Can Yoga Help People Living With Schizophrenia?

An increasing focus of academic research, the use of yoga in the treatment for schizophrenia is showing promise as an adjunct therapy.

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It has been hugely encouraging in recent years to see how public understanding in regards to mental health issues has grown – and how the tireless work of mental health campaigners is beginning to have a profound and positive impact. But while many misconceptions around mental illness have began to fall away, those who live with schizophrenia can still encounter misunderstanding and stigma, and sometimes find it difficult to access adequate support. 

Schizophrenia is one of the most severe mental health conditions, affecting people with symptoms such as anhedonia, difficulty socialising and psychosis (which often takes the form of hallucinations and delusions). These overlapping symptoms are often difficult to treat, and while pharmaceutical intervention and therapy is often vital, additional tools such as yoga are emerging as a potentially helpful adjunct therapies. 

Alleviating the symptoms of schizophrenia with yoga therapy

While issues connected to schizophrenia, such as yoga therapy for addiction, anxiety and depression have been researched for decades, there has been (in both the medical and yoga world) a long standing reluctance to investigate how yoga may assist those who are vulnerable to schizophrenia. Fearing that the introspective, meditative element of yoga could worsen the experience of psychosis, researchers only began exploring this subject in earnest in the early 2000s.

The results of the first pioneering study were encouraging. Focused on institutionalised patients experiencing active symptoms, the research team found that their yoga program was associated with improvements both socially and cognitively. But perhaps most reassuringly, the yoga program they used did not have any negative side effects, allaying the fears which had previously prevented the medical and yoga community from engaging with the idea of using yoga in the treatment of schizophrenia. 

Researchers gained the confidence to investigate the effects of both yoga and meditation for this health population – and soon found evidence to suggest that these techniques can be advantageous to those living with schizophrenia. 

In 2006, a study published in the Journal of Nursing found that yoga improved the quality of life of people with schizophrenia, as well as physical and psychological functioning. Another, which focused on outpatients receiving stable medication and reporting moderate symptoms, concluded that those practicing yoga were five times more likely to experience an improvement in certain symptoms. They also experienced improvements in emotional recognition and social cognition.

Treating the whole person

The findings of these studies suggest that, while antipsychotics are necessary for the “positive” symptoms (those that add to a person’s experience) of schizophrenia, current treatment isn’t always as effective at relieving the “negative” symptoms (which take away from their experience). Amotivation, isolation and anhedonia are all negative symptoms, and can be just as impactful as the more obvious issue of psychosis – and it’s in treating these symptoms that yoga appears to be most helpful. 

It should also be taken into consideration that yoga and mindfulness could help people interact with their experience of psychosis in a more positive way. Adrianna Mendrek, the Professor & Chair of Psychology Department at Bishop’s University, said of mindfulness as an intervention for schizophrenia: 

“The research shows that mindfulness-based interventions can give people a greater acceptance and insight into their experiences of psychosis… There is a great need to develop more alternatives or add-on therapies to pharmacological treatment. Mindful movement and meditation could be such an add-on.”

The addition of yoga as an adjunct therapy also allows medical professionals the opportunity to not only address their patients symptoms, but also to try to improve the many interconnected factors – such as social isolation – which can worsen symptoms. 

People with schizophrenia are far more likely than the general population to engage in substance abuse, often as a form of self-medication, so giving them a healthy and soothing habit like yoga to fall back on could also negate some of the social ramifications of their illness. 

By conducting further research, we can discover which yogic techniques are the safest and most helpful for people with schizophrenia, and give health professions another tool that they can utilise in the treatment of this challenging illness. 

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