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The Yoga Blog

Stress Matters

If you live in a city, read on. If you have a job, read on. If you're a parent, give this your undivided attention. I'm the director of an office yoga and wellbeing company which is making the corporate world of London healthier and happier - and my business is thriving, because, sadly, managing stress and preventing burnout remains the biggest challenge employers face today. Stress pervades your work as well as your private life; it affects your sleep patterns and your relationships. We might feel like life is meant to be stressful and we’re unsure how it feels to be carefree. Some of us might even be tempted to seek out this notion of being stressed and portray it to the world, maybe partly due to a misguided societal belief that the more stressed we are, the more important we surely appear. But I feel that freedom from stress and anxiety is non-negotiable and that being stressed is not something to strive for, no matter what - because it breaks your body and it breaks your mind. So let's explore what stress actually is, why it shouldn't be an everyday occurrence and what we can do to work against it.

Stress is our body's way of responding to a threat - real or imagined - and whatever the actual or perceived danger, the sympathetic part of our autonomic nervous system reacts. The first and oldest stress response is visceral: if a stressful situation has ever made you feel faint or has immobilised you, that was your visceral stress response. Because of evolutionary changes, this happens less often nowadays, because this is overridden by our adrenal response, our "fight or flight" mode. Here, our body releases stress hormones: first, adrenalin - a fast-acting chemical that immediately spikes the heart-rate and blood pressure; and second, cortisol -a longer-acting chemical which for the first 30 minutes has a positive effect on you: it heightens your concentration, boosts your immune system and reduces pain sensitivity.

Long-term (over an hour) or when repeated, i.e. when we keep being exposed to stressors, this hormone has serious side effects on our body, causing low blood-sugar and high blood pressure, decreasing your bone and muscle density, and inhibiting your immune system. What goes up must come down, right? Stress also causes the muscles in the body to contract, because tight muscles make the body more resilient to attack. That's a good thing in certain situations, and rare bouts of stress let your body recover relatively quickly, but frequent stress can cause the body to remain in a state of "emergency readiness" or even become hyper-stimulated by these stress hormones, letting muscles remain contracted, which can lead to muscle pain and headaches. Psychological stress can deteriorate your body’s ability to regulate pain, which then compounds to more painful muscle tension. Emotionally, when we're stressed, the less evolved parts of our brain responding with fear or anxiety (e.g. the amygdala) become active, which in turn means that our brain’s 'executive organ' i.e. the one responsible for rational decision-making (e.g. the prefrontal cortex) is hindered in its work. 

Good stress vs. permanent underlying stress

Our stress response is supposed to help us, after all it is there to protect us from a threat. And once the threat is gone, our parasympathetic nervous system kicks in to make us calm again: it metabolises your cortisol and sends signals to the brain to stop producing more stress hormones and instead to start producing a calm chemistry in our body through oxytocin, endorphins and serotonin; your heartbeat and breathing slows down and your muscles relax. Job done! Easy. Or at least it used to be… Evolution and lifestyles have changed our bodies. Today, our daily stressors are more complex and ongoing: multiple deadlines, 24-hour news, social media, traffic, noise, people... Then there are inner stressors such as our deep seated fears and lifelong expectations rooted in our social conditioning. The difference between these stressors isn't hard to spot: one sudden burst of a stress is a tangible thing which our body can work against, whereas many different stress factors, which are permanently looming, keep our stress levels high. In fact, significant stress exposure, especially in infancy, can alter your body's stress response system as well as the architecture of your brain through an overproduction of neural connections in brain regions dedicated to anxiety and stress. Because of these external, internal and subconscious stressors, we have acquired a permanent state of stress, which is hardest to counter, firstly, because it's underlying (are we even aware of our deep-seated fears or how much our daily commute affects our nervous system?) and secondly, because we are unable to solve these stress factors or make them go away. And if you think that it's not so bad and you're quite safe, living in a democracy, leading a reasonably secure life and not many "real" threats to deal with, let's take a moment to remind ourselves that whatever terrible scenarios we are spinning in our overthinking minds, are as real to our body as if these actually happened! For our body, imagined and real danger mean the same physical process: the chemicals released are exactly the same.

This is why we need to take imagined dangers just as seriously as external ones and to try and understand our internal stressors - the thoughts we've suppressed and which are working on a subliminal level. And then there's another thing aggravating our system even more. We're overworked and overtired, and when our head finally hits the pillow, we often find we can't shut off our brain. Our overactive mind and our constant stress levels often lead to chronic partial sleep deprivation which compounds to our body's imbalanced chemistry, increasing the levels of stress hormones (which go down during deep sleep), our appetite (through the alteration of hormones stimulating the thyroid) and deteriorating our breathing pattern, thereby decreasing our oxygen intake. This in turn further promotes the production of stress hormones and inhibits the activation of your parasympathetic nervous system. So we find ourselves in a nice little vicious cycle of stress. But rather than beating ourselves up over being permanently stressed and how we react to this with anger, rather than letting the destructive long-term effects of the previously beneficial stress hormones break us, we can do something against them. We don't have to keep feeling fatigued, headachy, cranky, unable to concentrate and memorise things, we can fight being anxious and irritable, fight the need to control everything around us or become apathetic.

The simple solution: just breathe

Stress is a physical experience, so it makes sense to find a physical way out of it, right? The fact is we can't simply counter stress by thinking positive thoughts. Instead, we need to be in our body, we need to be the ones to reactivate our parasympathetic nervous system, because it's overworked and cannot do the job by itself anymore. The good news is we can do this very simply by deep diaphragmatic breathing. Extended deep exhalation will activate our vagus nerve, the longest cranial nerve in our body, which connects our knees, stomach, lungs, heart and throat to our brain. This nerve signals the brain that there's no danger, that we're safe and it's time to produce positive neurotransmitters and "happy hormones" oxytocin, endorphins and serotonin. 

Have you noticed that most of us breathe in for longer than we breathe out? Do we ever really breathe out all the way? Deep breaths in themselves are great, but it's the longer exhalation in relation to the inhalation that we need in order to destress faster. And if on top of that we use our vocal chords (larynx), this is even more effective, so try humming a melody to yourself, or use Bhramari Pranayama (the "humming bee" yoga exercise). While yoga postures will relax your stressed muscles, what we do in Pranayama, the part of yoga focussing on voluntary respiration, is to calm our nervous system by lowering our heart rate, blood pressure and sugar levels and improving our blood circulation. In addition to the physiological and psychological benefits, research has also shown that yoga affects the cerebral activities of the body, e.g. memory, concentration and creativity. 

The great thing about these breathing techniques is that they work directly on the level of the soma, so not your cognitive mind. Cognitive meditations - the ones where you imagine yourself at a beach, for example - can often be stressful, because you're asked to take your mind on a very specific journey, and if your mind starts wandering, you can easily stress about not doing it right. Working on the body, you don't need your mind to be in a happy place, it doesn't matter what your mind does: we are using our body to relax, instead of being in our head all the time. So make time to practice every day! I know sometimes it's difficult to get even one minute to yourself, but try and start with just that: a minute. 

Putting it in perspective

Yoga and mindfulness won't suddenly solve all our problems and we'll never be able to erase all stress from our lives. Since the world is not designed solely for our benefit, there will always be challenging situations. But we don’t need to amplify our stress by focusing too much on ourselves. We can choose to take a step back and change our attitude to this situation - which is essentially the only thing we're actually in control of: not what's going on around us but our reaction to it. And if we do not manage, let's not keep revisiting a situation in which we wish we’d reacted differently. That's not healthy. Life is not just about being in the present moment and reacting in a reflective way when faced with a challenging situation; it is just as much about learning to forgive ourselves for situations in which we didn't treat the people around us (or ourselves!) with understanding and kindness. So-called “negative” emotions are just as much part of life as "positive" ones, indeed there is no such thing as negative and positive: the emotions we're experiencing - no matter whether we enjoy them or not - need space and need to be treated with kindness. And once we internalise that, we'll be perfectly equipped to deal with all the challenges life has to offer.


This article has been taken from Amrita issue 5. You can read more of the magazine here!

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