Yoga is often peddled as an antidote for stress but before we can understand how yoga can help us, we need to understand what stress is and how it affects us. So, what is ‘stress’ and when does it become a problem? (Cheat: watch the videos at the end of this article...)
Stress, in basic terms, is what we associate with the feelings of 'pressure' and 'too much pressure' in our daily lives. Pressure, on its own, is not a bad thing - it motivates us from getting up in the morning, to hitting that deadline. In isolation, these everyday types of stress take place on the bottom rungs of what we could call the ‘stress ladder’ – our feet are never more than a step away from the stress-free safety of the floor.
Moving a few rungs up this ladder - a small jump away from the floor this time - an increased feeling of pressure (although we might still describe these occasions as ‘stressful’), can be encouraging and help us to achieve what we might not have achieved in a more relaxed state. For example, finding your Olympic-standard running legs in the last few minutes before your train leaves the platform; or not giving up in Sirsasana (headstand) because you feel like everyone in the class is watching you. The pressure we might feel in an everyday-kind of stressful situation makes us more efficient and alert.
In times of acute stress - the very top of the ladder - this alertness is heightened and becomes part of what we call the 'fight or flight reaction'. Our body reacts to protect us; adrenaline is released and our levels of cortisol increase, making our minds sharper and our actions faster. If we leave the ladder analogy behind for a moment and think about finding ourselves really stuck at a great height – let’s say we've gone mountaineering and find ourselves in a situation where we have to climb down a steep ledge to safety – the stress we feel might allow us to concentrate and slowly descend, where usually we would have been too scared. It might allow us to grasp hold of a sharp rock to steady ourselves, where usually we would have found it too painful. On the other hand, we might react by becoming rooted to the spot and staying still until help comes. In either case, prompted by the stress we feel, our reactions (we hope!) would enable us to endure.
In life, acutely stressful events might be very unusual (think: running into a burning building, being involved in a car accident), or they might be a common but significant life event (moving home, giving birth, the death of a loved one). How we define what is ‘acutely’ stressful for each individual is shaped by that person alone, but experiencing a heightened physiological stress response is not something we would expect to go through every day.
The times where we experience acute stress are associated with trauma and whether the impact is felt in, or after the traumatic moment, it is assumed (from a biological standpoint at least) to have an end. Regardless of how long it may take in reality, our bodies and minds would hope to descend back down the stress ladder and, eventually, step off. Albeit undesirable in many circumstances, it is entirely appropriate for us to encounter acute stress in extra-ordinary circumstances. It is not appropriate for us to maintain medium to high levels of stress in the long term.
We can distinguish the chronically stressed from the above examples, as those who are routinely stuck at, or beyond, the halfway point of the stress ladder. These people and their situations will look very different to one another – often we don’t know what this looks like for ourselves, let alone for other people.
As individuals, we can be more or less susceptible to chronic stress as a result of our genetic inheritance (nature) and our physical-emotional life experiences (nurture). Chronic stress combines these factors and then stockpiles all of our life stresses (past and present) so that the distinction between ‘enough’ and ‘too much’ pressure becomes less and less easy to recognise, and much much harder for us to manage. (It is worth noting that in the muscles, nerves and tendons of the body, this is exactly how repetitive strain injury occurs.) Think of blowing up a balloon without stopping – our exhalations increase the surface tension quite rapidly, but it will take quite a long time for the balloon to pop. If we were to deflate the balloon without removing it from our mouth – how long would it take for the balloon to go down?
How chronic stress manifests itself is unique to the individual, however we can identify symptomatic patterns; irritability; anxiety; insomnia; loss of appetite; stomach pains etc. Physical symptoms often manifest before you even realise that you are stressed. Eventually, our immune system weakened and our emotional resilience impaired - we become ill. Be it psychological or physical - and rarely one without the other – sustained mid to high-ranging levels of stress will have lasting and damaging effects on a person's mental and physical health.
So what can we do about stress and how can yoga help?
Well that my friends, is for a whole other blog post. So, for now, these TED-Ed talks might interest you:
The NHS also has some good resources on stress, anxiety and depression. You can find a good introductory vodcast on their website where a GP explains healthy and unhealthy levels of stress, and the impact long-term stress can have on the mind and body (accessed on 21/01/16).