You have sales targets to meet and the job market is unforgiving as is. You are sitting in front of your computer, your body tense, breath shallow, mind full of worries and anxieties, and an endocrine system pumping stress hormones into the system. This increase in heart rate, dilating pupils, body flushed with cortisol and adrenaline—all this stress response was reserved as a ‘flight or fight’ response when you occasionally encounter real danger, what do you think an overused stress response, and chronic stress buildup does to your critical organs and mental health?
Stress can be due to various reasons that may be work- or family-related, or related to particular life events like a financial or personal loss. Stress should be like the amount of salt in food—just enough to keep you going and fight off challenging situations. Any more than that can start affecting your health in undesirable ways.
Signs of Chronic Stress
Very often we live in denial of stress. It is one of the silent killers that sneak up on you. Some of the symptoms that may indicate chronic stress include
- Digestive problems
- Regular aches and pains with no underlying trigger
- Rapid heart rate
- Reduction in appetite
- The tendency to oversleep or not sleep at all or irregular sleep
- Slacking off
- Reliance on substances like drug, alcohol or cigarettes
- Reduced sex drive
How does stress impact our bodies?
Here’s what happens to your body when the stress response is triggered, and which it is whether it is just a stressful day at work or something more severe that demands a flight or fight response from you.
As a stress response, your muscles tense up. In the case of chronic stress, the muscles tend to stay in a constant state of uptightness. When muscles are tensed in the shoulder, head, and neck region for too long, they may give rise to tension and migraine headaches. Experts say musculoskeletal disorders emanating from stress can also lead to chronic pain problems.
Stress-relieving activities and relaxation therapies can help reduce muscle tension in these cases and help you get rid of the pain, along with stress relief.
The impact of stress can show up as respiratory symptoms too, like shortness of breath, fast breathing cycles, constricted airways, etc. They can be particularly severe in people with pre-existing breathing problems like asthma or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Studies have also shown that too much stress can trigger panic and asthma attacks.
When the stress response is fired, the heart rate rises as the stress hormones like adrenaline noradrenaline, and cortisol get triggered; constricting blood vessels to send in more oxygen to the muscles, to act, and this raises the blood pressure too. So chronic stress prolongs the period of time your heart is in this state of tension, constriction, making it work harder, faster for too long, that increases the risk of heart attack and hypertension.
Stress can impact the brain-gut connection, triggering digestive comfort, bloating, or pain issues. Stress can affect the gut bacteria that thrive in the digestive tract, thus affecting mood and behavior too.
Stress response releases excess blood sugar or glucose into the system to provide you the energy to deal with the danger. But with chronic stress, elevated blood sugar levels may increase your risk of getting type 2 diabetes. Stress itself doesn’t cause ulcers but it can be an important risk factor. It can also lead to acid reflux and heartburn.
How to De-Stress Effectively
The global spiritual master and humanitarian, Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar offers this distinct view, “Stress is when you have too much to do, too little time, and no energy to do it.”
It is often impossible to reduce the work assigned to you or change deadlines, but you do have some control over how to increase the energy, or prana, available to you for completion of the work. When prana is high, you will see the work gets accomplished faster, leaving you with more time for yourself. And there is no stress either.
There are several things you can do to de-stress yourself:
Massage therapy is what comes to mind when you are thinking-stress relief. And this is for all the right reasons. Various bodies of research have postulated the benefits of massage therapy in reducing stress, some of which include
- Decreased in heart rate
- Reduction in systolic and diastolic blood pressure
- Lower oxygen consumption
- Reduced cortisol levels
- Reduction in perceived stress
- Reduction in scales of depression and anxiety states.
Particularly in winter, massage therapy provides the much-needed hydration your body craves, along with relaxation. This is usually the time when vata and pitta elements are aggravated, also known as Prakopakala. In Ayurveda, abhyanga is the art of self-massage, with far deep-reaching benefits for the body and mind, including the important function of balancing the doshas. It involves administering warm aromatic oils to the body in a rhythmic fashion with just the appropriate application of pressure. It loosens the toxins in the body and helps the body eliminate it; improves circulation of blood and lymph through the body to improve the body’s ability to expunge toxic waste; it provides deep relaxation to the nervous system; moisturizes the skin and calms down the mind.
Modern sciences have not even scratched the surface when it comes to exploring fully the supreme benefits of an activity as simple as breathing for our mental and physical health. Though the first steps have been taken.
Many equate handling stress with handling one’s mind. But the truth is, it is nearly impossible to manage the mind from the level of the mind. And so we need the secret tool of breath to control the mind in sustainable ways.
Research done at Columbia University shows that in groups diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, deep and slow breathing helped them bring down their stress levels, and even in the general group, it helped them reduce daily stress levels.
Yet another study carried out by Italian scientists showed, deep breathing practices helped in improving mood indicators and reducing stress levels, a categorical improvement in both self-reporting as well as in their cortisol and heart rate. Breathing deeply sends a message to the brain to calm down the system, the brain transmits this message to the entire body through the parasympathetic nervous system, which is active while your body is in rest mode.
One technique that research has found particularly useful in reducing cortisol levels by more than 57%, a key stress indicator, is Sudarshan Kriya, a rhythmic breathing practice that aligns the body and mind with the natural rhythms of creation through the breath vehicle.
The technique increases mental focus; increases your awareness; significantly improves the quality of sleep by improving the time spent in deep sleep; reduction in key biochemical markers of stress-cortisol, corticotrophin, blood lactate, and ACTH. And on another level, regular practitioners have reported better relationships, more productivity, better mood management, and more confidence.
Here’s everything you need to know about SKY yoga and its role in treating PTSD, depression, improving immunity and its role in managing hormone production to lift up the mood and improve sense of well-being.
Pranayama is the art of regulating the breath as described in ancient Yogic texts. It helps in alleviating stress by simply improving the supply of oxygen in the body. Pranayama translates to increasing the dimension of prana or life force. You will see that when you have more life energy, you are usually feeling super good about yourself, you are feeling invincible and happy. Similarly, when you are lacking in life force, you will find yourself doubting yourself, doubting everyone around you, the reel of negative emotions from unhappiness to anger to sadness or irritability, and judgment unleashed. Pranayamas, or deep breathing practices, help you maintain high levels of life energy. To know about how to practice pranayams, which ones are most essential for reducing stress, and what not to do, read here.
Meditation is the art of doing nothing. Sounds easy, right? Except it is not given that we are often running on autopilot with no control on the pace of life. Making meditation a part of your life can effortlessly help to beat stress.
Practicing deep breathing techniques like Pranayama and Sudarshan Kriya that we mentioned above, prepare you to get into a state of meditation. When there is prana flowing through the body and mind in a regulated fashion, it can result in you becoming more centered. This eliminates the need to really focus or concentrate in order to get into meditation.
According to studies, regular meditation practices can improve our ability to respond to physiological stressors. It can also help reduce biochemical markers of stress. Meditation also helps in reducing worrying habits more effortlessly.
Read here what the pivotal study carried out by Dr. Herbert Benson reveals about the most astonishing benefits of meditation for relaxation and stress relief; and everything you need to know about how stress works and the mechanics of meditation.
Food for Stress Relief
Science has proven the connection between gut and brain health for controlling mood-regulating hormones. Certain foods can help increase the levels of happy hormones flowing through your body. Have more fibrous foods for greater mental health.
Ayurveda recommends specific herbs that can be had in the form of tea, to reduce stress and calm the mind. These include
- Chamomile, which is calming
- Pennywort or Brahmi, which is calming and boosts memory
- Ashwagandha, a popular nerve tonic and stress relieve
- Mint, soothing, calming, and also great for your digestive system
- Lavender, aromatic and relaxing
Fruits loaded in vitamin C also help reduce stress. Citrus fruits contain Vitamin C which helps fight stress. Include fruits like berries, oranges, and bananas into your diet. Berries help reduce cortisol production.
Coconut water is calming and nourishing for the body and it has potassium that reduces muscular headaches caused by stress.
Milk is another soothing pacifier for pitta dosha.
Nuts are rich in linoleic acid, magnesium, and antioxidants that help the body deal with stress by regulating cortisol levels. Dark chocolate is also known to reduce stress.
According to Ayurveda, you should also include ghee or clarified butter, jack fruit, ash gourd and gooseberries in your diet to protect mental health. Read here about how foods help to reduce or fight depression, anxiety and chronic stress.
Cooling Down Exercises
Here are some light yogasanas and stretches that can help you bring back your zeal for life, improve your mood instantly and bring down the stress stored in various parts of the body-mind complex.
- Padahastasana or hands to foot pose. This stretches the back muscles and gives nice stretch to the spine and nervous system. It increases the flow of blood and oxygen to your brain.
- Paschimottanasana or sitting forward bend. This asana is known to sooth tension headaches; reduce anxiety and fatigue; relieve stress symptoms and help with mild depression.
- Halasana or plough pose. This pose activates the endocrine system and revs up the sluggish metabolic activity in the body. It strengthens immunity and increases the supply of blood to the brain.
- Shishu Asana or Child Pose. This also slows down an overworked nervous system, is deeply relaxing, and also good for the digestive system.
Yoga nidra is a powernap coupled with restful awareness. It is a 20-minute capsule that removes mid-day fatigue and stress from your body and mind, even while you are at work. Also if you are a yoga practitioner, yoga nidra is recommended at the end of practicing asanas as it cools down the body. Yoga nidra involves taking the attention to different parts of the body based on a guided instruction from a trained instructor. Taking awareness through the entire body loosens up the tension and stiffness that we accumulate during the day without our knowledge.
While yogasanas increase prana in the body, yoga nidra helps consolidate and channel this energy to bring you total relaxation.
Satsang and Kirtan
Specific sounds can move us into a space of prayerfulness, joy, or contemplation. Mantras are powerful sound vibrations that carry the timeless quality of the consciousness in them. When these mantras are chanted in collective, they create a deeply calming effect on our minds and trigger the release of well-being hormones.
Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar shares that Satsangs are gatherings where scattered minds unite through music, meditation, and wisdom to experience a higher state of consciousness.
Satsang also means the company of the truth or the company which is uplifting. Spending time singing, chanting Sanskrit verses is a de-stressing exercise. It helps one shed the stress from the mind and relax the body too. One gets to immerse totally in the melody of the chant and sing with all their hearts. This puts you in a state of relaxation, almost emptying your mind of the worries, regrets and plans for the time being.
A study carried out at the University of Sussex showed that reading can reduce stress significantly. Only six minutes of reading can bring down the heart rate, calm the mind and bring clarity of thought. This works because reading takes your mind to a world of characters, teachers and words where the day-to-day stressors of the physical world do not exist. Something as simple as reading spiritual texts filled with wisdom and understanding of our higher selves can become a meditative and calming experience, as you are immersed in the written word, in the moment.
You can read the Bhagavad Gita, (an essential reading on paths of karma or action, bhakti or devotion and yoga that is the union of the self0. Or you can read the Ashtavakra Gita, a rich conversation between an Indian sage and a benevolent king on the nature of spirit and human life, and ways to handle these entities such as mind and emotions to lead a higher life.
Mandala means circle in Sanskrit. They bear sacred meanings and are often used in meditation, prayers, healing systems, and as therapy for people of all ages. Studies show that making mandala art reduces stress, moderates pain, lowers blood pressure, improves immune health, eases depression, and promotes better sleep. Making mandalas also center your mind and improves your attention span. Some of the benefits of engaging in art of any kind, but specifically mandalas, include
- Balance, peace and tranquility
- Increased mindfulness
- Reduced worrying
- Soothing for your eyes to look at.
According to the 5000-year old healing system of Ayurveda, chronic stress is considered as part of the larger body of mental illnesses, which is treated through a mix of herbal medicines, diet, and panchakarma therapy. Panchakarma is a holistic mind-body cleanse, that focuses on detoxification, rejuvenation and rebalancing of the doshas, with numerous preventive as well as curative applications for physical and mental health. Completion of Panchakarma puts you in this state of balance where good health dawns, the mind is calm, clear, steady and happy.
Panchakarma translates to five purifying actions that consist of many other sub-actions. Here’s everything you need to know about the five purifying actions, and how Panchakarma helps deal with anxiety, depression and chronic stress.
Some of the science-backed benefits of Panchakarma include
- Total detox from a cellular level
- Improved mood and positive state of mind
- Better digestion and respiratory system
- Removal of ama or toxins that reduce metabolism, cause sluggishness in body and mind, followed by mood swings, and fatigue
- Slows down ageing
- Increases vitality in the body.