Stress And How Yoga Can Help

What is Stress?

Before we can discuss the how yoga can help with stress, we first must understand what stress is and how it affects us.

Throughout the human evolution stress has been present. In primordial times we needed stress to trigger our fight-or-flight response allowing us to get away from predators, saving our lives. Fast forward through millennia to the present date and we still experience stress although we now live very different lives to our ancestors. Instead of our fight-or-flight response being triggered by predators it is triggered by multiple daily occurrences such as deadlines at work, driving and financial worries.

Stress is the body’s reaction to feeling threatened or under pressure and although stress can be beneficial in small amounts when it becomes too much it can affect our mood, our body and our relationships. It can make us feel anxious, irritable and affect our self-esteem. Over a prolonged period of time stress can lead us to feel physically, emotionally and mentally exhausted, often referred to as burnout.

Physiology

Stress generally affects all systems of the body including cardiovascular, respiratory, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous, muscular, and reproductive systems.

  • With regards to the cardiovascular system, acute stress causes an increase in heart rate, stronger heart muscle contractions, dilation of the heart, and redirection of blood to large muscles.
  • Acute stress constricts the airway which leads to shortness of breath and rapid breathing.
  • The endocrine system increases its production of steroid hormones, which include cortisol, to activate the stress response of the body.
  • Stress can affect the gastrointestinal tract by affecting how quickly food moves through the bowels. It can also affect digestion and what nutrients the intestines absorb.
  • With regards to the nervous system, stress will activate the sympathetic nervous system which in turn activates the adrenal glands (which secrete hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline)
  • Stress affects the musculoskeletal system by tensing up the muscles as a way of guarding against pain and injury.
  • In the reproductive system, chronic stress can negatively impact sexual desire, sperm production/maturation, pregnancy, and menstruation.

The body can quickly bounce back from a stress response; however, the issue is when the cause of the stress is persistent. Chronic stress leads to dysfunctional responses causing heart disease, stomach ulcers, sleep dysregulation, and psychiatric disorders.

Psychology

Stress has a tremendous psychological impact and sometimes it can be hard to identify.

  • Psychological signs such as difficulty concentrating, worrying, anxiety, and trouble remembering.
  • Emotional signs such as being angry, irritated, moody, or frustrated.
  • Behavioural signs such as poor self-care, not having time for the things you enjoy, or relying on drugs and alcohol to cope.

How It Causes A Variety Of Ills

Stress can cause a number of physical symptoms and illnesses. Symptoms can come on as soon as your level of stress increases and worsen as stress continues.

Some of the symptoms commonly caused by stress include: increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, rapid breathing, shortness of breath, muscle tension, headache, nausea and dizziness.

If the stress levels don’t decrease or if frequent stress is experienced, we are much more susceptible to falling ill. Stress prevents the body from properly regulating the inflammatory response, and inflammation has been linked to many diseases.

As mentioned above, stress affects all of our body systems. If allowed to continue, it can:

  • Cause a wide range of gastrointestinal symptoms: abdominal pain, nausea, indigestion, diarrhoea, constipation and aggravate IBS.
  • Increase the risk of heart disease by raising blood pressure and cholesterol, increase chances of heart attacks.
  • Play a major role in obesity. Studies have found that higher cortisol levels caused by chronic stress can influence several factors that contribute to weight gain, including poor sleep, which raises your cortisol levels further and leads to increases in belly fat.
  • Worsen allergies and asthma. Life stress has been linked to the onset and worsening of mast cell-associated diseases. Histamine causes allergy symptoms and is released by your body’s mast cells as a response to stress.
  • Trigger headaches, including tension and migraine headaches.
  • Cause depression – both chronic and short periods of acute stress have been linked to depression. This in turn negatively affects mood, sleep pattern, appetite and sex drive.

Yoga To The Rescue! How Yoga Can Help Alleviate Stress

Most people think of yoga only in the sense of the physical aspect – the asana practice – but there is so much more to it! In a holistic yoga practice are encouraged to look at our entire state, both mental and physical. Here are some ways holistic yoga can help alleviate stress and bring it under control with regular practice.

Breath Control

The vagus nerve represents the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system which oversees a vast array of crucial bodily functions, including control of mood, immune response, digestion, and heart rate.

It acts to counterbalance the fight-or-flight response by triggering relaxation and we can stimulate the healthy function of the nerve through deep, slow, belly breathing. When we are stressed, our breathing becomes shallow or we can even hold our breath at times. By bringing our attention to our breath and lengthening each exhale and inhale we can directly affect our mood in a positive way. 

Building mental resilience

Once we have learned how to create calm within ourselves we can safely start to challenge ourselves. Asana offers us a variety of postures that vary in difficulty and complexity. By learning to use our breath to keep us steady and using it as a focal point we can find resilience within ourselves that we did not know we had. This in turn subtly filters through to our everyday lives, increasing our emotional and mental strength.

Asana

Stress has a tendency of stiffening up our body’s causing us to feel tense in our necks, back and shoulders and our inhale and exhales are likely to be shorter. Forward folds stretch and create space between the vertebrae in the spine, creating a soothing of the autonomic nervous system, body and mind. Forward folds quickly move us from fight-or-flight into rest and digest. Postures to alleviate stress could include wide leg standing forward fold, seated forward fold, child’s posture, standing forward fold with shoulder opener, plow posture and savasana.

Self-awareness

By bringing awareness to ourselves, we can shine a light on the nature of our thoughts that perhaps we had never noticed before. Are our thoughts positive? Negative? Do they dwell on the past? Or are they racing to the future? With practice, patience and time we can learn to differentiate between what we have control over and what we don’t. We can learn patterns in our thoughts and our own triggers. We can learn to let go of what we can’t control and not let it fester into stress or anxiety.

Mindfulness

By being less attached to the past and future, we can learn to live in the present. This takes practice as our minds have a tendency to wonder off, but by bringing our attention back to the present moment we can benefit a great deal from this practice: we become more aware of our thoughts, we don’t immediately react to a situation, we become more aware and sensitive to the needs of our body, we become more aware of the emotions of others and it reduces our stress response. 

Meditation

Numerous studies have shown that meditation is a wonderful stress management tool, ultimately reprogramming the brain to the extent that meditators end up with more capacity to manage stress when mediation is a consistent, daily practice. In fact, meditation has been scientifically proven to help alleviate stress after just eight weeks of regular practice. And the best part is that we can practice at any time or place. There are a range of meditations to try: Guided mediations can be a good place to start for those that have never done it before or that simply need a little guidance; we can practice body scan meditations, bringing our focus back to ourselves and truly noticing how each part of our body feels, but there are so many more to explore such as spiritual, focused, movement, mantra and transcendental meditation to name a few.

Final Words

Stress is a natural response to threats or being under pressure, however if stress does not dissipate and remains this is when we begin to feel the negative effects physically, psychologically and emotionally. Yoga can help with stress as it provides us with techniques to bring ourselves back to homeostasis, subtly builds our mental resilience against stress and heightens our self-awareness in order to alleviate the negative effects of stress but to also prevent it in the future.

 

 

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