“If you do have the courage to speak about it, you really can make things better.”
So says Prince Harry, speaking as part of a 1-minute radio message transmitted across all UK radio stations on Tuesday this week, to mark Mental Health Awareness Week (14 to 20 May 2018).
Imminent groom-to-be, Prince Harry, along with his brother Prince William and several stars, including Dame Judi Dench and Lady Gaga, joined forces and voices in the radio message, which encourages everyone who’s struggled with their mental health to come forward and share their story.
The royal brothers have had a long-held commitment to the cause of mental health, especially in children and young people, and it’s a problem that shows no signs of going away. According to statistics published by the Mental Health Foundation this year, only 7% of young adults reported never feeling overwhelmed or unable to cope in the past year, compared to 30% of older people.
So, what’s happening with our young people, and what can we do about it? One of the main contributors to poor mental health is stress. Stress is such an issue, it’s the focus of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week.
The Different Causes of Stress
We’ve all experienced stress. Life throws us curveballs and then the balls we were juggling crash down around our ears. In the short term, bursts of stress can help us to be more productive as we act faster and with urgency. But when the stress levels we’re dealing with don’t subside or become overwhelming, this can lead to ongoing mental and physical ill-health.
There are all sorts of causes of stress, including illness or injury, bereavement, divorce, exam-related stress, redundancy, moving house and…writing an article about stress when your daughter is off school with tonsillitis, in other words, parental stress.
There is also the stress that comes with your job, and as part of Mental Health Awareness Week, the mental health charity Mind is focusing on work-related stress. They are ‘helping employees and employers create a mentally healthy workplace where everyone feels valued and supported.’ Not to mention the stress that many freelancers face when work suddenly dries up and then arrives all at once.
What Stress Does to Us
As any yogi will tell you, the mind and the body are intrinsically linked. When the mind is under stress it has an immediate physical impact on the body. The body releases the hormones cortisol and adrenaline, which is the automatic response to a threat.
These hormones prompt the ‘fight or flight’ response, which works brilliantly when you come face to face with a snarling tiger, but when the snarling tiger is your boss this repeated hormonal flood can start to affect your mental health, as well as make you feel physically unwell. Physical symptoms can include, shallow breathing, muscle tension, blurred eyesight, fatigue, headaches, chest pains, nausea and high blood pressure.
It also affects our thought and behavioral patterns, such as being unable to concentrate and finding it hard to make decisions, and gradually our body forgets how to switch the stress mode off.
There is eating healthier, finding ways to relax, getting outdoors and so on. But there is also yoga. Research published by the Stress Research Centre at Harvard Medical School found that by “reducing perceived stress and anxiety, yoga appears to modulate stress response systems. This, in turn, decreases physiological arousal — for example, reducing the heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and easing respiration.” Mental health charity, Mind, suggests finding relaxation techniques that work for you, ‘such as a weekly yoga class, or setting aside time for breathing exercises at home’.
But according to B.K.S. Iyengar in his book Yoga, The Path to Holistic Health, ‘Mere relaxation is not sufficient in itself to counter the negative effects of stress.’
How Does Yoga Help?
Most of us, when feeling stressed out, reach for an immediate, short-term fix, such as food or alcohol. This is illustrated by the Mental Health Foundation’s latest findings on stress in which ‘46% of the people surveyed reported that they ate too much or ate unhealthily due to stress. On top of that, 29% reported that they started drinking or increased their drinking and 16% reported that they started smoking or increased their smoking.’
Yoga provides an alternative to these counterproductive stress-relievers, by giving you the tools to face stress with a calm and steady mind. Through regular practice of the asanas, the five senses are drawn inwards, and over time, allow the mind to become still. This has the dual benefit of reducing negative stress while building up the strength and resilience of both body and mind.
But even in the short term, yoga can immediately help to counter the effects of stress. In one lesson of yoga, the body is exposed to exercise through the vigorous active practice of yoga, which releases mood-boosting endorphins. At the end of the lesson, the mind and body rest in Savasana (Corpse Pose), a resting state which accesses the parasympathetic nervous system – the body’s inbuilt counter-stress response system. In Vinyasa-style yoga classes, the actions of the poses are synchronised with the breath, connecting the mind intrinsically to the body and reducing stress levels. Not to mention Yoga Nidra, pranayama and restorative yin yoga sessions, which all lead to increased feelings of calm.
Perhaps the clue to keeping our heads in our increasingly stressful world is in the title of this week – awareness. When we become truly aware of our surroundings without thought of what’s past (attachment) and what’s to come (fear), then there can be no stress. But it can take a lifetime to truly find that moment.