“I’m so stressed” is probably one of the most common complaints we have in our modern society. Stress is inevitable yet we throw the word around so much that the meaning is lost and the experience so standard that we don’t take it seriously. Honestly, I wish it was mandatory for every human being to take a basic anatomy and physiology class because then we would be less disconnected from our body’s high intelligence and natural processes that are meant to keep us healthy and much more respectful of its need for proper mind/body/spirit nourishment.
In Ayurveda stress is known as Sahasa and thousands of years ago it was written about in the Caraka Samhitas, the oldest compilation of medical texts in the world. The Samhitas clearly state that Sahasa causes ojahksaya- loss of immunity and increases the susceptibility of the body to various infectious diseases. In Ayurveda, avoiding causative factors is the golden rule in preventing disease but one has to also be self-aware to be able to identify the stress response to be able to avoid it. This is why self-awareness and listening to your body’s intelligence is the second golden-rule for preventing disease.
In biological terms, stress is defined as anything that poses a real or imagined adverse threat on a living organism. Once stress is perceived in the brain there is direct communication to the endocrine system, a network of glands that secrete hormones that regulate the body’s metabolism, reproduction, growth and sleep to name a few… For the sake of this discussion there are three major endocrine glands, The Hypothalamus (The General), Pituitary (The Commander-In-Chief) and adrenal glands.
The Hypothalamus communicates to the Pituitary gland which then triggers the Adrenal to secretes catecholamines like adrenaline, norepinephrine and dopamine.
Stress heightens senses, changes breathing patterns, elevates blood pressure and heart rate, interrupts digestion and shoots blood sugar levels up to provide more energy to the peripheral body – limbs – to prepare for fight or flight response.
Ideally, how stress should manifest in the body is: there’s an experience (threat), it causes a reaction and when the perceived threat and reaction is over, the parasympathetic nervous system (which provides energy to the sympathetic nervous system during stress) restores the body and brings it back to a restful and balanced state. However, people who experience protracted stress, whether from unhealthy relationships and/or deeply rooted, habitual and negative thoughts and behaviors, are unknowingly creating a endless stress response for the mind/body that rarely has an opportunity to rest. Instead, the sympathetic nervous system continues to trigger an onslaught of stress hormones while the parasympathetic nervous system continues to provide energy to the fight. Protracted stress also causes the outer adrenals to secrete cortisol, a steroid hormone that is toxic to the body in high levels and the pituitary gland to releases other hormones that affect sex gland function, fluid balance, bone density and metabolism. This is what is known as the The Stress Syndrome.
When the body becomes flooded with stress hormones, digestive disorders like ulcers, diarrhea and abdominal pain become a common side effect. Because cortisol affects glucogan levels the body is also at risk of diabetes and changes in estrogen and progesterone levels can lead to menstrual cycle irregularity and infertility. Then there’s the risk of cardiovascular disease, heart palpitations, poor concentration, lack of clarity and exhaustion and if that weren’t enough, while the immune system can manage short-term stress, studies have shown that the most dangerous consequence of prolonged stress is that, it cannot adapt to the incessant flood of hormones. What one is left with is an immune system that is active but functioning at the lowest level continuing a vicious cycle of more stress, secreted hormones, sloppy immune system and and a high likelihood that the body will experience consequential physical and mental disease.
Vata is most impaired by Sahasa and if you need to know one thing about Ayurveda, know that it is vata dosha that will make your body or break it, so it is important to be extra mindful of striving to maintain its balance. In Ayurveda, it is understood that diseases caused by vitiation of vata are the most severe (mahavyadhi).
Stress can be physical, psychological and/or spiritual. Physical stress arises from environmental factors, lack of sleep, constant traveling, irregular diet and sleep patterns, sensory overload, strenuous and laborious work and even incorrect breathing. Psychological stress from unhealthy relationships, grief (soka), anger (krodha), fear (bhaya), attachment (moha) greed (loba)and continued negative thoughts, experiences and behaviors and spiritual stress from insecurity, depression or lack of enthusiasm, purpose or desire.
While stress can be a response to something that is happening in the moment it turns into distress when one is unable to cope in the moment and break the cycle, leaving them to ruminate and obsess on the event. In my practice I see this from clients who are “stuck’ in unhealthy relationships or don’t know how to develop a better mindset or shatter deep-rooted limiting beliefs. Instead they live in a constant state of negativity, impure thoughts and deep resentments and fear and what usually follows is a fragile person who is highly reactive to most any stimulus(i) pushing them deeper into agitation. Due to their lack of self-awareness and impaired coping mechanisms they are also vulnerable to making poor diet and lifestyle choices and feeding their imbalance with comfort foods or more stimuli, all contributing to the degradation of the seven dhatus (tissues) and then of course the ojas (immunity) begins to deteriorate.
And too, so many younger people are being affected from achievement-oriented stress, an internal fight that can lead to self-doubt, self-criticism, insecurity. Physical stressors like excessive time spent in work/study which lead to a lack of sleep and irregular meals usually rich in inappropriate nutrition further disturb vata and kapha, doshas with polar opposite characteristics making for a challenging treatment.
Dr. Vasant Lad, the first Vaidya (doctor) to bring Ayurveda to the United States defines this stress response as a constant disharmony of the mind/body/spirit that interrupts the balance of the three doshas (biological energies), seven dhatus (body tissues), panchamahabhutas (five earthly elements that every substance in the universe, including us, is comprised of; earth, water, air, space and fire) and three malas (waste products – feces, urine and sweat).
I am sure we can agree from this basic understanding that prolonged stress is the mother of all disease.
How Ayurveda Manages Stress
There are two ways Ayurveda advises managing stress: either avoid it altogether, which for many is an unrealistic goal or increase the body’s ability to cope with it, a more accessible solution.
- Avoiding Stress (Sahasam Sada Varjayate) – Nipping stress in the bud to prevent a prolonged internal experience is the ideal strategy but in our modern world, not so easy to do especially when “everyone is stressed out”. It has become justified so we don’t take it seriously enough. Even the “work hard play hard” motto encourages a constant heightened experience leaving no time for rest, repair and balance. It is only when we understand the physiology and make the decision that stress and the diseases that follow are not acceptable, that avoidance could become a more of a realistic option.
- Learn Coping Mechanisms – Learning how to manage stress by strengthening the body’s ability to cope is the ideal solution for many. But know that to do this effectively it takes a commitment to a consistent morning and evening routine (dinacharya), appropriate and seasonal/doshic diet (ahara) and intake of Rasayana i.e. Rejuvenation (one of eight branches of Ayurvdic medicine) herbs and therapies to strengthen the tissues, prevent premature oxidation of our cells and consequentially build and maintain a pristine immunity (ojas).
These are the most effective options for managing the inevitable stress that comes with life. Not prescription meds that cure one disease but create another or quick fixes or more stimuli that you think is distracting you from the stress but is really creating more of it. For everlasting results developing self-awareness and a trust in oneself along with an adherence to a daily routine is what will allow the body to stay calm under pressure.
And lastly, in Ayurveda there is an ancient philosophy about similarities (Samanya) and differences (vishesha). In layman’s terms it states that too much of the same is a cause for disease while dissimilar substances decrease the probability. Diversity is what we are made of in the micro(the body) and macro (nature/universe) and so the constant exposure to the same stressors and same old perceived thoughts and beliefs without enough contrasting energy (happiness, joy, love, fulfillment, ease & flow) to balance it is what is ultimately disturbing the body’s natural rhythm.
Now you know. Now you can take steps to change your experience. You got this & I got you!