by Dr. Manas S. Kshirsagar: Stress is an inevitable part of life…
The impact of stress on human health, especially in today’s world of overstimulation, is alarming. April has been observed as Stress Awareness Month since 1992 to raise awareness about this condition that lies at the root of most diseases.
Stress Awareness Month is a national effort designed to create awareness about the detrimental effects of stress, help educate people regarding successful coping strategies, and to debunk the myths that surround stress.
About 80 percent of all visits to primary healthcare practitioners are because of a stress-related illness. Almost 1 million people from the workforce are absent from their workplace on any given day because of stress related disorders. Stress levels have risen through the roof among teenagers and tweens due to excessive exposure to screens, video games, and reduced outdoor playtime. About 45 percent of teens (ages 13-17) and 26 percent of tweens (ages 8-12) report being anxious daily.
Let’s look at the physiological and psychological changes that take place in your body when you’re under stress. And identify ways in which you can build chronic resilience of the mind, body, and soul, in order to prevent stress from controlling your life.
What is Stress?
Anything that stimulates the fight or flight response in the body is stress. Any stimuli, whether it is real, perceived, psychological, or physical has the same response i.e., glucocorticoid production.
Every system in the body is impacted by stress. Right from your digestive fire (Agni) to metabolic functions to your immune system, nervous system, musculoskeletal system and even your heart–all the systems that are responsible for making sure that your body continues to function smoothly–are adversely influenced by excess stress.
When the body perceives a stress, the body gets kicked into a flight or fight response which is governed by the sympathetic nervous system. The body equates a normal day of deadline stress into a situation where you’re chased by a predator. Blood flow to the extremities is fast, heart rate increases, and glucose use is redirected to help you fight stress. Thus, overactivation of the fight or flight response leads to decreased immunity and increased inflammation.
On the other hand, when you sit around the campfire or spend time with your loved ones your body also realizes that it is a safe space. The parasympathetic nervous system then stimulates digestion, encourages nutrient absorption, regulates sleep, and stimulates sex organs, enhances fertility and libido.
The Good Kind of Stress
Stress is an inevitable part of life. Stress is not always bad though! According to Ayurveda there are some kinds of stressors that are good for your mind, body, and soul.
Some level of stress is necessary. The level of stress and the kind of stress suitable for you depends on your dosha type and body constitution.
- Vata people need to engage in physical activity and otherwise live a life of luxury and avoid all kinds of stressors.
- Pitta people need the mental stimulation of work in order to feel accomplished.
- Kapha individuals need physical and mental stimulation to feel productive and energetic.
When stress levels are too low, there is no stimulation for the body and mind. You might end up feeling bored and tired. Too little stress makes one feel unhappy and restless. This makes your body prone to illnesses. A healthy level of stress–both mental and physical, makes your mind resilient and builds up the body’s immunity.
However, when the stress levels are too high, you might experience a lot of burn out and feelings of mental and physical exhaustion. You might feel overwhelmed and irritable. Moreover, high stress levels lead to high levels of illness.
What is the right amount of stress? It is the one that makes you feel productive, energetic, happy, creative, and healthy.
The good kind of stress is called systematic stress–where your mind and body know that you’re going to undergo immense stress, but you know that this too shall pass. Your body comprehends that and is thus able to gear up to face the stressor in that particular moment.
Unfortunately, in today’s world, we are adversely impacted by stress because there are stressors that are omnipresent. There seems to be no end in sight. That is precisely why one needs to find a way to minimize stress in any way possible.
There is a direct correlation between stress and weight. A two- year study with 2800 working adults showed wellness programs that targeted stress management or reduction in the workplace reduced weight more so than dietary changes.
What Causes You Stress?
There are different types of stressors in today’s world. Family, finances, friendships or social interactions, health, work, food, traffic, planning.
Other types of stressors can stem from a lack of spiritual connection, isolation, being disconnected from natural environments, negative emotions, lack of personal time, too much work, inadequate rest, worry, unhealthy mental states: addictions, overeating, destructive mental patterns, ambient distractions and overstimulation from media and screens.
A diet that leans heavily towards foods that aggravate the Vata dosha can lead to build up of ama which in turn dims the agni i.e., the digestive fire. Vata increasing foods or drinks, activities, exercises and in general, a Vata-aggravating routine on a consistent basis can lead to high levels of stress.
That’s why one needs to keep a few tools in their arsenal to not only reduce stress but also to make your body more immune to stress.
How to Reduce Stress
Here are a few simple tools that Ayurveda has heralded as proven measures of reducing stress.
1. Spending time in nature
Studies show that spending time outdoors works wonders for your mental health. Each one of us is made up of nature’s elements: fire, earth, water, and air. That’s why spending time in nature is a way to reconnect with the universe and commune with our true being.
On a physiological level, spending time outdoors during the day, especially at sunrise, releases serotonin in our body–the happiness hormone. It is a natural antidepressant that keeps anxiety at bay.
Schedule a time during your dinacharya (i.e., daily routine) to spend time in nature early in the morning and at sunset. It will not only give you a much-needed exercise that translates into a release of endorphins but also help reduce your cortisol levels.
Cortisol is the stress hormone that is at its peak from 6 to 8 a.m. and then ideally ebbs and flows during lunch and dinner time. However, in today’s world of multiple and constant stressors, cortisol is released all throughout the day at odd hours thus creating a situation of chronic stress.
Abhyanga is a treatment of Snehana according to Ayurveda. Snehana is self-love. A self-massage is a ritual that is not only an act of self-love but also an act of grounding oneself in reality and in the present moment. Incorporate this as a daily ritual before your morning shower and it will help the body to combat the day’s stressors in a better way.
When a stressor presents itself your mind and body can return to this feeling of being loved and grounded which will help the parasympathetic nervous system continue its functions even when the sympathetic nervous system kickstarts the fight or flight response.
3. Primordial Sound Meditation
Primordial Sound Meditation is a way to heal yourself by engaging in silent repetition of a mantra that is based on the time, date, and location of your birth. It is unique to you and is a way to access deeper levels of consciousness that are otherwise unavailable.
This type of meditation helps your mind, body, and soul realize that you are a part of something bigger than yourselves–the universe. The more you practice mindfulness, the stressors that hinder your growth on a daily basis would turn into minor inconveniences.
Even if you cannot change the stressor, you can definitely choose your response towards it, and transform your perspective on stress.