How To Use The Science Of Stress To Your Advantage

Stress Science

11.3 million working days were lost to stress in the UK 2013/14.

We all feel stressed from time to time. Many of us will know someone who is so stressed that they need to take medications and possibly have some time off work. But what is stress and how do we deal with it properly?     

Good Stress vs Bad Stress

Stress gets such bad press but not all stress is bad. Those people who produce their best work at the 11th hour and work best under pressure seem to positively thrive on stress. They may actually perceive stress as a good thing. In this case the stress is described as eustress, or good stress. When someone starts to show stress-related symptoms that get in the way of their ability to function properly, that’s definitely bad stress — also known as distress.

So, stress isn’t about a particular event, activity or workload but about how an individual reacts to what is going on. What one person will deal effortlessly could be enough to completely break someone else. Even from week to week or day to day our capacity to deal with stress will change.

The Science Behind Stress

When we are stressed the hypothalamopituitary axis (HPA) and adrenal glands initiate a cascade of hormones that prepare the body for fight-or-flight. This results in…

  • Increased blood flow to the muscles activated by diverting blood flow from other parts of the body.
  • Increased blood pressure, heart rate, blood sugars, and fats in order to supply the body with extra energy.
  • The blood clotting function of the body speeds up in order to prevent excessive blood loss in the event of an injury sustained during the response.
  • Increased muscle tone in order to provide the body with extra speed and strength.

This is great if you are in a life-threatening situation, but unfortunately this is rarely the case in modern life. Rather than single bursts of frenetic activity with calm normality in between, we are under a seemingly constant barrage of stress-filled situations. Work problems, home life complications, illness, personal loss, money worries and the like all conspire to fuel a gradually increasing spiral of stress and keep our sympathetic nervous system on constant alert.

The Effect Of Stress On The Mind

The NHS website states that ‘stress is the feeling of being under too much mental or emotional pressure and many of the most debilitating symptoms are psychological and include:

  • Becoming irritable, frustrated and moody
  • Feeling overwhelmed, like you are losing control or need to take control
  • Having difficulty relaxing and quieting your mind
  • Low self-esteem, feeling lonely, worthless and depressed

Yoga Is The Best Medicine

Yoga can help combat the effects of stress. It has been shown to positively affect the cardiovascular symptoms of stress and lower blood pressure, and reduce pulse rate and blood sugars.

More specifically, one 2014 study found that eight weeks of Vinyasa Flow classes twice a week had a positive effect on the aspects of stress studied. An Iranian study found that mindfulness, āsana and meditation reduced depression and stress in infertile women but had no effect on anxiety. Meanwhile, a Japanese project found that āsana 3 times a week had a positive effect on tension, anxiety, anger, hostility & confusion in healthy female subjects.

Insomnia and poor sleep patterns is a particular feature of stress-related illness where yoga has also found a positive use. In 2014 yoga was found to positively affect insomnia in Icelandic earthquake survivors (who I imagine to have been pretty stressed) and healthy Indian men.

Blow Away Those Blues

The growing body of evidence to support yoga in the management of stress related conditions covers many of techniques from Patañjali’s eight limbs of yoga. For example:

  1. Āsana — The physical practice of yoga brings the benefits of stretching to combat the increased muscle tone. Taking our joints through full range of movement will help to address the tendency to slouching that becomes the habitual posture of the over stressed individual. Balances like Tree Pose, will bring calm through a greater sense of grounding.
  2. Prānāyāma — Simply breathing deeply will help calm the mind. Try lying on your back and taking deep breaths by drawing the air into your belly through the base of your lungs. Slowing down the out-breath until it is twice as long as the in-breath also works wonders. As well as the physical effects of lowering blood pressure and pulse rate, pramayama stills the mind and has been shown to improve sleep. Or you could try some breath work in the office or on the train, you don’t even have to roll out your mat for it!
  3. Pratyāhāra, Dhāranā and Dhyāna — Control of the senses, concentration and meditation all work to still the mind and bring greater feelings of control and well being alongside the physical effects of lower heart rate and blood pressure.

The Bottom Line

Yogis don’t get stressed, right? Not quite, but yoga does involve many things that will help anyone deal with the stresses of daily life whether that is relationship problems, money worries, work deadlines or illness. It won’t make any of that go away but it will help you feel more in control, be able to see facts and make decisions more rationally, and improve your overall quality of life.

It doesn’t have to be a daily practice or challenging poses either — a few sun salutes followed by some deep breathing is a great place to start. It works for me every time! Let us know in the comments below if you have any stress-management techniques that work for you!

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