STRESS & AYURVEDA

Ayurveda attributes the feeling of stress to the state of “attention-captured” as opposed to “attention-open”.

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Based on the way we’re wired, we react to life events with fear or anger the thoughts and emotions in our mind create stress in our body. Our blood pressure rises, our pulse rate increases, our muscles tense, our exhalations become shortened, and our adrenal gland produces surges of stress hormones including adrenalin and cortisol. It’s our primordial human fight-or-flight response originally developed to protect our cave-dwelling ancestors from attacking dinosaurs. But today there are no tyrannosaurus in our bedrooms threatening our lives—only our own perceptions which make us think and feel that our lives are being threatened.

Do not underestimate the power of your thoughts and emotions. While your thoughts may seem flimsy in comparison with a seven-ton vicious dinosaur, they clearly have enormous command over us. If something occurs that opposes your idea of how things should be, you will perceive danger, injustice, anger, or tragedy whether real or imagined. Recent studies show that chronic stress accelerates aging and can make you more likely to develop a serious illness, including heart disease, stomach ulcers, autoimmune diseases, cancer, insomnia, migraine headaches, panic attacks, anxiety, and depression.

Ayurveda provides us with several valuable practices that can help you avoid inappropriately launching your fight-or-flight response. You can learn to experience a more even, calm response–a mind-body state that is as natural as the stress response, but infinitely more peaceful and satisfying.

1. Recognize Your Unique Response to Stress. One’s constitution (or prakriti) determines to a great extent how stress will manifest in you. Here is how stress generally reveals itself in the three main Ayurvedic constitutions:

  • Vata: Those with predominantly Vata constitutions have the greatest tendency toward anxiety, worry and fear. Normally creative and enthusiastic, in the face of stress, Vata individuals tend to blame themselves for their problems and become extremely nervous and scattered.

  • Pitta: Pitta types are usually warm, humorous and affectionate, but if they’re out of balance, typically react to stress by finding fault with other people, feeling frustrated and out of control, and becoming angry.

  • Kapha: The most unflappable and steady constitution is Kapha who are usually easygoing and gentle. However when faced with overwhelming conflict or stress, they may withdraw, procrastinate or refuse to deal with the situation.

2. The Attention Exercise. The Present Moment. While the mind is continually darting to thoughts of the future and recollections of the past, the body and its five senses live in the only moment that truly exists: the present. The present moment is always calm and free. One of the best ways to relieve stress and enter the present moment is to connect with one or more of your senses. Sit comfortably and allow yourself to feel all your bodily sensations, including ones that your mind identifies as uncomfortable, such as low back pain, low-grade headache, nasal stuffiness, chilly, etc. Simply become aware of all the sensory inputs at any given moment—the sensations, smells, sights, tastes, and especially all the different sounds. Sit in quiet awareness without even naming these phenomena for up to two minutes three times daily.

3. Meditation. The mind, being midway between the five senses and the universal spirit (paramatman), has a dual nature, viz. it is pulled by sense objects outside and also pulled by the yearning for perfection from within. Meditation is a process by which the mind detaches from the five senses and their respective objects. When the mind is drawn the mind away from the objects of sense it naturally can connect to the only other realm it knows: the perfection of the spirit. The main forms of meditation include (1) concentration on an external point, symbol, sound, or image; (2) concentration on an internal point, symbol, sound, or image; (3) restful awareness of universal existence. It is sometimes helpful to appoint a room or a specific area in your home as your meditation space and sanctuary from stress. Studies have found that a daily meditation practice can lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, decrease anxiety and depression, and reverse the biological markers of aging.

4. Yoga Asana Practice. Yoga asana is another timeless healing practice for releasing stress and the damaging effects of the fight-or-flight response. Not only is yoga an excellent physical exercise that increases your flexibility and strength, but it also balances the mind, calms the nervous system, increases the production of stress-relieving hormones, and promotes detoxification. With a regular practice, you begin to cultivate a sense of calm and awareness that in your daily life. You gradually stop dwelling on stressful thoughts and feel more accepting and joyful, even in the face of life’s inevitable difficulties.

5. Learn to Release Negative Thoughts. In moments of stress, think about something positive. Live an honest life and try to see yourself in everyone, even those who are mean or difficult. Speak and act appropriately and keep the mind free from negativity. We overwhelm ourselves with negative thoughts during high stress periods. Ayurveda gives us a remarkable tool for this purpose known as pratipaksha bhawana which you can read about by clicking on it.

6. Use Essential Oils. There are many essential oils you can use in your bath, shower or even spray in your room to help relax you. Some examples include lavender, orange, lemon, geranium, cinnamon, neroli, vanilla and clove. We did a Ayurveda.md aromatherapy study several years ago which measured EEG activity which supported the anxiety-reducing activities of several essential oils. A more recent study in the Journal of the Korean Academy of Nursing (June 2009) found reductions in stress markers which included stress and anxiety self assessments, blood pressure, pulse rate, and cortisol levels. The study used bergamot oil, derived from orange peel. This is one of many studies examining the effects of aromatherapy on stress.

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