Understanding Stress and Relaxation
The term ‘stress’ represents the physical and emotional reactions of our body and mind when we are functioning above our normal threshold. When our exposure to stress becomes excessive it can adversely affect our health, disrupting our hormonal balance, immune resistance and mental health.
The term ‘stress’ can be difficult to define. The Oxford medical dictionary defines it as “Any factor that threatens the health of the body or has an adverse effect on its functioning, such as injury, disease or worry. The existence of one form of stress tends to diminish resistance to other forms. Constant stress brings about changes in the balance of hormones in the body.” Stress is implicated in many health problems from insomnia to dermatitis to IBS to overt anxiety. It can be perceived as ‘living beyond our threshold’ or ‘living beyond our means’. Stress is, therefore, a general term that, if excessive, can impair health and drastically impact on quality of life.
Here we will refer to stress as relating to the mental and physical anxieties that can arise as a result of our own personal resources being superseded by life’s demands.
The Ayurvedic view of stress
Ayurveda sees stress as an aggravation of the subtle aspects of the nervous system that are regulated by a principle known as vata. Vata describes one of the three key Ayurvedic dosha, or constitutions. Vata has qualities of being light, subtle, erratic, sensitive and is easily disturbed by too much sensory stimulation, too much food, too much time pressure and too many telephone calls. It is also aggravated by too much fear and anxiety. All of these effects result in a depletion of the body and mind’s ability to cope with life’s experiences; we become tired, fatigued, weakened.
Vata is responsible for regulating inputs and outputs in the body and mind. It is the regulator of homeostasis in the system to ensure a stable inner environment. Failure of this regulating system, or its inability to adapt can lead to stress and its concurrent pathologies.
Conventional treatments for stress:
- Analgesics: Pain killers such as Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs), Opioids
- Hypnotics: Sleep inducers that depress brain function such asbenzodiazepams (eg. loprazolam, valium) and barbituates
- Anti-anxiety drugs: Promote the action of GABA (gamma-amniobutyric acid) which binds to neurons, blocking transmission of impulses and therefore reducing brain cell communication such as by benzodiazepines and beta-blockers (eg. atenolol) that block the action of noradrenaline in the body and therefore reduce the activity of the sympathetic nervous system.
- Anti-depressant medication: SSRI’s (eg. fluoxetine, prozac etc) and tricyclic anti-depressants (amitriptyline etc) block the reuptake of serotonin and noradrenaline. Mono Amine Oxidase Inhibitors (MAOIs) block the breakdown of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and noradrenaline.
- Anti-psychotics: Phenothiazine anti-antipsychotics and butyrophenone antipsychotics work by binding to receptor sites that block the uptake of the excitatory chemicals dopamine and also serotonin.
Risks associated with conventional treatments:
- Addiction and the suppression of causative factors
- NSAIDs: Intestinal inflammation and bleeding
- Benzodiazepams: Reduce motivation and increase apathy, addiction, withdrawal symptoms, nightmares, dizziness and forgetfulness
- Anti-depressants: Slow to act, overdosing can be critical and dangerous, possible disruption to heart rhythms, muscular spasms, increases in blood pressure, blurred vision, headaches and nausea
How Does Stress and Relaxation Work?
We have all heard of the ‘flight or fight’ response as a natural instinctive response to stress. The body releases hormones that help us to run faster and fight harder when we are under some form of threat. These hormones increase heart rate and blood pressure, delivering more oxygen and blood sugar to power important muscles throughout the body. They will increase sweating in an effort to cool the muscles, and improve efficiency. They divert blood away from the skin to the core of our bodies, reducing blood loss if we are damaged. And, as if this wasn’t enough, these hormones focus our attention on the threat, to the exclusion of everything else. The combined effect is that our ability to survive life-threatening events is vastly improved.
Physiological results of ‘Flight or Fight’
- Elevation in Blood Pressure
- Increased cardiac output and heart rate
- Pupillary dilation
- Diversion of visceral blood flow
- Adrenal catecholamine release
However, these physiological consequences also have negative consequences. When in this state, we are also excitable, anxious, jumpy and irritable which reduces our ability to work effectively and socialise.
Hans Selye identified that when pushed to extremes we react in three ways:
- Alarm Phase: reaction to the stressor.
- Resistance Phase: resistance to the stressor increases as adaptation occurs.
- Exhaustion phase: when the resistance to the stressor becomes exhausted then resistance to the stressor substantially declines.
More recent research has discovered the LHPA (limbic-hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal) axis as the neuro-hormonal regulator of the stress response. Whenever we experience something stressful, emotional reactions in the limbic system of the brain trigger the hypothalamus to secrete CRH (corticotropin-releasing hormone). CRH then triggers the pituitary gland to secrete ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone), which activates the adrenal glands to produce and release cortisol into the bloodstream.
Cortisol is the primary hormone associated with the stress response. However, cortisol also plays a vital role in supporting other functions throughout the body. For example, cortisol is necessary for normal brain, immune, muscle and blood sugar function, and blood circulation. However, excessive cortisol can be equally damaging.
Signs and Symptoms
Too much cortisol causes abdominal obesity, high blood sugar (“adrenal diabetes”), muscle wasting, bone loss, immune shutdown, brain atrophy of the hippocampus, poor wound healing, thin wrinkled skin, fluid retention and hypertension. Excessive cortisol frequently causes increased fatigue/decreased energy, irritability, impaired memory, depressed mood, decreased libido, insomnia, anxiety, impaired concentration, crying, restlessness, social withdrawal and feelings of hopelessness.
Burnout is the result of excessive stress exposure, leading to eventual adrenal exhaustion. It can be described as:
“A state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion caused by long term involvement in emotionally demanding situations.” (Ayala Pines & Elliott Aronson)
Here are some of the key symptoms of stress:
- Muscular tension, cramps
- Palpitations, heart problems
- Excessive and inappropriate sweating
- Tension in the chest
- Rapid breathing, asthma
- Difficulty sleeping, insomnia
- Poor digestion, IBS
- Depletes immune system response
- Initiate and intensify auto-immune responses
- Inability to complete tasks or focus
- Feelings of overwhelm
- Difficulty sleeping
- Low energy levels
Prolonged exposure to stress and prolonged suffering with symptoms such as those listed will eventually lead to a depleted immune response. When the immune system becomes depleted, it can result in the onset of more chronic degenerative conditions such as:
- Auto –immune depletion
- Severe inflammatory problems
- Type 2 diabetes
- Cardiovascular disease
- Certain cancers
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Periodontal disease
- Allergic conditions
The commonly defined Ayurvedic symptoms of vata disturbance are:
- Weight loss
- Aversion to cold and a desire for heat, softness and comfort
- Experiencing piercing pains, mobile pains and numbness
- Erratic digestion, bloating, constipation, incontinence, urinary urgency
- Cracking joints, spasms, rigidity
- Dry skin, dehydration, astringent taste in the mouth
- Dizziness, fear, anxiety, nervousness, loneliness insomnia and depression
Such symptoms can become worse for changes in the seasons, dry and cold climates, early in the morning, early in the afternoon and later in life. As time progresses these symptoms flip to manifest as sluggish energy, fatigue, lack of enthusiasm, no desire to speak and confusion.
- Ashwagandha, Withania somnifera, is a herb for calming a nervous system that is literally ‘frazzled’ by stress whilst also giving you enduring energy (4). It relaxes muscles as well as bringing strength to all the tissues of the body through its actions as an adaptogen. It is indicated whenever there is any sign of deficiency, coldness or weakness leading to tiredness or debility (1). This makes Ashwagandha the herb of choice when there is any chronic imbalance that results in depletion and convalescence. Its grounding and stabilising effects help in insomnia, palpitations and anxiety (6). Its nourishing properties help stabilise weight and enhance vitality. It gives deep and enduring energy to the immune, reproductive, structural and nervous systems. By helping to tonify the thyroid, brain, pancreatic and heart function it brings strength to the organs responsible for the foundation of our health (5).
- Brahmi, Bacopa monniera is a wonderful cooling herb for the nervous system and mind. Named after ‘Brahman’ or ‘Universal Consciousness’ it is renowned for influencing the quality of consciousness (8, 12). Clinical studies have shown that Brahmi can help increase cognition, memory and concentration whilst also greatly improving anxiety. It is indicated whenever there are any signs of mental or emotional imbalance resulting in nervous anxiety or debility or where there is nervous depletion resulting from mental attachment to a redundant and non-health inducing pattern of behaviour, for example in addiction (13). This is because Brahmi brings clarity, which is why it is used in Alzheimer’s, ADHD and autism, but also in any form of mental illness from depression to eating disorders (14)
- Valerian, Valeriana officinalis, is indicated in any condition where tension and anxiety is dominant. It is a particularly strong nervine and sedative to the central nervous system that will relax tense muscles and also encourage an undisturbed and good quality sleep. It is especially useful where there are heightened feelings of anxiety and panic, but it is a strong sedative and may not be suitable for those on any form of sedative or anti-depressant.
- Limeflower, Tilia europea, is a sweet and delicate herb that will help to calm the nervous system but also support a stressed heart where there may be symptoms such as palpitations. Limeflowers are a safe and good herb for use with children and are particularly helpful where stress is influencing a restless sleep and/or vivid dreaming. It is effective in helping to treat bad dreams.It is a nervine, soothing the nervous system and helping tackle stress, mild depression, anxiety and nervous headaches. Its calming effect on the nervous system also make it effective in treating a nervous digestion.
- Oatstraw, Avena sativa, is a soothing nervine that restores and nourishes a weakened nervous system. It calms shattered nerves, relieves emotional instability and helps to restore a sense of peace and tranquillity. It is particularly suited to those who class themselves as being ‘over-sensitive’to physical and emotional stressors.
- Chamomile, Matricaria recutita, contains sweet bright blue essential oils that soothe and restore the nervous system. Chamomile also contains a level of calcium which will feed the nervous system and help it to restore itself and re-balance when under stress. Chamomile is also an excellent anti-spasmodic and can be highly beneficial in anxiety related stomach cramps. Chamomile is another herb that is beneficial and safe for use with children.
- Gotu Kola, Centella asiatica, is arejuvenative tonic that enhances memory, strengthens the brain and nourishes our consciousness. It has a relaxing effect upon the central nervous system increasing gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA) providing relief from hyper anxious states (2). Centella asiatica’s greatest asset is its ability to penetrate deeply into the circulatory system and carry its consciousness enhancing properties into the brain. It relaxes the channels of circulation, allowing more blood to flow whether this is needed for nutrition or wound healing. Either way, it reduces the stress of ’trauma’ caused by a wound, shock, skin disease, inflammation or mental fog(1). By normalising the cell adhesion molecule function it enhances cellular communication and promotes cellular intelligence. Gotu Kola is true food for the mind. Gotu kola inhibits liver enzymes responsible for barbituate metabolism and should not be used with benzodiazipines or barbiturates (7).
- Holy Basil/Tulsi, Occinium sanctum, creates clarity and clears mental fog, dispelling the blues. It will awaken the mind whilst also relaxing the nervous system, allowing time for the restoration of adrenal glands that have become exhausted by trauma, depression or anxiety. It modulates the stress response and increases adaptive energy.Its light aromatic scent is wonderful for lifting the spirits and alleviating depression. It is packed with essential oils that help to open the lungs, remove grief and relax tension. It is very useful for tension headaches and nervous digestion.
To effectively treat stress, there needs to be two elements to the strategy. The first is too soothe and calm the surface symptoms. The second is to nourish and strengthen the nervous system so that it can manage stress more efficiently. The approach to managing and alleviating stress must be physically-emotionally and mentally approached.
Nature holds many gifts for helping us to manage our daily stresses from simple breathing exercises, to soothing massage, to a spectrum of healing plants that can sedate, stimulate, nourish, feed and/or relax the nervous system. All stress involves some change, and severe stress usually involves some form of ‘shock’ to the system. To find balance means you have to digest the shock and adapt to the stress.
There are many herbs that will benefit and support the body through periods of excessive stress exposure. However, we must also consider the importance and impact that small changes in lifestyle can also make. Here are some suggestions:
- As the source of most stress is often exacerbated by the mind, learning any techniques which help to calm the mind are beneficial such as breathing and meditation practices.
- Yoga and/or regular exercise to improve blood flow to the brain and to facilitate metabolism of stress hormones so they can pass through the body
- Supportive expression of stress through counselling, writing or talking
- Respecting the need to sleep and going to bed at times that will allow one to rest for a sufficient amount of time
- Oftentimes a step back is needed to fundamentally reassess the structures and lifestyle that has lead to such stress. This takes much introspection, but is vital if stress is a consistent problem.
- Use organic wholefoods and eat warm and cooked food.
- Do not use refined, processed, ‘junk’ food, sugar
- Add green chlorophyll rich foods that aid in cellular regeneration.
- Certain foods are renowned for inducing a strong mind; walnuts, micro-algae, hemp seed oil, oats, broad beans.
- Increase foods high in B vitamins; oats, brown rice
- Replace highly caffeinated drinks with herbal teas to soothe the nervous system
- Hemp seed oil in the diet will nourish your brain and nervous system.
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