Stress: What is it? What does it do? What can we do about it?

What is Stress?

Stress is a state that people enter to deal with challenges in their lives and environment. Stressors are what put you there. Once upon a time, stressors would have been hunting for food, protecting  your family or healing from an injury. Now, these things still exist, but we encounter many more  stressors like traffic, email and taxes that often send the body into a state of stress, activating our stress response. Most people are familiar with the term “fight or flight” (add “freeze” to that little list), a term to describe the sympathetic response (stress response) our bodies trigger in reaction to a stressor. It is an incredible response that allows us to quickly draw on glucose stores to have the energy to react. Our blood pressure and heart rate increase to use our strength and increase oxygen to the brain so that our senses are at peak performance. When our brains send the signal to our adrenals that we are experiencing a stressor, our bodies react in a big way, making our internal resources ready for anything.


What Does Stress Do?

As our bodies enter that “fight, flight or freeze” (sympathetic response) state, the opposite side of our autonomic nervous system shuts down. Our “rest and digest” system (parasympathetic response) is not active when we are in a state of stress, so that all our stores can be directed toward meeting the challenge (stressor) at hand. This means that when we are facing a stressor, and our brain tells the body to be ready, we are not as able to calm down, rest, digest our food or focus on the  broader picture. 

Our stress response allows us to act in the most desperate times, an incredibly effective system. Our stress response is also active during exercise, deliberate cold exposure and while learning new skills, all of which improve memory, help us feel more alert, accomplished and prevent many diseases. It’s important to note that stress itself is not “bad” or “good”, it is necessary to maintain health and balance in the nervous system and beyond. The shadow side to our stress response is when it becomes a chronic state. When we are perceiving many stressors in our environment, our bodies remain in a high stress state, and over time this leads to chronic stress.

Chronic stress can cause a long list of health complications: cardiovascular disease including hypertension, heart attack and stroke, shortness of breath and asthma attacks, decreased immune function, chronic fatigue and pain, depression and anxiety, addiction, metabolic disorders like diabetes and obesity, gastrointestinal upset throughout the system, reproductive dysfunction including low libido, poor sperm health, erectile dysfunction, low testosterone and irregular ovulation.  The bottom line is that chronic stress, elevated cortisol levels and/or hypersensitivity to cortisol affect many systems of the body, interrupting their normal function.

What Can We Do?

While we can’t and shouldn’t eliminate stress from our lives, we can learn to manage it better. We can seek out the kind of short-duration, health-improving stressors (like exercise) that benefit us. We can become more discerning between stressors that require a life-saving reaction and ones that do not. When we recognize that we don’t need to remain in a high stress state, we can condition our bodies to return to calm more quickly. And when we find that we’ve been living with chronic stress, we can use accessible tools to reverse the effects.

By learning to stimulate and tone our vagus nerve (a long nerve reaching throughout the body that stimulates the relaxation response), we can return to a state of “rest and digest” (parasympathetic response) more quickly after encountering an acute bout of stress. Exercise, meditation, massage and chanting have all been shown to improve vagal tone, often measured by heart rate variability.

Yoga is an excellent way to tone the vagus nerve and manage the stressors of our modern lives. Countless articles, studies and doctors recommend yoga to combat chronic stress, but what kind of yoga? Studies show that asana (postures) focused on opening the heart space as well as forward folding work well to reduce perceived stress scores and cortisol serum levels. Other elements of a yoga practice that have shown efficacy in improving stress management include the pranayama (breath work) techniques anulum vilom, khalabhati, brahmari and diaphragmatic breathing. Layered into the practices that have been studied are focused-attention meditation and the inclusion of chanting “om”. 

These methods come together to form a robust yoga practice that improves the way individuals feel about the stressors they perceive and how they react to them, with biological markers to back up those perceptions. However, it can feel overwhelming to piece together a yoga practice on your own. Group yoga classes often incorporate diaphragmatic breathing and brief meditation, which are a great introduction to growing those elements of a full personal practice. Many postures are introduced and explored in these classes as well. Working with a yoga therapist that is trained in bringing together asana, pranayama and meditation suited to the individual can educate practitioners about what works best for them, so they may cultivate a personal practice to get chronic stress in check and manage incoming stressors with more ease.