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Can relaxation techniques like progressive muscle relaxation and yoga really help you confront depression, or are they just a lot of "woo"? Let's take a look.

Depression is, as will come as no surprise to anyone who's ever battled it, often underestimated. Perhaps your brother told you to simply get out more after sharing your symptoms with him. Maybe your doctor formed the impression that you just need to "de-stress" without seriously considering a diagnosis of major depressive disorder. You could also, quite possibly, have dismissed your own symptoms as something temporary that will get better with time. 

Can so-called "relaxation techniques" help you confront depression? Just saying it has the risk of coming off a whole lot like "Oh, honey, you just need to relax!" That's very much not our intention here, so we'll take a look at what research has to say on this front. 

The "too long; didn't read" version would go something like this — yes, various relaxation techniques have been shown to hold promise in alleviating depressive symptoms. They do not work as well as antidepressants or talk therapy and should ideally be used in addition to, rather than instead of, these conventional treatments. Relaxation techniques may really help someone who is, for instance, on a waiting list and cannot yet access depression, however, or someone who knows they're depressed but is still reluctant to seek medical attention. 

Now, let's dive in deeper!

1. Progressive muscle relaxation and depression

Progressive muscle relaxation is one of the best-studied relaxation techniques around. It's fairly easy to do and works something like this:

  • Get yourself into a comfortable position, sitting or lying down (some folks use the technique to help them fall asleep).  
  • The idea is to work your way up or down your entire body, so keep this in mind. 
  • Really tense each muscle group up, by doing things like making a fist and squeezing or engaging your abdominal muscles. Hold your muscles in this tense state for around five seconds. 
  • Then, relax that same muscle, for 10 to 15 seconds. Then move on to the next muscle. 

Research that included fairly small numbers of depressed people indicated that progressive muscle relaxation indeed has the potential to reduce depressive symptoms. It will not have the same impact talk therapy does, but it can help. 

2. Autogenic training

Autogenic training is a bit of a weird-sounding kind of self-hypnosis, wherein verbal commands are used to induce feelings of heaviness and warmth. It includes affirmations along the lines of "I feel calm and relaxed" in specific orders. The complicating factor here is that you'll need someone to teach this technique to you. The de-complicating factor is that this training can take place online, even for free. 

So, does it work? Maybe. If you have mild to moderate depression and are also receiving other treatment, there's no reason not to try autogenic training if it appeals to you. 

3. Yoga

Yoga, an ancient mind-body technique, combines physical exercises that help increase strength and flexibility with breathing exercises and meditation. You could join a local yoga class, or try to practice yoga techniques alone in your home with the help of online instruction videos. 

Quite a lot of studies have looked into its potential to help people with depression, with contradictory results. Where it helps, yoga seems to have the largest impact on people with chronic back pain, cancer, and pregnant women. It is possible, researchers acknowledge, that the potential impact yoga has on depressive symptoms differs depending on the exact kind of yoga. Hatha yoga and asana pranayama are the approaches you may want to look into. 

It is interesting, by the way, to note that some researchers see mindfulness meditation as a "western adaptation" of yoga, which has the same potential benefits as yoga itself. 

4. Guided imagery

Guided imagery, also called guided meditation, is a relaxation technique that involves invoking calming or otherwise productive images or sensations. By immersing yourself in positive experiences in your mind, the theory is, you can also reap benefits in the real world. Like autogenic training, people practicing guided imagery benefit from a program that teaches them how to do it. (That's the "guided" part, yes?)

If it sounds ridiculous so far, hold up. I once heard someone compare it to an athlete envisioning success, rather than failure, before an important match — including taking that winning shot, getting the trophy, and so on, and all the visuals, sounds, and feelings that come with that. It's really not that far of a stretch that this is a lot better than repeatedly telling yourself that you're a failure and you'll mess up for the rest of the team, right?

In conclusion, research suggests that guided meditation has some potential to break negative thought patterns and help depressed people feel a little less depressed. 

In conclusion

Relaxation techniques — and there are more than we've covered here — may be of enormous help to someone suffering from "the blues"; a low mood without being clinically depressed. They can also help people who are currently waiting to be treated for depression, and depressed people who want to do something extra in addition to attending talk therapy, taking antidepressants, or both. Relaxation techniques shouldn't really be used as a stand-alone treatment for depression, but are, research has concluded, certainly "better than nothing". 

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