Stress – is it all in our mind?

We all have stress, but really what is stress? What does it actually mean to be stressed? And how can yoga help us manage stress?

Dr Hans Selye first popularised the term in the 1950’s based on his extensive studies of what happens to animals when injured or placed under extreme conditions. In modern times it has become an umbrella term for all the various pressures we face in life. Selye defines stress as the total response of your organism (mind and body) to whatever stressors you experience. The stressor is the stimulus that produces the stress response.

So what happens when we get stressed?

Check out this great video from mind body expert Craig Hassed MD: Stress and your body.

Yoga provides effective tools and techniques to address the stress response and perceptions of our stressors. I personally have been managing anxiety and stress successfully with yoga for many years now. Here’s a quick guide on how yoga can help.

Invoke the relaxation response: Firstly it’s important to address the body’s physiological response to stress as outlined by Craig Hassard. We can do this with practices that relax the nervous system and switch off the stress response. We can use the breath in specific ways, deeply relax the whole body and use movement to release tension.

Breathe: It seems simple enough, and it is! Simply by bringing our attention to the breath, we become more aware of our being and what’s going on internally. We can also use the exhalation and inhalation in different ways to calm or energise.

Energise: Often when we are stressed we feel exhausted and all we want to do is relax or sleep, which is good for invoking the relaxation response, but we also need energy and strength to face difficult or busy times. We can choose specific yoga postures to increase energy, build confidence and make our bodies feel strong, like a warrior ready for battle.

Mindful: On a very basic level stress is our response to the stressors we face. If we can change our relationship to what stresses us we will be better able to cope. Mindfulness is about becoming curious, being an inner scientist so we can see really clearly what happens we get when we get caught up in our thoughts and the resulting behaviours. We can use formal meditation practices, mindful yoga and simple exercises (like the breath). With awareness we can learn to observe how we are feeling in the body, what thoughts are running in the mind, and create opportunity for better choices of action to re balance.

Once you have a few tools and techniques you can apply these to different situations. For example:

  • After a busy day at work you could do a few simple postures with the breath targeting the tense areas of your body followed by a brief relaxation to unwind.
  • To set you up ready for the day ahead you could start with meditation, or a focused breathing exercise followed by a few energising postures.
  • On the weekend when you have more time you could do a longer guided relaxation.

To learn more about yoga for stress management check out the next 4 week ‘Yoga for Stress’ course.

By booking on the course you will also receive a significant discount for the mind body documentary ‘The Connection’.

The lies we tell ourselves to avoid meditation

Yes No

“The mind is a wonderful thing. It’s also a complete liar that constantly tries to convince us not to take actions we know are good for us, and stops many great changes in our lives. Scumbag mind.” Leo Babauta

Over the years I have come to learn the insidious ways the mind tries to stop me from meditating or practicing yoga, when I know its good for me. Despite mind powers working against me, I’ve made positive changes to develop a home yoga practice and meditate daily. That doesn’t mean I still don’t come face to face with the bevvy of excuses my mind presents, just that now I see them for what they are. Sometimes I give in to them, and that’s ok. I’m human and the mind can be very convincing.

Most of the excuses are based on the mind seeking to stay within its comfort zone and wanting to avoid discomfort and change. Starting something new and making changes will bring about discomfort and we need to push through if we are to going to take actions that are important for our health and wellbeing. In fact, getting used to a bit of discomfort is good for us.

Lets look at some of the minds favourlite excuses – maybe you can relate to them in areas of your life:

I don’t have time…
Ok, so maybe you do have the time right now but if you want things to change you need to find it. Think about where you can create space. If your life seems already full, perhaps you need to give something up in order to make way for the new. Really look at what you give your time to, for example: staying back late at work, spending time on Facebook, going to the gym, getting a massage, whatever it may be. If developing a meditation practice is important then basically you are saying I don’t have time for myself. I don’t value myself as highly as those other things.

I don’t know how to / I’m not doing it right…
This might be true, but you can learn. A little practice and effort here can help.
Attend a meditation course or regular class where you have the guidance of an experienced teacher and can ask questions. At home listen to a guided meditation via an app or mp3 as you build confidence, independence and skills (I recommend meditations by Smiling Mind and John Kabat-Zinn).

The mind likes to make things out to be harder than they are, tell you stories about your abilities and raise doubts about what you are doing and why. It seems too hard, which makes it difficult to stick with it. You need to believe in yourself. Take comfort in the fact that millions of people who regularly meditate now, including the Dalai Lama, had to start somewhere.

I find it hard to sit…
Agreed – sitting to meditate can be difficult at the start. There can be pain and discomfort and body parts going to sleep. However, if you can sit in a car on a long road trip, or sit at your desk or on the couch for hours in a day, then you can sit for meditation. They key is finding the most comfortable position where the spine keeps its natural curves and building up the back so it is strong enough to hold you upright (yoga is great for this). And you will develop the ability to sit with ease over time.

It’s not just physical either. Seeing your mind and its fixations can be confronting. The mind is being taken out of its comfort zone so the desire to get up, or finish the meditation will prevail, and this will create thoughts and energy in the body aimed to make you move. The challenge is to simply observe the body sensations you experience and not react.

I’m too tired…
This one is my nemesis; I want to meditate in the evening after a shower and before bed and nearly every time the thought arises “I’m tired, maybe I should go to bed early and meditate longer in the morning”. Going to bed is very inviting after a long day at work (See ‘I’d rather be…’). When I ignore the excuse and come to sit, I am pleased I made the effort. Sometimes I am bit sleepy, and that’s ok – I simply accept each experience as it is and not judge it as good or bad.

Granted there are times when you need rest, say if you are exhausted. But be careful of the mind looking for ways to avoid discomfort. If we are just a bit tired we can often push through it. At the start meditation can be exhausting because of the mental energy focused on concentration. Tiredness when meditating can also be a sign of a weak mind – you need to work with gentle determination to build a strong mind.

I’ll do it later…
Ok so you might not feel like doing it now, but are you sure you will want to later? I don’t like your chances. If you can’t make the effort to do it now, what makes you think you will be any more motivated later? In fact, you are developing a habit of putting things off, procrastinating. I’m not one for preaching corporate slogans but unless there isn’t anything pressing to do – Just do it! Don’t skip it simply because you don’t feel like doing it now. You are capable of doing things even when not in the mood, you just need to overcome your internal resistance.

I’ve got better things to be doing…
There is always going to be something else you’d prefer to be doing – like sleeping in, reading a good book, being with family and friends, playing sport. The mind is attached to sensory pleasures and will always want to be doing something you like and seeking things to excite and please your senses. Meditation is disciplining our senses in a big way and this is a good outcome.

This is definitely not an exhaustive list, but it’s probably covered most common excuses. The beauty is once you know how the mind operates you can see if for the trickster it is and be prepared.

Here are my tips for dealing with the excuses:

  • Anticipate. Try to have an answer prepared for each excuse beforehand.
  • Making time. Start with small achievable goals. Don’t commit to 30 mins a day if you are never going to achieve it and then feel guilty when you don’t. Try 5 mins a day or 10 minutes 3 times a week and get used to that, then build up. After a while you will enjoy this time for yourself and you will want to make the time – trust me on this one.
  • Technique. Find a simple technique like awareness of the breath and you can’t go wrong.
  • Sitting comfortably
  1. You don’t need to sit cross-legged on the floor. Sit in a chair with the spine upright and legs at 90 degrees, feet supported higher than the floor if needed.
  2. Gradually increase your seat time as the back gets stronger.
  3. Watch the urges to move arise and see if you can allow them pass 3 times before moving.
  • Tiredness. Tell yourself you will sit for shorter time and see how you go. Often once you are there it’s all good and you want to sit for longer.
  • Motivation. See meditation as the reward – spending time just being with yourself.

Accept that there will be times you give in to the excuses. Learn from your choices. If you give in and aren’t happy about it, remember that. If you make an effort to sit, and you feel good about it, remember that.

In the end be kind to yourself.

Make friends with your stress


Had one of those days when it feels like there’s too much going on and not enough time? Feeling out-of-control and overwhelmed?

Perhaps there’s pressure at work, relationship issues, kids to look after and run around, domestic duties piling up, social commitments, bills to pay, money worries, trying to make time to exercise, relax, spend more time with the family? It makes me tired just reading this but it’s reality for most of us.

Stress is not essentially bad

We need some stress to motivate us to get things done. We need stress to help us meet work deadlines, study for an exam or motivate us to earn a living to pay the bills. It’s when there is too much stress, over prolonged periods, that we run the risk of burnout – we disengage and withdraw because we feel we just can’t cope.

Day-to-day things we normally do seem like a massive effort and exhausting, so we just stop doing them.

Biologically, stress is linked to our survival instinct, to the fight or flight response. It is the body’s response to real and perceived danger. Thousands of years ago when faced with a sabre tooth tiger the fight or flight response would kick in to make us run, fast!

Out of balance?

When stressed, more blood is pumped around the body for energy – our heart rate increases, more blood is sent to muscles, we use more oxygen for breathing, our nervous system is switched to action, adrenaline is released, and the mind races to find the best escape.

During periods of stress, non-essential systems such as digestion, elimination, reproduction and the immune system receive less blood and are reduced in function.

This imbalance in the body is fine for a short time. Once we’ve escaped the tiger we feel relieved and the body naturally returns to balance. If the body remains imbalanced through ongoing stress, it continues to function in fight or flight mode, which can lead to stress-related diseases.

It’s all in your mind

Today we don’t have the same physical threats in our daily life. Our stress is usually mental or psychological. Yes, it’s all about the mind!

Dr Seligman’s well-known studies on optimism and health found that “it is not the potential stressor itself but how you perceive it and then how you handle it that will determine whether or not it will lead to stress.”.

He goes on to say “how you see things and how you handle them makes all the difference in terms of how much stress you will experience”. So what he is saying is we have the power to affect the balance between our internal mechanisms for coping with stress, and the stressors that are an avoidable part of living.

So how we do that?

5 surefire ways to stress less

We could waste a lot energy trying to change things that stress us, and often we won’t be able to change the stressor. A better approach is to focus on what we can do.

Here are my personal tried-and-true steps to manage stress…

1. Learn to recognise the signs of stress for you

For me it’s tight neck and shoulders, an upset stomach or loss of appetite, and not sleeping well. Mentally my mind is a busy and sometimes I feel anxious. There are constant thoughts of feeling overwhelmed, I can get cranky or just withdraw.

Developing awareness of the signs of stress on all levels will help us take the helpful actions we need to bring balance.

2. Release accumulated stress

Most problems stem from accumulated stress over a period of time. We need to treat this first. Using specific yoga techniques we move the body to release tension, we breathe to relax and develop a longer calmer breath, we soothe the nervous system and pacify the mind.

3. Develop super strength to face stress

Whilst it might feel good to rest and relax in times of high stress, and perhaps this may be what we initially need, we also need to make ourselves strong to deal with life challenges.

Yoga provides plenty of tools to increase our energy, make our bodies stronger, build confidence, resilience, and improve the functioning of our physiological systems (e.g. immune, endocrine, nervous system).

4. Change your attitude

Taking a leaf from Dr Seligman’s book, we can develop our ability to face stress and be more aware of how we perceive stressful situations. The practice of mindfulness and mindfulness meditation helps us to recognise and observe our thought patterns.
We connect with our inner resources and see things more clearly, becoming more accepting of what is, and flexible and adaptive in the face of the constant change and challenge. We can learn to respond in helpful ways rather than reacting. We can reduce our suffering.

5. Make the time for your health and wellbeing

You don’t need to become a monk and meditate for hours on end or do 2 hours of yoga to receive the benefits. It could be a simple as 15 minutes after work doing a few key yoga postures to release tension from the day, or a 5 minutes breathing practice in bed to start the day with a calm mind.

Yoga is flexible and goes with you anywhere – it’s knowing what you need and what is the right application of yoga at that time. Think about rescheduling some of your time spent on Facebook or surfing the net to make time for yoga.

We CAN take charge and empower ourselves with the ability to deal with change, to learn how to cope more effectively and reduce the impacts of stress on our lives.

Try them out – I would love to hear how they work for you.