Stress:  How can yoga help? 

 What is Stress?

Stress can be described as a feeling of struggling to cope with everyday life resulting in confusion, failure to prioritise and an inability to relax the mind or body.  Stress can sometimes be confused with pressure.  Pressure, which may be referred to as positive stress or eustress, can be a positive, motivating force but when this pressure is persistently high without relief, this can result in negative stress and illness.  Stress affects a person’s belief in their ability to cope with a given situation and is evident when one’s perceived ability to cope with a task or situation does not reflect one’s actual capability.  A person who is stressed will feel unable to cope with external demand and may not be able to describe specific problems but feel overwhelmed and panicked.  Stress results in both psychological and physiological responses which might include: shallow breath/hyperventilation, skin conditions such as acne, rashes and eczema, insomnia, loss of appetite or increased appetite (overeating), muscle tension, heart palpitations, migraine, sweating, stomach/bowel complaints such as IBS, ulcers, restlessness or twitching, ticks, irritability, memory loss, inability to concentrate, depression or low mood, lack of interest in aspects of everyday life, obsessive behaviour, tearfulness, self-absorption and being withdrawn. 

Stress arises in our daily life through a number of situations.  The following events in daily life may all be triggers to stress:

·         At work:  Deadlines, meetings, poor communication, and confrontation with colleagues or people with whom we are dealing, excess workload, feeling undervalued, and traffic on the commute.

·         At home: Relationship problems, illness of family or friends, time restrictions – running late, arguments, and financial worries.

These everyday stresses are usually short lived.  They are just part and parcel of life.  It is only when these stresses accumulate or we are hit by an unforeseen traumatic event that stress can become overwhelming and can lead to physical/mental illness.  People have varying abilities to cope with stress some may have very low thresholds whereas some will seek out stressful situations for what may be called the ‘adrenalin buzz’. Stress is sometimes perceived as a new phenomenon but stress has been with us since time began.  As B. K. S. Iyengar asserts, “Stress is as old as civilisation itself.”    However, the triggers to stress have changed over time and because of the way we live and the patterns of behaviour which are, or are not, socially acceptable, we no longer get rid of the chemicals released into our body in times of stress as effectively. 

What Is The Fight or Flight Response? 

Strong emotion such as fear or anger and situations of high stress trigger an automatic response, referred to as the fight or flight response, in the body.   This response was more suitable when our daily stresses included hunting down wild animals to get our next meal or running away from a dangerous situation.  However, although starting a fight in a meeting at work or running out of the door may not be acceptable, our body’s response to stress is still the same.   The sympathetic nervous system takes messages from the brain directly to the adrenal glands, stimulating them to release adrenalin and noradrenalin into the bloodstream.  Other organs of the body respond to this.  The liver releases stored sugar for instant energy; skin blood vessels close down, drawing blood away and resulting in pale skin; the extra blood is directed to the muscles and internal organs; the heart speeds up and arteries tighten to heighten blood pressure; digestion is stopped and the blood clotting time speeds up in case of injury.  All this happens within seconds.  Adrenal hormones turn us into superheroes.  We can run faster, jump further, lift heavier weights and hit harder if our survival depends on it. 

Obviously we can’t go on forever in this heightened state.  So, the same triggers which cause the adrenal glands to release hormones also cause the hypothalamus in the brain to signal to the pituitary gland to release ACTH which stimulates the cortex, via the parasympathetic nervous system, to produce cortisones, which reverse the effects,  sometimes referred to as the ‘rest and digest’ response.  This brings the body back into balance (homeostasis).

However, the problem arises when the body remains in a state of tension and does not come back to a state of balance, if the chemicals released are not used up (by fighting or running away) as would be the case with many modern causes of stress, these chemicals can build up.  Over time this build up can cause exhaustion and a variety of illnesses.  This is where yoga comes in.  

What Happens When We Relax? 

It is thought that yoga (and other similar disciplines) can trigger what Dr Herbert Benson has called the ‘relaxation response’.  The parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for bringing back homeostasis within our body following the ‘fight or flight’ response to stress, is not under our voluntary control.  However, studies have shown that this system can be switched on by yoga.  Over time practising meditation and deep relaxation is thought to increase the capacity of our body to control the changes in our body which result from fight or flight hormones; strengthening the validity of the assertion that mind and body are inextricably linked.  One of the physiological changes within our body during deep relaxation is that the sympathetic nervous system goes into abeyance and the parasympathetic nervous system takes over.  Other effects of deep relaxation include;

  •         Decrease in metabolism.
  •         Energy resources taxed less.
  •         Decrease in oxygen consumption.
  •         Respiration slows.
  •         Heart rate decreases by an average of three beats per second.
  •         Decrease in level of blood lactate, associated with anxiety states.
  •         Blood pressure drops.
  •         It is refreshing, invigorating, satisfying.
  •         Get relief from tension of any kind, physical, mental or emotional. 

We all have the capacity to be stressed, as well as the capacity to counter its effects.  Robin Sands, in his article about the effects of the parasympathetic nervous system asks us to “… imagine the ANS (automatic nervous system) as an ocean, then the Sympathetic would be the waves, the tides, the storms; while the Parasympathetic would be the ocean's depths, its stillness; its abundance. It is always the power of the Parasympathetic that restores calm to the surface, harmony to the mad ups-and-downs of life. And it is imperative for our survival, let alone our happiness, that we learn to awaken and develop this great healer within.” 


J. D Ratcliffe; ‘I am Joe’s Body’ Reader’s Digest

Course hand-outs ; Rosemary “Prema” Bennett: What happens when we relax?; Stress; Stress and your body; Fight or Flight

Robin Sands; The Power of the Parasympathetic Nervous System

YouTube clip of Dr Herbert Benson                                                                       


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