Life is stressful, but does it need to be?
Life is complicated. Everything from diet to lifestyle, to work, hormonal health and general attitude can contribute to elevated stress levels. External and internal factors all play a part. Let’s explore what causes stress and some ways to manage our experience of it.
It’s true that some people have a higher capacity for stress than others, but some people also believe they are handling their stress, only to crash and burn out down the line. I have done this, quite a number of times, before learning a lesson that I still need to be mindful of: Avoid cramming too much into my life, including the tendency to overwork.
The physiology of stress
The fact is that daily living—in particular overworking or overdoing anything—causes much stress, which starts to impact the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands are chiefly responsible for regulating the stress response, including production of cortisol and adrenaline. During periods of higher stress, the adrenals release cortisol to help the body cope—thus cortisol is often referred to as the stress hormone. Cortisol is actually necessary as it keeps us awake and active; however, continuously elevated cortisol levels contribute to many problems, including anxiety, sleep issues, hormonal imbalances and weight gain.
So how can we manage our stress levels better?
We’ve become such doers, always needing to be doing, moving, achieving. It’s good to press pause, every now and then, and create space in life to just be. The art of being still, silent and taking time out is a powerful tool for overcoming stress, which is likely why practices like meditation, yoga and retreats have become so popular and almost essential to balance out the overdoing nature of our society. Sit, eyes closed, focus on your breath and then simply ask yourself how you’re feeling. Check in with yourself daily.
Getting enough sleep helps keep stress hormones balanced, and rest is particularly critical for supporting the adrenal glands. A good routine to aim for is six to eight hours of sleep a night, a fixed bedtime and not staying up too late. Cortisol levels are at their lowest between midnight and 4 a.m.; therefore, if you have trouble going to sleep early, or if you wake during these hours, it could be in indicator of high cortisol levels.
Nourish your body
Eating mineral-rich foods such as sea vegetables, wild fish, fermented foods, black rice and quinoa helps the body deal with stress. In general, a balanced diet of clean animal or vegetable protein, organic vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, beans and grains is ideal. Adding in superfoods—like maca or blue-green algae, spirulina or chlorella—can help build stem cells and add extra vitamins to your diet. Aim to reduce sugar and processed carbs, which only put stress on the adrenals. Decrease coffee, and drink plenty of fresh filtered water every day.
One purpose of developing a yoga practice is to help manage the body well. And if practiced carefully, it can be therapeutic, i.e., highly effective in health management and a wonderful gift to your body. While studying rapid stress response during an advanced training with Paul Dallaghan last year, I noted among many things his discussion on how stress throws the nervous system off balance and causes the sympathetic nervous system to activate, triggering ‘fight or flight mode’. So we need to become more parasympathetically driven in order to come back to balance.
Yoga asanas / postures can help manage hyperactivity and move unecessary stress (rajas) out of the body. It can also stimulate and remove heaviness from the body (tamas). A little bit of stress then a release from it is what’s considered healthy.
It’s important, in the end, to remember that yoga is like anything else that must be approached mindfully: If our yoga practice puts us in a state of continual stress, then it's not doing its job. So don't be a martyr! If fatigued, take savasana / corpse pose. Health is all about fun and joy, not too much discipline, deprivation or being hard on yourself.
Stress as an energy imbalance
From a Chinese medicine point of view, stress is deficiency in yin / feminine energy. It’s true that modern society is very yang / masculine, i.e., goal and achievement focused, endless to-do lists, all of which can result in turning to food and external pleasures or escapes to relieve the stress from work and life demands.
But we’re not always connected to the fact that our stress levels have gone too high. In ayurveda we see that everyone reacts to stress differently. For example, fear is a vata response to stress, anger a pitta response, and indifference a kapha response. Understanding your own stress response and recognising how you’re feeling and why is the first step to managing stress.
So what are some ways to get a handle on our energy and unique experience of stress?
Manage your breath
Breath work specifically can be very effective for managing stress. Simple deep breathing through the nose into the abdomen, ribs and chest, with a double length exhale is a simple practice to start with. Nadi shodhana or alternate nostril breathing—which is best done when demonstrated and assisted by a teacher—brings balance in the autonomic function.
Bringing balance to life is the goal—so that we know what to do in any situation, what to let happen, and what not to get stressed about. Our natural state is being loving and content; it’s only when we start thinking—too much and in all directions—that we move out of that. It’s so easy to get stressed and we almost attract it, our minds being a constant challenge, taking us out of our natural state. So take a few minutes each day to focus on the breath and control the mind.
Focus on happiness
If we consider it, we see happiness is the opposite of stress, in that in moments of happiness stress is not present, and in moments of stress, happiness is not present. Therefore, in managing stress, one effective approach is to focus at happiness and how to achieve it.
Deepak Chopra considers happiness the result of three things:
1. Brain set point, i.e. genetics and upbringing (42-43%)
2. Conditions of living (7-8%)
3. Voluntary choices (50%)
Your brain set point is determined by whether you’re generally more likely to see a problem or an opportunity. Happy people see opportunities. We can change this point through meditation, certain drugs, reflection and cognitive therapy.
Conditions of living only represent a small percentage of our happiness. And it’s been shown that even if someone experiences a great high, like winning the lottery, or a serious tragedy, that they will adjust back to the same state within a year or two.
Voluntary choices can be those that increase pleasure, which are transient, or those that create fulfillment, such as the choice to make someone else happy, or the choice to express our creativity, both of which are more permanent.
So a huge percentage of our happiness is based on whether we are choosing to work on ourselves to change our brain set point through yogic practices, or by our own voluntary choices. Good news—happiness is in our hands!
Fear creates adrenaline, which creates stress. Therefore it can be helpful to reflect on what we might be fearful of in life. The biggest fear of all is death, of course. Some cultures discuss death openly and freely and simply see it as the natural next stage of life; while other cultures think only of death as a negative event and associate it with loss and finality. Whatever your beliefs, it can be helpful to reflect on death, on the fact that we are all going to pass on at some stage, how natural it is and that ultimately we cannot take anything with us.
When you truly consider this, it makes all the little worries seem so unnecessary. We get so caught up in worrying about gaining and achieving in life. Of course living life fully is wonderful, but when it gets to the to the point of stress, what use is it? As you age and look back on your life will you appreciate your actions or regret them? A useful contemplation! Yoga philosophy teaches the concept of continuation, that we cannot die, only our bodies but not our atman, our true nature. Therefore, why fear, why stress?
Consider your heart
We all have responsibilities, things we don’t particularly want to do yet feel we must in order to make life work and to take care of ourselves and our families. But here’s the thing, if too many of the things you do on a daily basis go against what your heart is calling you to do—and are simply to please other people—then this ultimately causes resentment, resistance and stress. It has to be a balance between things that create joy and fulfillment and moving towards your dreams, along with the day-to-day needs we simply have to take care of. Too much doing only what you want with no sense of responsibility may not be helpful, but equally too much of only doing what you think you should be doing, what someone told you to do or only for money with no sense of joy or fulfillment will not be good either.
In my view, stress oftentimes comes from a pull that is being ignored, to do something other than what you’re currently doing. When you feel that pull, you’re essentially not doing enough of what you’re passionate about. The solution I try to apply is to add in more of what fills me with joy, even if fear is there. And for the things that I don’t love, I try to add more joy and do them from the heart, seeing the purpose behind them—be they stepping stones to something else, or experiences I need to gain, or money I need to earn right now. In short, move toward doing everything from the heart and being true to yourself.