Guest Author - Deborah Mauldin
What Is Stress?
Stress is the term used to describe the feelings and sensation that occur when you get overwhelmed. When you have more things to handle than you're accustomed to dealing with your body will react as if you are in danger and the "fight or flight" response is triggered. The fight or flight response is the bodily defense mechanism that physically prepares you to engage danger or flee for safety. Several things occur when this response is triggered. Different chemicals are released into your blood stream. Your breathing deepens and your heart rate increases, your muscles tense, and your senses become heightened. While this response is natural and necessary it is meant to occur only when you are in danger. Unfortunately, many live in a continual state of fight or flight as a response to the stresses of daily life.
While some stresses are necessary and can be beneficial, experiencing too much stress takes a heavy toll on the body. Stress is known to cause many health issues including difficulty sleeping and a lowered immune system. Without adequate sleep your body is not able to repair and restore itself. If your immune system is lowered, it cannot successfully fight off illness. Experiencing too much stress, not getting enough sleep, and having an immune system that cannot fend against illness is a trifecta of circumstances that may lead to a physical breakdown.
Using techniques based in yoga it is possible to interrupt stress-related reactions and even reverse the effects that living with too much stress may have had on your body. The first step is to become aware of your bodily reactions when you are stressed out.
Signs of Stress
Sometimes there are very obvious signs that you are stressed. They can include shortness of breath, a rise in strong emotion such as anger or frustration, or even a pounding headache. Other times you may not immediately notice your physical symptoms. You may unconsciously clench your jaw or your shoulders and neck may ache at the end of the day from being held stiffly. Spend some time analyzing where it is that stress is showing up as a physical indicator for you. Becoming aware of how stress manifests in your body will allow you to focus your efforts to create relief for yourself.
Once you become aware of your stress, using pranayama exercises is an immediately effective way to start reducing your stress level. Pranayama is the practice of regulating the breath and it works well to help balance thoughts and emotions. Pranayama exercises require no special equipment and can be done anywhere which make them ideal as an immediate solution when the pressure gets to be too much.
An example of a simple and effective pranayama exercise is Ujjayi Pranayama. Ujjayi Pranayama is also referred to as the Victorious Breath or Ocean Breath. To perform this exercise constrict the back of your throat as you inhale and exhale through the nose so that your breath sounds like ocean waves washing onto the shore. Inhale deeply through the nose and fill the lungs all the way, as if they're balloons being filled by your inhale. As you inhale count slowly to five then hold the breath for a count of one or two. Then, exhale slowly through the nose to a count of five and hold again for another count of one or two. Focusing on and regulating the breath using ujjayi breathing creates space in the body so that muscles which are being held tight can release. For instance you may feel your shoulders drop down your back and your neck lengthen, giving relief to your cervical spine as you breathe with intention.
Using Ujjayi Pranayama can bring immediate relief in stressful situations. Developing a more varied pranayama practice can be an effective solution to reducing stress in your life over the long term. If you're considering beginning a yoga practice or if you have an established practice, adding in pranayama exercises will give you another level of support to successfully handle the stresses of everyday living.