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’.

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.