Stressed Out? It’s Friday afternoon, your internet connection is on the blink, and you’re trying to meet an important deadline. Then your partner calls, wanting to know when you’re going to be home. In the next minute, your son texts you to ask if it’s ok to have a “few” friends over for the weekend. Your email inbox is bulging, and your voice mail has shut down because it has received more messages than it can handle. Your muscles tighten, your heart rate increases and your stress level spikes. This isn’t the first time this week you’ve ended a work day like this—actually, it’s the fifth time this week you’ve ended a work day like this. As a matter of a fact you are noticing that more and more this is how you are feeling. You just can’t seem to relax or get a good nights’ sleep anymore.
Sound familiar? You are not alone. We are becoming more and more overstressed as a society as the pressures of our modern life keep mounting. How can you reduce your stress and find serenity? You might want to give yoga a try. Yoga is a mind-body practice that combines stretching exercises, controlled breathing, relaxation and meditation. And here’s the good news – there is a yoga class for almost everyone.
How Yoga Helps
Yoga and meditation help balance the autonomic nervous system (ANS) which is responsible for the regulation of internal organs and glands. The ANS has two main branches, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). These two branches work in opposition to each other, but are understood to be complimentary in nature.
The ANS is responsible for regulating the body, bringing it back into balance after the events of life and the way in which we respond to those events have pulled the body out of balance. Helping the body to maintain that equilibrium helps lower blood pressure and heart rate, stimulates the immune system, and helps keep the endocrine system on track.
As we go about our lives, we encounter events that cause us to feel stressed. Our mind and our body then reacts to that stress by activating the SNS, inducing what is known as the “flight or fight” response. Short-term stress activates the body and the mind to allow a person to deal with an immediate situation or threat, then return to normal functioning once the threat has passed. When we experience continual stress of lower intensity over extended periods of time, this state can become imprinted into our mind and body, turning the lifesaving response meant for dealing with an immediate threat into a life-threatening response. When we are in this state of heightened function the levels of hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline are higher, the muscles become tense, blood pressure and heart rate increase, suppression of the inflammatory response causes a suppression of the immune system, and we experience insomnia due to heightened brain activity. Over time these imbalances open the door to illness such as high blood pressure, heart disease, anxiety and depression.
The Balancing Act Refined
When we practice yoga and meditation we help to stimulate the other branch of the autonomic nervous system, the PNS, which is responsible for the rest and digest state. This allows stress levels to drop, and causes significant increases in neurotransmitter levels such as serotonin. This state is generally beneficial for overall body health.
Just as important, through the practice of yoga, our ANS becomes more finely tuned, allowing for more flexibility to shift the relative action of both branches of the ANS as needed. Those who practice yoga regularly are then better able to stay in a calmer and more neutral place with less extreme responses to the events of their lives, whatever they may be.
As we study yoga and meditation more and more we are learning that health challenges such as high blood pressure, heart disease, anxiety, and depression can be influenced by psychological interventions. These studies have shown that yoga affects more than 200 different processes in our body and in our brain. “It affects virtually every tissue and every system in our body,”, says P. Murali Doraiswamy, M.D. and professor of Psychiatry and Behavorial Sciences at Duke University. Studies supported by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, an arm of the National Institutes of Health, have demonstrated that regular yoga practice can improve cardiovascular risk factors like high blood pressure, blood sugar, blood cholesterol and clot-inducing fibrinogen, and it can raise the levels of protective antioxidants.
According to the latest “Yoga in America” study produced by Yoga Journal, the number of Americans who practice yoga has increased by nearly 30% in the past four years. If the scenario in the first paragraph sounds like a typical Friday afternoon for you, why not give yoga a try? The mind and the body are connected and must work together. Taking this approach can be a powerful asset to your health and wellbeing and to living the life of your dreams.