Stress (a state of mental or emotional tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances) is something that many of us know all to well. The list of potential triggers or stressors are endless; demanding schedules, financial pressures, work overload, family/relationship situations, traumatic events, expectations we place on ourselves - the list goes on and on,
For some a low grade application of stress can be an effective tool for focusing the mind and getting things done, for me personally some of my best work has been produced when a little stress was applied, It helped me to be more focused and effective with my time, arguably it also helped with my athletic pursuits. However, there is a point where it can all go too far and the level of stress becomes so overwhelming that we can no longer effectively function; our health, wellbeing and relationships all begin to suffer. Like all things it's a very fine line to walk.
When I reflect on my life 5 years ago it's pretty clear to see that I was a stress junkie, I thrived when I felt challenged. I held the belief that it was a good thing to have a schedule with little to no empty space. The stressors were largely coming from my job as a consulting engineer (managing projects that were well outside my level of comfort and taking on more responsibility that I was ready for) and the really high expectations I'd placed on myself across all aspects of life.
Coming to the present day it seems like everything has changed, compared to where I was 5 years ago I feel extremely resilient to stressful situations. I'm a much calmer, relaxed well-balanced version of my former self yet still have the ability to really focus my mind and get things done without the need of a stressor or a pressing deadline to get me there.
It's completely clear to me that it's my time on my yoga mat that has taught me how to stress less. On a regular basis I see how my bodies response to stress has changed. As a stressful situation arises I watch my breath automatically deepen, after a few big deep breaths the feeling passes, often with no reaction. I've also observed that with a high grade application of stress over an extended period I'm able to remain focused but not overwhelmed, during a stressful period I can still see that I am the most important part of the equation and that caring for myself comes before resolving whatever the situation may be, something that I had no concept of 5 years ago.
Science tells us that yoga is really good for us, that it reduces stress, anxiety and helps with depression, here is a brief explanation of how it actually works:
We have an Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) within our body that is responsible for maintaining constant conditions, otherwise known as a state of homeostasis. The ANS has two divisions, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and sympathetic nervous system (SNS), these work together like a see-saw assisting us with responding to day to day life. The PNS can be considered as our resting or base state.
When we experience a stressful situation by default our SNS is activated, our body goes into 'fight or flight' mode and is filled with hormones such as cortisol. You will notice that when this response is strongly triggered we tend to breathe high up into our chest, it's that big gasp of breath we take into the chest and hold as we assess our next course of action. As the cortisol (and other stress hormones) begin to flood through the body our senses are heightened, our heart rate and blood pressure increase and the brain’s activity becomes focused. Our blood is pushed towards our limbs, we are alert and primed to fight, or take flight by running away.
For those of us who experience extended periods in stressful conditions (also think environmental stresses such as bright lights, loud noises) our SNS can begin to predominate creating imbalance in the body and a wide range of ill affects.
When we practice yoga* through our breath we activate the PNS, this is responsible for the' rest and digest' functions in the body. We also reduce our levels of cortisol and increase the levels of a neurotransmitter called GABA, this inhibits the stress response in the body.
With continued yoga practice we strengthen our PNS and minimise the bodies tendency to activate the SNS. We also learn how to control our response to stress through mindfulness and our breath. You could think of our breath as a switch, one that has the ability to flip between the ‘fight or flight’ response and the ‘rest and digest’ response. The breath technique Kapalbhati will activate the SNS while Full Yogic Breathing will active the PNS.
When we practice skilfully responding to stress (physical postures) using mindfulness and breath we begin to rewire the brain so that our skilful response becomes an ingrained automatic response. We therefore build our resilience to stress and as a consequence become less stressed, healthier versions of ourselves.
Not convinced that we can rewire out brains and automatic responses? Then check out this TED talk, one of my al time favouries.
*gentle breath-based vinyasa flow and practices with slow controlled diaphragmatic breathing. Some practices such as hot and power yoga will intentionally activate the SNS to induce a greater state of relaxation and deeper PNS response at the end of class.
2. The Concise Human Body Book (Steve Parker)