Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. It is an illness that results from a complex interaction of social, psychological and biological factors that modern science is still grappling to fully understand. While situational factors, both individual, like the death of a loved one or unemployment, or environmental/social, such as war and income inequality, are often discussed in research studies, social scientist and public health professionals have identified other “macro” causes for depression. For example, there is a correlation between depression and age. People between 16 and 65 tend to suffer depression at much higher rates compared to other age groups. As aging is inevitable and population growth is likely to exacerbate environmental/social situational factors such as unemployment and income inequality, there is an increasing need for low-cost, effective depression interventions.
Research is ongoing to better understand the brain and depression, and thus effective treatment. Researchers at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) have found a link between brain hyper-connectivity and depression. People with depression appear to have hyperactive brain activity and a decreased ability to shut down brain connections in a normal way, causing a loss in the brain’s ability to selectively transmit information. This decreases a person’s ability to react appropriately to certain events; thus those with depression can tend to make catastrophes of situations that healthy individuals can rationalize.
Neurobiological research, such as the UCLA study, is beginning to produce a deeper scientific understanding to help better understand the “why” behind both the personal and social understanding and experience of depression. As I was reading about the UCLA study, and brain hyperactivity impacting the ability of people with depression to rationally interface with situations, I was reminded of a quote I read recently in Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, “Grief is depression in proportion to circumstance; depression is grief out of proportion to circumstance.”
While it is understandable that there are some circumstances that cause depression, like war and poverty, tens of thousands of people are living with depression in circumstances that alone don’t explain the suffering of depression. The UCLA study begins to help illuminate why the grief (i.e. depression) is out of proportion to the circumstances. The depressed brain is hyperactive and can’t shut down connections in a way that enables the selective transfer of information and ability to rationalize situations.
While effective treatment of depression often involves multiple factors (e.g. counseling, diet, medication), both mindfulness meditation and yoga are practices that have been shown to be effective in treating depression, in large part because of their affect on the brain’s functionality by altering the type of brain wave activity occurring. There are five major categories of brain waves, each corresponding to different activities we do.
1) Gamma waves (above 40Hz) are higher frequency waves and are associated with hyperactivity in the brain and active learning. However, if overstimulated it can lead to anxiety.
2) Beta waves (14-40Hz) are active in the state we function in for most of the day, the working or thinking mind: analyzing, planning, categorizing, and assessing.
3) Alpha waves (7.5-14Hz) create a transition out of the thinking mind. The waves begin to slow down resulting in an experience of feelings of calm, peacefulness and a sense of being “grounded.” This often manifests a being lucid, reflective, softened awareness and a feeling of being at peace. Meditation and yoga are two activities that enable us to move from higher frequency brain waves to lower frequency waves that calm the mind.
4) Theta waves (4-7.5Hz) are present in deep meditation and light sleep, including the REM dream state. At this frequency, you are conscious of your surroundings, however your body is in deep relaxation. There is often a stronger capacity for intuition and complicated problem solving.
5) Delta waves (0.5-4Hz) are the slowest frequency and are experienced in deep, dreamless sleep and in very deep, transcendental meditation where awareness is fully detached.
Yoga and meditation support the brain in transitioning into Alpha and Theta states, both states with slower wavelengths and more time between thoughts which supports increase feelings of calm, relaxation and reflection. A Scandinavian study quantified the effects of yoga on brain wave activity by measuring brainwaves before and after at two-hour yoga class. Not only was there a 40 percent increase in Alpha waves, indicating that the mind was more deeply relaxed, but Theta waves increased by 40 as well, indicating better access to emotion, memory, and the unconscious. Studies such as this support the potential synergy between yoga and counseling/psychotherapy. Having better access to emotions, memories and the unconscious support the healing goals of counseling and psychotherapy in treating depression and other types of mental illness.
Over 30 years, Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy is a modality that has become known as “yoga for emotion.” By incorporating elements of mindfulness meditation, yoga, and awareness PRYT is a great compliment to counseling and psychotherapy. PRYT supports clients in accessing their emotions, memories and helps to increase capacity for personal insight and reflection, all of which benefits mental health.
Lori VanBuggenum is a Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapist in Tucson, AZ. For more information about or to contact Lori visit embodiedyogatherapy.com