressed by a deadline, frustrated by a lack of movement on a project, or nervous to attend a meeting that I’ve worked myself up into a panic.

In looking for a way to manage my mental health challenges I chatted with my friends and peers at work. One of my close colleagues had the courage to speak to me about her experience with mental health. She’s someone who’s guided me through a lot of tricky situations at work, giving me guidance on how I might solve a problem or workshop an idea. But I’ve seen how affected she’s been by her anxiety — seeing her doubt herself and get caught up in her fears.

“My childhood was not easy, I was dealing with one conflict after another and it really was a never-ending feeling of insecurity for me at home. The doctors suggested I go on medication for my anxiety as I was beginning to have anxiety attacks and it was escalating quickly. But I was really hesitant and wanted to try other things first before resorting straight to medication, even though other members of my family were currently on them” she said.

Rather than use medication (which can often be a bit of a subjective issue in how it helps people cope with mental illness), her process of dealing with anxiety was to take up yoga, a solution that’s become more and more popular as a result of its ability to ground people, block out their negativities, and steer them towards focusing on the ‘now’.

My colleague couldn’t stop raving about how yoga had helped her.

“As soon as I began practicing regularly, I started to notice a difference with my anxiety and stress” she said.

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“Learning how to breath properly and care about nothing but my own mind and body in that present state brought me a sense of healing and calmness I hadn’t really felt before. Even now, my doctor encourages me to practice every day, even though it’s been a few years since my last attack.”

Hearing that a medical professional had suggested a non-medical treatment such as yoga as a solution to a rather complex medical issue was interesting to me. To appease my curiosity, my work mate connected me with Dr. K, a friend and psychotherapist currently practicing at a clinic in France.

“Yoga has become a lot more popular because people who practice it can feel the benefits right away” Dr K said.

“People tune in to new parts of themselves through the meditation elements and the physical poses, and it really teaches them to be introspective of their trauma and their experiences through a physical bridge.”

For some trauma survivors, however, the act of re-connecting with their body only seems to heighten the traumatic experience.

“Sometimes the nervous system reverts to using old parts of the brain and wiring to make sense of a situation” Dr K explained.

“When we’re nervous or in a highly stressful situation, our “fight or flight” mode goes on a loop, even if cognitively we know we’re safe. For refugees, their body is still really unregulated so their stress is producing a lot of cortisol and other hormones, which are useful when we’re in immediate danger but aren’t really when we’re not.”

An early study between a group of American and Indian researchers explored the effects of intentional breathing — one of the core foundations of yoga — for refugees who had survived a tsunami; although the event itself was over, the participants in the study would replay it in their heads, more often than not building themselves up into a state of hysteria.

A participant of a yoga class for refugees held in Sydney, Australia.

Although the study did not ‘cure’ the refugees of their trauma, it did give them a clear method of managing it, resulting in significantly less post-traumatic episodes in the year following the tsunami.

Dr K has seen these benefits herself after leading a series of free yoga workshops for refugees at a community centre for two years.

“Even if English was their second language they could see what I was doing and feel the difference and the empowerment that came with it” Dr K said.

“It was about teaching people how to relax. By breathing slowly, we’re re-wiring the feedback loops to the brain, tricking the mind that we’re safe. It’s a missing piece that perhaps a lot of people like refugees wouldn’t normally get to experience or be taught.”

And I think that’s probably the biggest benefit of yoga — at its basic foundations, regardless of our background, age, gender, or experience, it’s a simple, unifying way of encouraging people to connect and reflect on our experiences.

“People might feel helpless and out of control, but through yoga you reclaim your personal resilience in the face of whatever it is that’s going to come to you” said Dr K.

When I told my work mate what Dr K had said she replied, “It just centres you, and brings you back to reality. Breathe. Focus. Be present. It’s as simple as that.”

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By Aimee Hourigan (Impact Producer)

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