Stress is a common condition, a response to a physical threat or psychological distress, that generates a host of chemical and hormonal reactions in the body. In essence, the body prepares to fight or flee, pumping more blood to the heart and muscles and shutting down all non-essential functions. As a temporary state, this reaction serves the body well to defend itself. However, when the stress reaction is attenuated, the normal physical functions that have been either exaggerated or shut down in response become dysfunctional in this extreme state. Many have noted the benefits of exercise in diminishing the stress response. A host of studies points to the benefits of such exercise. Yoga, too, has been recommended and studied in its relationship to stress, although the studies are less scientifically replicable. Nonetheless, several researchers claim highly beneficial results from Yoga practice in alleviating stress and its effects. The practices recommended range from intense to moderate to relaxed asana sequences, plus pranayama and meditation. In all these approaches to dealing with stress, one common element stands out: the process is as important as the activity undertaken. Because it fosters self-awareness, Yoga is a promising approach for dealing with the stress response. Yoga and the Stress Response
Stress has become a common catchword in our society to indicate a host of difficulties, both as cause and effect. The American Academy of Family Physicians has noted that stress related symptoms prompt two-thirds of the office visits to family physicians i. Exercise and alternative therapies are now commonly prescribed for stress-related complaints and illness. Even a recent issue of Consumer Reports suggests Yoga for stress reliefii. Many books and articles claim, as does Dr. Susan Lark, that practicing Yoga will “provide effective relief of anxiety and stress.”iii Is this an accurate promise? What is the stress response?
A review of the current thinking on stress reveals that the process is both biochemical and psychological. A very good summary of the research on the stress response is contained in Robert Sapolsky’s book, “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.” iv He first outlines the physiological experience of stress, explaining that the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for reacting to emergencies, employing the fright and flight reflexes. “Originating in the brain, sympathetic projections exit your spine and branch out to nearly every organ, every blood vessel, and every sweat gland in your body,” Sapolsky writes. “The sympathetic nervous system kicks into action during emergencies, or what you think are emergencies....The nerve endings of this system release adrenaline....Sympathetic nerve endings also release the closely related substance noradrenaline.”v In the United States, adrenaline, which is secreted by the sympathetic nerve endings in the adrenal gland, is referred to as epinephrine; noradrenaline, which is secreted by all other sympathetic nerve endings throughout the body, is referred to as norepinephrine. These are the chemicals which, within seconds, signal the organs into action. This is called the “neural route,” because the action of one cell, a neuron, travels to the next cell in line and through that cellular link mobilizes activity in response to a stressor. When the neuron secretes a messenger that “percolates into the blood stream and affects events far and wide, that messenger is a hormone,” Sapolsky continues. “All sorts of glands secrete hormones; the secretion of some of them is turned on during stress, and the secretion of others is turned off.”vi The parasympathetic nervous system, which mediates calm, is inhibited by the sympathetic nervous system during a stressful emergency. The brain is the master gland. “It is now recognized that the base of the brain, the hypothalamus, contains a huge array of these releasing and inhibiting hormones, which instruct the pituitary, which...
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