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How Yoga relieves Stress

10 Dec 2018, Posted by lucyoga in Workshop

After a weekend of violent clashes here in France between police and people protesting against the current economic system which is killing our planet, it is clear that all beings around the world are suffering more and more stress.

Yoga and meditation have an important role to play in helping us to realise that we are all connected, we are all one.  However, this article deals with how to relieve the physical effects of stress.

The Oxford dictionary defines “stress” as:

a physiological disturbance or damage caused to an organism by adverse circumstances.

– a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.

In the 21st century people are experiencing ever increasing levels of stress, whether it’s financial, social, political, technological or environmental. Modern life means that for most of us we live with low-grade chronic stress which increases our risk of health problems.

Stress is something we feel in the body via the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPAA) of the endocrine (hormonal) system. Although these two systems are anatomically distinct they are so intertwined that they are thought of as an integrated system.

The HPAA is a complex set of direct influences and interactions among three components: the hypothalamus and pituitary gland (both located in the brain), and the adrenal glands above the kidneys. The HPAA controls reactions to stress and regulates many body processes, including digestion, the immune system, mood and emotions, sexuality, and energy storage and expenditure.

The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) governs our “fight or flight” responses to threats; whilst the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) allows us to “rest and digest” – which conserves energy and is responsible for maintaining health & homeostasis. They are both part of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) which operates mostly below the level of consciousness to regulate many bodily functions.

The SNS and the PNS operate like a see-saw – when one goes up, the other one goes down. Parasympathetic activation is the normal resting state of your body, brain and mind. If your SNS were surgically disconnected you’d stay alive but if your PNS were disconnected you’d stop breathing and die. Sympathetic activation is a change to the baseline of PNS equilibrium in order to respond to a perceived threat.

Whether pain is psychological (mental/emotional) or physical it uses many of the same neural networks. Even just anticipating a challenging event can have as much impact as living through it for real. Whatever the source of the perceived threat, the amygdala sounds the alarm setting off several reactions¹:

  • The thalamus sends a “wake up!” signal to your brain stem, which in turn releases stimulating norepinephrine (hormone & neurotransmitter) throughout your brain.
  • The SNS sends signals to the major organs and muscle groups in your body, readying them for fight or flight.
  • The hypothalamus, which is the primary regulator of the endocrine system, prompts the pituitary gland to signal the adrenal glands to release the “stress hormones” adrenaline and cortisol.

Within a second or two of the initial alarm, your brain is on red alert and stress hormones are washing through your blood which has the following effects on your body:

  • Adrenaline increases your heart rate (so your heart can move more blood) and dilates your pupils (so your eyes gather more light). Bronchioles in your lungs dilate for increased gas exchange – enabling you to hit harder or run faster.
  • Cortisol suppresses the immune system to reduce inflammation from wounds. It also revs up stress reactions in two circular ways:
  1. it causes the brain stem to further stimulate the amygdala which increases activation of the SNS/HPAA system, which produces more cortisol;
  2. cortisol suppresses hippocampal activity (which normally inhibits the amygdala) which leads to yet more cortisol.
  • Emotions intensify and as the amygdala is hardwired to focus on negative information and react intensely to it, feeling stressed sets us up for fear and anger.
  • As the limbic and endocrine activation increases, control by the prefrontal cortex – the rational bit of our brain, declines meaning we’re more likely to react negatively.

The mental effects of SNS/HPAA activity have a huge impact on our well-being as they work in our brain to raise anxiety and lower mood. Anxiety increases as the more activated the amygdala is the more sensitive it becomes and thus the easier it is activated.

Yoga (along with other mindfulness practices) helps to calm the SNS keeping the ANS in an optimal state of balance ready to respond appropriately according to the situation. Medical research shows that regularly quieting your mind and body may help you sleep better and reduce your anxiety. It can also have therapeutic effects on your heart, and on your immune, digestive and other physiological systems.

Restorative Yoga – which uses props (blankets, bolsters, blocks etc) to support the body in positions of comfort to facilitate relaxation, is particularly good at relieving stress. Relaxation takes the average person at least 15 minutes and can be measured by decrease in heart rate and blood pressure, deeper and slower breathing, muscle release, calmer brain-waves and reduced stress-hormone levels.

To work its magic, Restorative Yoga relies on 8 key relaxation-inducing conditions: physical comfort, muscle release, warm skin, a reclined or inverted posture, darkness, pressure on the bones around the eyes, permission to relax, and holding the pose for a sufficient amount of time.

Each condition stimulates one or more of the body’s 3 quieting systems (parasympathetic nervous system) whilst simultaneously inhibiting one or more of the 8 activating systems (sympathetic nervous system), which is why it’s easier for us to become revved up rather than calmed down.

Mindfulness practices such as yoga and meditation also help us to calm the mind so that we become less triggered by potentially stressful events – choosing to see things for what they truly are (usually neutral) rather than perceived threats. Often it is the value judgement we give something which creates the stress rather than the thing itself.

Practising something as simple as conscious breathing automatically helps to reduce tension and brings us into the present moment – which, unless we are in real danger, is usually a safe place where we can choose an appropriate response. It is our mind that often keeps us either stuck in the past – leading to depression, or constantly worrying about the future – causing anxiety, which creates so much unnecessary stress in our lives.

Breathe, Stretch, Relax, Smile.

1Hanson, R (2009) Buddha’s Brain – the practical neuroscience of happiness, love & wisdom, Newharbinger

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