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Updated: Apr 10

Stress is a condition or feeling arising from an internal physiological response within our bodies to external demands (physical, psychological, environmental) which we simply cannot adequately deal with. We need some stress as a species to survive, to help us to react and respond effectively to danger (for example a car heading towards us) but poorly managed or long-term stress has been linked to numerous diseases and illnesses including heart disease, cancer, digestive problems, and depression.

The very fact that our minds worry, and we feel anxious about so many things which should not trigger the changes in our bodies required to flee imminent danger is a problem. If our bodies are kept in a permanent state of stress, we are more likely to engage in unhelpful behaviours which places further stress on our bodies. Understanding how the body and mind respond to stress is key to treating and minimizing it when it causes harm.

The Autonomous Nervous System (ANS) and stress

Our autonomous nervous system is highly sensitive and enables messages to be sent from the body to the brain. It is our first responder to stress, is composed of two elements, the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) and detects the threat (the stressor) at our subconscious level. It literally happens “automatically”. On detecting an external stressor, the Sympathetic Nervous system is initially engaged and sets in motion actions ready to mobilise the body for activity (fight or flight), for example releasing epinephrine and norepinephrine, breaking down glucose for more energy, increasing heart rate and directing blood away from the digestive organs. This is fine short term and whilst the perceived threat is real but long term leaves the body and immune systems depleted as resources are directed towards preparing the body for activity.

In contrast the PNS, otherwise known as the “rest and digest system”, whose main nerve is the vagus nerve steps in to slow down the heart rate, build systems back up, calm the body down and strengthen the immune system. It brings back necessary balance, otherwise known as homeostasis of our nervous and other physiological systems so our body functions well.

What the HPA Axis is? How Cortisol affects the body and its link to disease.

The second response to stress via the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis is a slower to respond than our autonomic nervous system. The hypothalamus, located in our brain, releases CRH (Corticotrophin releasing hormone) which stimulates the pituitary gland to release  ACTH (Adrenocorticotropic hormone)  which in turn causes the adrenal cortex to release cortisol.

Cortisol is a steroid hormone which can activate systems in the body to help us respond to short term stress for example increasing the heart and metabolic rates and ensuring glucose is available for energy (to escape a perceived danger!). But If cortisol remains at a high level keeping the body in a state of “high alert” it can negatively impact blood sugar control, melatonin (disrupting sleep), growth hormones and the immune system thus contributing to infections and disease.  Chronic activation of the HPA axis can lead to the hippocampus becoming damaged and when the adrenal glands release stress hormones they do not release DHEA which is responsible for cell repair.

How we can deal with stress via the Koshas

In a previous blog I have explained how the Koshas provide us with a unique tool to assess the whole person. Exploring each Kosha layer enables us to understand how stress is having an impact and how we might address that.

Focusing on the first three koshas: -

Annamaya Kosha - the physical body where stress may reveal itself in poor posture and areas of physical tension. Pranamaya Kosha relates to the life force/breath and stress may manifest itself here in poor breathing patterns, for example, shallow chest breathing (this in turn may cause tension in the shoulders). Manomaya Kosha relates to the mind and stress here may mean inability to concentrate, brain fog or overactive thoughts.

The Koshas are so intricately intertwined that working on breathing may help to release tension in the physical body and calm the mind. Working on gentle movement and better lifestyle choices may help to release tension and calm the breath and steady the mind. Meditations may settle the breath and calm the body. Each in turn can be used to assess habitual patterns of behaviour causing stress and via yoga therapy alternatives can be given to eventually replace them and reduce stress and its effects on the mind, body, and breath.

More on stress and particular yoga practices to follow……

Recommended further reading - Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers by Robert M Sapolsky

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