If you thought this article would be how yoga is the “answer” to the problems of the stress response, you’d be partially correct! If you believe that one of yoga’s primary benefits is to gain control over the stress response, you’d be 100% correct. (Spoiler alert: the stress response has a corresponding condition: the relaxation response.) So, why isn’t yoga the answer to the stress response?
Let’s engage in Q and A around the concept of the stress response:
Q. To understand the stress response, let’s start with the topic experts. Who has the best current information on the relationships between the brain, the body, stress, coping, and their combined effects on trauma and stress-related diseases?
A. Top contenders and supports of yoga are Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. in The Body Keeps The Score, Robert M. Sapolsky in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, and his book published in 2017, Behave.
Q. What is the stress response?
A. The stress response is a host of physical and mental reactions in response to an immediate, short-term crisis, or stressor. (Picture this: The snake, a major stressor slithers into your path, and viola! You are immediately transported via the stress response, to the safety of a tree limb without so much as a thought!).
Q. The stress response is a good thing then, right?
A. Yes and No. I know, not much better than the phrase “it depends”!
Speaking for the Yes side: for acute physical emergencies it is absolutely necessary for your appropriate response to danger. The stress response is what your body does to reestablish homeostasis.
Speaking for the No side: Reacting physiologically to stressors in a chronic, constant manner is not a good thing. Much like over-stretching a rubber band, you eventually “wear out” systems in your body. When acute danger is sensed, every system in your body is designed to deliver a quick response. Your physiology can get over-stretched by constantly reacting, or even anticipating what you may consider a stressor.
Q. What are some examples of stressors?
A. Lions, tigers, and bears. The list quickly expands to include romantic, familial and social relationships, money, jobs, outward appearance, social standing and on, and on. It is anything important enough to cause you to worry, thereby expending large amounts of emotional or physical energy. It is everything that causes you to worry.
Q. Why shouldn’t you strive to completely eliminate the stress response?
A. Simply put: it is critical to your survival. Most animals (including me and you!) have survived and evolved thanks to the stress response. Stress response is what gives you the strength to get up and do what needs to be done! It powers you through adversity and challenge.
Q. What does a healthy stress response look like?
A. Tough question. It depends. Read up on the Polyvagal Theory here to entertain this question further.
Q. What role does yoga have with regard to the stress response?
A. Your body is a veritable expert at initiating the stress response. And you are the absolute master of your body, even if you don’t yet think so! Yoga may have a role in helping you initiate the relaxation response. Yoga may help you reach balance and homeostasis by developing greater awareness. Yoga teaches you to choose the appropriate response to a given situation.
Q. A few of the answers above mentioned homeostasis. What is homeostasis? A. Robert Sapolsky keeps it general when he says: “. . . different variables are maintained in homeostatic balance, the state in which all sorts of physiological measures are being kept at the optimal level. The brain, it has been noted, has evolved to seek homeostasis.” (It has been noted: the brain has evolved).
Back to our original inquiry: why isn’t yoga the answer and what is the role of yoga and the stress response? It is kind of a trick question. Yoga is not the answer because we don’t want to eliminate the stress response. We need the brain to be fully functioning and mediating the proper stress response. Yoga’s main purpose and goal is to still the fluctuations of the mind. We need to calm the mind and maintain balanced reactions to our world. As noted, the brain has evolved.
For the sake of discussion in this article, let’s use mind and brain interchangeably. As noted, and as hammered into place: the brain has evolved. It has evolved to accept messages from every organ and system in your body. Like a relay station, albeit a very sophisticated one! The current scientific evolution is proving the brain doesn’t “think” of everything, and doesn’t “control” everything. And we’re learning that most decisions are based on emotions, and not entirely on an ordered, brain-powered logic.
Yoga’s role in the stress response is to give you the experience of self-regulation. Through yoga you can learn to feel the physical effects of emotional activation. Part of that lesson comes from asana, the postures. Asana is used to activate and relax the muscles of the body as a start to the true yogic practice. Awareness of the body in asana leads to awareness of the mind in meditation. Disturbing “gut reactions” or getting the “sh*t scared out of you” actually start first in the body. A run away stress response may bypass your logic-powered brain, creating a “knee jerk reaction.” Or you may have developed habits of ignoring or stuffing your emotions. Either way, the result may be an over reactive stress response: anger, fear, or withdrawing.
Yoga may help you gain greater control over your responses to stressors. The yogic practices of right breathing, intentional movement, and mindful meditation may begin to initiate your relaxation response. Or a more active yogic practice may increase the stress response in a positive way. Yoga isn’t all about the relation response! Sometimes living a sedentary lifestyle, feeling lethargic, or having a need to increase lung capacity calls for a different approach. But that’s a topic for another article!