By Bethany Butzer, Ph.D.
Bethany Butzer’s graduate research focused on anxiety and depression. She found the subject somewhat depressing and so, after spending several years studying psychopathology, she changed her focus to positive psychology, which emphasizes the development of human strength and potential. In this article, she chronicles her personal struggle with anxiety, depression and a dependence on antidepressant medication. She also shares how, through Yoga, she became medication-free.
“Pause, you who read this, and think for a long moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on that memorable day.” ~Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
It’s often said that life can change in an instant. For me, this instant came in the form of a 15-minute appointment with my family doctor. I was referred to the doctor by a campus therapist who thought I might be suffering from dysthymia (a mild but long-term form of depression). I was 20 years old, and my relationships with my boyfriend and my roommate were causing me some stress. I was feeling sad, anxious and going through the general angst that comes with moving away from home for the first time.
The First Link
The doctor spoke with me briefly, asked me to fill out a 10-item questionnaire and sent me home with a trial pack of Paxil—the latest and greatest new antidepressant, back in 1999. Without realizing it, my doctor had forged the first link in a long chain of events that would haunt me for the next six years. I started taking Paxil, moved on to Celexa and then tried Zoloft. Every time I went back to the doctor complaining about side effects, she would switch me to a new drug. I knew I didn’t want to be on the medication forever, but I felt trapped.
Ironically, throughout the years that I was taking antidepressants, I was also working toward my Ph.D. in psychology. I’d always been an overachiever—valedictorian and scholarship addict—and I was terrified of what people would think if they found out I didn’t have it all together. So I suffered in silence.
Everywhere I went I dragged the stigma of antidepressants behind me like a pharmaceutical ball and chain. On the outside, I held up a bright façade of A-pluses and sociability, while on the inside I felt utterly alone. Every time I tried to go off the medication I ended up right back on it. I started to lose hope. I started believing my doctors when they told me that I might need to take antidepressants for the rest of my life. Then I found Yoga.
To be clear, it’s not like one Yoga class transformed me into a medication-free guru, floating through life on pink clouds of happiness. I started small, but over time Yoga became one of the main tools that helped me kick my antidepressant habit for good.
There are approximately 118 million prescriptions written for antidepressants in the U.S. every year, and these drugs are now one of the most commonly prescribed forms of medication in the country. In England, prescriptions for antidepressants rose by 43 percent between 2006 and 2010. Obviously antidepressants are necessary in some cases, but many people are looking for alternative ways to manage their stress and sadness. Fortunately, modern science is starting to catch up with what yogis have been proposing for thousands of years: a regular Yoga practice can reduce stress and sadness in our lives.
Now that I’m more familiar with research on the beneficial effects of Yoga, I’ve come to understand why this ancient practice was so crucial in helping me move toward antidepressant freedom. A growing body of evidence suggests that Yoga is highly effective at reducing the symptoms of anxiety and depression. For example, researchers at Boston University recently found that Yoga increases levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter that’s often low in people with anxiety and mood disorders. Yoga has also been found to lower the stress hormone cortisol and to boost oxytocin, a hormone that helps us feel more connected to others.
Dr. Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, recently highlighted an important research finding in her talk at the 2011 Society for Yoga Therapy and Research (SYTR) conference. In her lecture, Dr. McGonigal shared research suggesting that we might need a “daily dose” of Yoga to experience the full benefits of the practice. In other words, regular Yoga practitioners don’t show lower levels of stress hormones overall. Instead, stress hormones show the sharpest decrease immediately after a Yoga session…
Read the rest of this article in the Fall 2012 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.