Yoga And Stress
Yoga reduces stress. We’ve all heard that and we all like to tell our students, colleagues and friends. But how exactly does Yoga reduce stress and what is stress anyway?
Stress is one of those highly used words like “holistic” or “organic” that have been slapped around so much that it is easy to become a bit immune to its actual meaning.
Under Pressure is the literal meaning according to my tattered little Oxford English dictionary. But is being under pressure necessarily bad or stressful? The truth is stress itself is not inherently bad but our body’s reaction to it can be. A certain amount of stress can be motivating, but prolonged periods can lead to a host of unpleasant symptoms which ultimately lead to ill health and disease.
Stress is the body’s reaction to any change that requires a response of some kind. The body reacts to these changes with physical, mental and emotional responses based on our ancient neurological/biological mechanisms of survival. Our nervous system was designed pretty flawlessly in a time when we regularly faced life threatening danger. But in our modern world, this system sometimes behaves a bit like your slightly senile Grandpa who gets a bit confused about the facts.
The Nervous System
I’m going to digress a moment to introduce our Autonomic Nervous System, commonly shortened to ANS. This system conveniently controls all our unconscious bodily functions such as heart rate, respiration, digestion, urination and sexual arousal. It is divided into two branches known as the Sympathetic Nervous System, SNS and the Parasympathetic Nervous System, PNS. If you are already glazing over with all these acronyms, let me break it down into normal people words. The Sympathetic branch is often called the Flight or Fight Response, and the Parasympathetic branch, the Rest and Digest. They are antagonist systems that work in opposition to stimulate and then regulate our bodies throughout our lives. In normal daily life we are governed by the Rest and Digest, also known as Feed and Breed branch of the nervous system, maintaining harmony and well being.
Hiding Out In Caves
Now, going back a few million years to that glorious time when we were hiding out in caves and grunting: – finding food, staying safe and having sex were pretty much our main occupations. Not that much different from today really, only things have got a bit more sophisticated. So whilst hunting out some prehistoric berries, the likelihood of our ancestors coming across a terrifying beast was most probable, and they had to have some pretty efficient responses in order to survive. It was during this period that our nervous system evolved these efficient responses.
Flight Or Fight
Triggered by a life threatening situation, the flight or fight response prepares the body for action; either to run to safety or to fight for one’s life. This occurs by a series of physiological processes beginning with the stimulation of a part in the brain that processes emotion, called the amygdala. The amygdala sends out a distress signal to the hypothalamus which then activates the Sympathetic nervous system by sending further signals to the adrenal glands. These glands respond by secreting the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) into the bloodstream, stimulating a number of physiological changes.
The heart beats faster, sending more blood to the muscles, heart, and other vital organs. Pulse rate and blood pressure go up and the breathing becomes rapid. The pathways in the lungs dilate so the lungs can take in as much oxygen as possible and send that to the brain to heighten the senses. Epinephrine also increases blood sugar level by stimulating the release of stored blood sugar (glucose) and fats, making this energy available to all parts of the body.
After using up the mobilised energy through fighting for one’s life or fleeing to safety, the Parasympathetic nervous system deactivates the flight or fight response and returns to the restorative state of Rest and Digest.
As I said, this system evolved way back when stress involved life and death situations and therefore involved mobilising an enormous amount of energy. However in today’s modern world, the body can also react to stressors that are not life threatening with the same intensity. Once triggered, this cascade of physiological responses is not able to differentiate between the stress of arguing with a colleague, for example, and the stress of serious danger. Another problem of modern living is the effects of prolonged stress which occur when a person faces continuous challenges without relief or relaxation between challenges. In this case the hypothalamus triggers a whole new process that stimulates the adrenals to secrete cortisol which keeps the body in a hyper alert state for extended periods. As a result, the nervous and hormonal system becomes overworked and stress-related tension accumulates. These responses were intended for emergencies only and this ancient system is simply not equipped with the discernment necessary to deal with everyday stress.
Accumulation of stress and ongoing stimulation of the Sympathetic nervous system can seriously deplete the body’s energy reserves resulting in a host of physical and psychological symptoms. Persistent production of epinephrine can damage blood vessels and arteries, increasing blood pressure and increasing the risk of heart attacks or strokes. Elevated cortisol levels can lead to blood sugar imbalance and therefore diabetes, weight gain and obesity, immune system suppression and gastrointestinal problems. Research suggests that prolonged stress can also cause neurological changes that may contribute to anxiety, depression, and addiction.
So How Can Yoga help?
The regular practice of yoga helps with stress in a variety of ways. Aside from the more obvious benefits of strengthening and relaxing the muscles and improving posture, the practice of asana together with breath awareness also triggers the Parasympathetic nervous system. This deactivates the flight or fight response. The blood pressure and heart rate are reduced and blood flow is redirected to digestive and reproductive organs and to the endocrine and lymphatic system.
The effects of these physiological changes are that the body is then better able to extract nutrients from food, deliver these nutrients more effectively to the cells and eliminate toxins, thereby strengthening the immune system. The endocrine system also responds to these changes by producing neurotransmitters like GABA, serotonin and dopamine which are basically hormones produced by the brain to enhance the mood and bring about a sense of well being. These hormones are what mood medications like anti depressants and anti anxiety medications target.
A secondary benefit is that regular practice of yoga can help change habits by becoming more sensitive to one’s needs. When we are more present in the body, we are more able to recognise the symptoms of when our Sympathetic nervous system becomes activated and we can consciously engage the Parasympathetic branch by breathing deeply and consciously relaxing the muscles. The body’s familiarity with these practices will facilitate the deactivation of the stress response more rapidly.
Through paying attention to sensations and reactions to those sensations, we also build a container for uncomfortable feelings, changing habitual reactions to potential stressors and therefore strengthening our capacity to withstand the strains of modern living.
So, let’s roll out our mats and get on with it……the body will thank us!
If you are interested to learn more about yoga and the nervous system join one of our Yoga teacher trainings or Yoga of sound retreats. Feeling Soul Good’s coming up programs.