Stress is your body’s way of responding to any kind of demand or threat. When you sense danger—whether it’s real or imagined—the body's defenses kick into high gear in a rapid, automatic process known as the “fight-or-flight” reaction or the "stress response".
The stress response is the body’s way of protecting you. When working properly, it helps you stay focused, energetic, and alert. In emergency situations, stress can save your life—giving you extra strength to defend yourself, for example, or spurring you to slam on the brakes to avoid an accident.
Stress can also help you rise to meet challenges. It’s what keeps you on your toes during a presentation at work, sharpens your concentration when you’re attempting the game-winning free throw, or drives you to study for an exam when you'd rather be watching TV. But beyond a certain point, stress stops being helpful and starts causing major damage to your health, your mood, your productivity, your relationships, and your quality of life.
Your nervous system isn’t very good at distinguishing between emotional and physical threats. If you’re super stressed over an argument with a friend, a work deadline, or a mountain of bills, your body can react just as strongly as if you’re facing a true life-or-death situation. And the more your emergency stress system is activated, the easier it becomes to trigger and the harder it becomes to shut off.
If you tend to get stressed out frequently—as many of us do in today’s demanding world—your body many be in a heightened state of stress most of the time. And that can lead to serious health problems. Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in your body. It can suppress your immune system, upset your digestive and reproductive systems, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, and speed up the aging process. It can even rewire the brain, leaving you more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems.
Health problems caused or exacerbated by stress include:
- Depression and anxiety
- Pain of any kind
- Sleep problems
- Autoimmune diseases
- Digestive problems
- Skin conditions, such as eczema
- Heart disease
- Weight problems
- Reproductive issues
- Thinking and memory problems
What you can expect:
According to Ayurveda, there are three sub-doshas that govern the mind. Prana vata is the sub-dosha of vata that governs the brain, sensory perception and the mind. Tarpaka kapha is the sub-dosha of kapha that governs the cerebro-spinal fluid. And because acquisition, retention and recall originate in the heart, sadhaka pitta (the sub-dosha of pitta that governs the emotions and their effect on the heart) is also involved.
There are three states or operational qualities of mind. These are sattva, rajas and tamas. Sattva (goodness) is the healthy state of mind. Rajas (passion) and tamas (ignorance) are the unhealthy states of mind. When the mind is dominated by rajas and/or tamas, the sub-doshas go out of balance. Sadhaka pitta begins to create a burning effect and prana vata creates a drying effect. Then tarpaka kapha generates extra cerebro-spinal fluid to counteract this effect and protect the brain.
But when our mental capacities are repeatedly overused (due to excess of tamas and rajas), the lubricating value of tarpaka kapha becomes excessive, and begins to diminish the metabolizing or digestive fire or agni. This is similar to the effect of too much moisture in the digestion - it can put out the digestive fire or agni. When this happens, ama (toxins) start to be created. Ama accumulates in the gaps and channels of the brain, and mixes with the fluids created by tarpaka kapha, creating a harmful type of cortisol, the indicator of stress. Cortisol in itself is not harmful; in fact, it is created by the body to protect the brain. But when tarpaka kapha becomes excessive and there is ama in the physiology, it does more harm than good. That's when anxiety attacks and other signs of stress take over.
There are several kinds of Ayurvedic treatment that alleviate stress.
Herbs known as adaptogens are beneficial in alleviating stress. These herbs that promote adaptability to stress, include Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), ginseng (Panax ginseng), wild yam (Dioscorea villosa), borage (Borago officinalis), licorice (yashtimadhu (Glycyrrhiza glabra), chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile), milk thistle (Silybum marianum), and nettle (Urtica dioica). Traditionally, Ayurveda recommends the root of winter cherry or ashwagandha, shakpushadi, brahmi (gotu kola), jatamansi (muskweed), shakhpushpi, dhatri rasayan, praval pishti and the fruit of emblic myrobalan, among other herbs, to reduce stress and fix the imbalance in the vata dosha.
Research shows that certain Ayurvedic formulas made from herbs such as brahmi (gotu kola), shankapushpi (aloeweed), and guduchi (heart-leaved moonseed) reduces generalized anxiety, calms stress, while heightening alertness and preventing mental stress from mounting.These special Ayurvedic herbs are called medhya herbs in traditional Ayurvedic texts, and are known to not only individually nurture certain areas of the brain (mind) sensitive to stress effects, but also to nurture coordination among them.
Ashwagandha or winter cherry enhances the mind's overall ability to fight stress, because it helps overall mental functioning. Jatamansi (muskroot) and greater galangal are additional herbs that clear the channels. These keep our mind and body free of toxins and blockages. Ashwagandha or winter cherry is a sharp, naturally cleansing herb, but in combination with jatamansi (muskroot) and greater galangal, it becomes an extremely effective agent for clearing the channels, enhancing agni or digestive fire and reducing ama (toxins).
Since stress reduces the body's immunity, nutritious diet is very beneficial in counteracting this depletion. Following the right diet for dealing with stress is also very important. In Ayurvedic terms reduce 'rajasic' and 'tamasic' foods and add 'sattvic' diet.
Avoid coffee and all other caffeinated beverages, because in high doses caffeinated substances produce jitteriness, restlessness, anxiety, and insomnia. As far as possible, try to avoid carbonated and alcoholic drinks as well. High-protein animal foods should also be minimized as these increase levels of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain, which are associated with higher levels of anxiety and stress. Eat lots of fresh green vegetables, fruits and fruit juices. Avoid white flour and sugar products, and all frozen, preserved and leftover food. Include whole grain cereals - they promote the production of the brain neurotransmitter serotonin, which induces a greater sense of well-being.
Ayurveda advises undergoing pancha karma for maintaining a strong and healthy metabolic rate and also to keep harmful toxins from accumulating in the body and mind. The pancha karma process involves identifying the root cause of a stress problem and correcting the essential balance of mind, body, and emotions. It is considered extremely effective to go through the process of pancha karma before any rejuvenation treatment (rasayana/herbal medicines). This helps to cleanse the body, improve digestion, strengthen the metabolic rate and also cleanse one's thought process.
In addition to the above-mentioned treatments, Ayurveda integrates Yoga, meditation and Pranayama (breathing exercises) to manage stress. Certain gestures called "mudra" are also helpful. Positive thinking, tidiness, clean environment and maintaining harmony at all levels is important for getting rid of stress permanently.