Don’t panic and certainly don’t stress, you’ve not opened up an article about the 80’s hip-hop girl group “Salt-N-Pepa”…
…but speaking of stress, it is something I want to talk about.
What is stress?
In the busy, modern World that we live in…stress can be unavoidable. But what exactly is stress and why does it happen to us?
Stress is a natural human experience that is actually designed to help us. It can be used positively, keeping us alert, motivated and prepare us for any imminent danger. But too much stress can make us chronically sick. Why is this?
I want you to imagine you’re a prehistoric man/woman. The world is a very dangerous place and you rely on your natural “gut” instinct to survive. Generally whilst chilling in your cave your body’s energy is spread evenly between all your senses and bodily functions and you feel pretty relaxed. This is called the para-sympathetic nervous system, also known as “Rest and Digest” or “Feed and Breed”. When your body is in this state, you feel relaxed, your heart rate is decreased, your breathing is slow and you generally don’t feel stressed. Ahhhhh blisss!!!!
One day whilst out foraging for food, you come across a large prehistoric sabre-toothed tiger… and it’s hungry!
Now you have 2 options for survival; you can stay and fight the animal or you can turn and run! With either option you are going to need a big burst of energy to get you moving (Adrenaline). To help you survive this stressful attack, your body takes all your energy from all your senses and bodily functions and focuses it on those solely needed for running away or fighting the animal (it’s why when under pressure, you hear stories of people picking up cars to rescue small puppies and developing some kind of “freakish” strength). This is called the sympathetic nervous system, also known as “Fight or flight response”. When your body is in this state, it’s in a state of emergency. Your heart rate increases, your breathing quickens, blood pressure rises and your muscles tighten. You are under stress!!!
In this situation of needing to fight or run for your life from a dangerous animal, these are helpful reactions from your body and the stress is good. However, in modern life we don’t need to worry too much about running from sabre-toothed tigers. Instead we have a build-up of modern day stress reactors. An unexpected bill landing on the door mat, your boss putting unachievable demands on you at work, your kids getting into trouble at school, worries about our health, being stuck in traffic, relationship issues etc, etc…. these stress reactors build up, each time sending our bodies into a constant emergency state of “fight or flight”. These are not life or death situations, but our bodies treat them as if they are. These constant stress reactors build up the stress hormones in our bodies and that has a massive, negative impact on us, as energy is diverted from bodily functions we need on a daily basis to stay healthy. We are actually poisoning our bodies with these stress hormones.
It’s no wonder we don’t sleep at night and carry so much tension around in our bodies from tightened muscles that we are in constant pain. In 2020 stress is a chronic health issue.
Chronic stress issues
So what happens to our bodies when we are in constant “fight or flight” and we have chronic stress?
Chronic stress causes wear and tear to our bodies and minds. Chronic stress leads to many issues such as:
- Stomach and digestion issues
- Anxiety and depression
- High blood pressure and chest pains
- Sexual difficulties
- Panic attacks
- Issues with anger
- Issues with addiction
- Weight gain/loss
- Tiredness/exhaustion leading to ME and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
- Sleep issues
The list goes on, with the biggest worry being, that chronic, prolonged stress has been linked to heart disease and cancer as more and more pressure is being placed on the body. Scary stuff!
What can I do to fix it?
It’s not all doom and gloom though. Once we recognise that we are dealing with chronic stress, we have done the hard work already as acceptance and willingness to do something about it often holds many people back.
I was diagnosed with ME/CFS in 2004. Over the years I’ve learned that inactivity leads to fatigue, but too much activity also leads to fatigue – it’s all about finding the right balance and that is very difficult as you have to be very aware of your own body. I’ve also learned that stress is the biggest trigger for relapses in my condition. My previous employment role before becoming a yoga teacher was a high pressurised corporate role which had far too much stress involved, often leading to relapses in my condition for months at a time. During each relapse I knew what I needed to do to get through it. This involved moving my body from “fight or flight” (sympathetic nervous system) to “rest and digest” (Para-sympathetic nervous system) to alleviate ME/CFS symptoms. I took time to slow down my body using alternative therapies which included; yoga, meditation, mindfulness and hypnotherapy. As soon as my body moved into the parasympathetic nervous system, I was able to manage my ME/CFS much better and regain my life (a very different life but one in which my body could heal).
So how does yoga work?
Yoga has by far been my favourite and most effective way to manage chronic stress (and in turn my condition).
Yoga is a mind-body practice which connects mind, body and spirit. It uses breathing techniques (Pranayama), yoga poses (asanas) and meditation/relaxation to take your body out of that “fight or flight” emergency state and into a more quietened, peaceful “rest and digest” state, giving your body chance to heal itself.
Yoga helps to reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and lower heart rate… and the good thing is that now there are many easily accessible yoga classes that suit every body and every ability.
Yoga has many health benefits including:
- Stress reduction/management
- Help with anxiety/depression
- Improves fitness
- Improves balance, flexibility and strength
- Improves mobility
- Helps to manage chronic conditions such as, ME/CFS, heart disease, high blood pressure
- Helps to manage pain
- Helps improve sleep
Where do I start?
You may be nervous or worried about starting a new class. This is completely normal, we all feel that way when learning or starting something new. The good news is that yoga gives you peace of mind and increases self-esteem. You will also find that you’ll become good friends with a lot of the other students in your class, so the worry of starting something new will go after your first class… just push through that initial feeling and don’t let it stop you making a positive change to your life.
I would advise going to as many different styles of yoga classes and as many different teachers as possible. You will soon find which yoga style you prefer (Fast-paced Vinyasa, or slow-paced restorative) and you will also gravitate towards particular teachers that resonate with you (believe it or not we are all very different with very different teaching styles).
The main thing to remember is that yoga is NOT competitive. Your body is unique and your yoga journey is your own (the person on the mat next to you may have more or less yoga experience to you). Yoga is all about progression and not perfection and you should ensure you follow your heart (healthier heart after yoga) and NOT your ego.
It’s 2020 – so why not try something new… give yoga a go and have fun yogis!!!