In the 1930's Hans Selye, an endocrinologist adopted the term 'stress' to refer to inadequate physiological response to any demand. Stress was something that required change within an organism. There is good stress and bad stress. Or put another way eu-stress from which we develop and grow and di-stress from which we suffer. We have to stress the immune system in order to build the immune system but too much stress causes disease.
We develop our tolerance to stress by encountering new stressors; that which causes stress such as encountering a new environment or situation. The more we learn to adapt to new environments or situations, the easier it becomes to stabilise oneself. This is what is termed Allostasis; stability under change. However, if stress continues to be applied, one's capacity to maintain stability is undermined. At this point we have reached our Allostatic Load. We can no longer tolerate stress and may become ill. In 2015/16 the total number of cases of work related stress, anxiety and depression in the UK was 488,000! The number of missed days due to stress related illness was 37% and 45% of all working days lost due to ill health were down to stress.
When we are stressed we release the corticosteroid (stress hormone) cortisol. This enables us to mobilise energy to fight or flee from a situation by activating the Sympathetic Nervous System. But imagine your boss bawling you out. Your entire being may be desperate to either punch him/her (I wouldn't recommend it) or flee from the uncomfortable situation. Your system still releases cortisol but instead of using it up by responding physically, it continues to circulate through your system causing problems.
Cortisol suppresses the immune system. Have you noticed how when you are stressed you tend to get more colds and bugs? It is much harder for the body to defend itself when stressed. Imagine your life depended on your running away from a situation. Which bodily systems do you require? Digestive? No, forget that. Urinary? Nope. Reproductive? Certainly not! So when we are stressed we also suffer from digestive complaints such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). We may be susceptible to Urinary Tract Infections (IUT's). We may find it difficult to conceive after years of stress. Cortisol reduces the production of melatonin; a hormone produced at night to help us sleep causing insomnia. I could go on but I think you get the picture. Prolonged stress is bad for our health.
So how can Yoga and Mindfulness help? Firstly we need exercise to get rid of the build up of cortisol. Practicing strong poses that utilise the larger muscles in the body such as chair pose, warrior 2, lunges etc... helps metabolise cortisol. Alternatively daily exercise such as running, cycling or hill walking will work. Each time we exercise, we require the heart rate to increase, similarly to the experience of being stressed. Through controlling our breathing, we can control the behavior of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). There are two sides to the ANS, the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) or Fight and Flight and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) or Rest and Digest. When we inhale we activate the SNS and when we exhale, the PNS. So by practicing breathing techniques such as Ujjayi, we bring equilibrium to the ANS. If we alternate exercise with calming breathing, we teach the ANS that it knows how to bring balance to the body. In other words, with practice, if we find ourselves feeling stressed and we practice Ujjayi for example, the nervous system recognises a pattern, making the initial stressor somewhat easier to deal with.
In a particularly stressful situation, you may notice that your breath rises into your chest. This is because cortisol has been released and your body is preparing to run or fight. If we deliberately bring the breath down to the belly using the diaphragm to breathe and lengthen the exhalations using Ujjayi, we calm the nervous system; we override the SNS with the PNS. Instead of being in Fight and Flight mode, we enter Rest and Digest mode which as the name suggests means we are in a more healthy state. We are able to digest our food and the systems of the body return to homeostasis. Yoga teaches a number of breathing techniques or pranayama that control the Autonomic Nervous system so that we can bring equilibrium to the body. A recent article in the New Scientist explains how a type of brain cell that connects breathing rate to alertness has been discovered in mice and these have been dubbed "pranayama neurons". The research showed that when these neurons were killed in mice, they took a greater number of slow breaths becoming "super-chilled out".
Mindfulness is particularly useful for long term sufferers of stress. When we learn to notice the changes in our breath, we can actively alter the breath and change the way we feel. In time and with practice, we might also be able to recognise our behavioral patterns so as not to react in the same way to stress in the first place. It's a no brainer isn't it?
If you suffer from stress, the Yoga Therapy for the Mind course takes you through practices that teach you to develop awareness. So whilst on the course you may find your stress being alleviated, you may also learn skills that help you to manage it in the long run. Our Therapeutic Yoga class is the perfect follow on class to keep you on track. You may wish to speak to your GP if you suffer from Panic Attacks or have recently experienced a traumatic event. The Yoga Therapy for the Mind course or Private Yoga Therapy is suitable for those who are ready to cope alone.