In my journey as a yoga teacher, I always try to be updated about health, wellness, and other subjects that can enrich my practice and share with my students. I have noticed that more and more scientific studies are being published that show the benefits of yoga to treat diseases of the most varied origins.

One of them, I have seen advancing outside the classroom and in the students that enter the classroom, is stress. I attribute this growth to modern life, which overloads and imbalances our physiological functions and our general state of health. This modern evil can trigger numerous diseases from heart disease to cancer.

Yoga is effective in mitigating the effects of stress as the practice helps maintain homeostasis and physical and mental harmony. Yes, reducing negative emotional states helps minimize the health effects of stress. I am not saying that we should eliminate all stress from our lives because that would be impossible and not good for our health.

There is a positive version of stress, eustress, that can motivate us and make us happier. This is unlike the negative variety of stress, distress, which causes fear and anxiety and puts us in a state of high alert, reducing our ability to cope and react effectively to stressors.

A daily amount of positive stress will not harm you and can even improve your health. One of my recommendations for adding positive stress to your life is establishing the habit of taking cold showers. Despite the discomfort in the first few days, over time, the body gets used to it. From a neuroplastic point of view, this happens because the brain starts to recognize a cold shower as something good.

Have you ever stopped to think about what happens to us when we are stressed? In these moments we send a message to the nervous system that is activated via neural connections. At this instant, physiological, emotional, and behavioral reactions occur. Doses of noradrenaline, dopamine, serotonin, and cortisol are released according to the individual’s emotional state. At this moment, each person reacts in their own way. Some become paralyzed, others fight or flee, and then our bodies return to normal.

This is a natural response. Although, if stress happens too often, we get stuck in this state and develop chronic stress. Chronic stress involves higher levels of hormones known to damage our well-being and trigger diseases.

In a way, through the experience of chronic stress, we can understand that nature is always very adaptable, and very malleable. When something in us realizes that stress will not go away, we accept chronic stress as normal. This is the moment when the illness starts to happen.

It doesn’t need to be this way though, we can channel our adaptive capacities to build health, rather than foster illness and disease. it is essential that you learn to deal with stress, know how to be resilient to it, and become healthier.

So the important thing is not to try to contain the phenomenon of stress, but to have mechanisms that allow us to manage it regularly. Stress can almost always be very positive as long as it doesn’t become chronic and thus sickening.

Yoga practice can help you live well, even in the face of stressors, because the yogi learns to operate in a balanced frequency and to get rid of the common belief that human beings do not develop better when experiencing chronic stress. Living this way is unsustainable. The good news is we can learn new ways to live well.

In the following pages, I list some scientific studies that give us some clues on how to act to improve your relationship with stress. Some of them explore how yoga can contribute to overcoming stressful situations.

Happy reading.

The effects of stress on your body

Stress affects every system and organ in our body, although we often only experience certain aspects of it. Shortness of breath, shaking, heart palpitation, headaches or stomachaches, and muscle tension are some of the physical symptoms that most people attribute to stress. Then there are the emotional or cognitive symptoms related to stress such as anxiety, depression, and attentional issues.

Of course, these manifestations vary from individual to individual, but the effects can be profound and often we don’t associate our physiological responses with the stresses and strains of everyday life.

As I said above, in stressful situations our brain releases large doses of hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine, promoting physiological changes. These are the well-known fight-or-flight reactions that help us respond to the dangers that surround us, even if they are not always life-threatening.

In fact, for most people stress is not arising from life-threatening situations or even major life events, but through everyday life. We experience daily doses of stress from work pressure, lack of work, our economic situation, and personal and emotional issues. These silent doses can build up until they explode into chronic stress and affect our body’s organs and systems.

Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, director of the Behavioral Medicine Research Institute at The Ohio State University College of Medicine, said in an interview with The Washington Post, that people know what the big stressors they face, but they don’t pay attention to the smaller ones that accumulate and can affect their health. The report listed the effects of stress throughout the body.

On the Brain:
According to Wendy Suzuki, professor of neuroscience and psychology at New York University and author of Good Anxiety: Harnessing the Power of the Most Misunderstood Emotion, acute forms of stress can be beneficial in the short term because it causes the brain to release the hormones that motivate us and increase our focus and performance. However, if cortisol levels – a characteristic of chronic stress and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – remain high, this can interfere with and damage the brain’s hippocampus, the region responsible for long-term memory. If the condition is prolonged, the prefrontal cortex of the brain is affected and impairs our capacity for cognitive processes that help us organize, plan, solve problems, and even control impulses.

In the Cardiovascular System:
In times of acute stress our heart rate speeds up and our blood pressure rises as part of the preparation to fight or escape the threat. Outside of risk, these functions should return to normal levels, but this is not what happens in the modern world, as we are always faced with new sources of stress. Long-term exposure to chronic stress can cause high blood pressure, increased body fat, insulin resistance, and systemic inflammation processes, according to Ahmed Tawakol, co-director of the Center for Cardiovascular Research and director of nuclear cardiology at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. The longer you spend in this situation, the greater the risk of developing heart issues, as there can be a narrowing of blood vessels and increased blood clotting.

On the Respiratory System:
Stress causes the sympathetic nervous system to speed up, promoting a discharge of hormones that speed up breathing. If you can’t catch your breath, you will have difficulty properly getting rid of carbon dioxide in the blood and will feel dizzy and lightheaded. Stress, acute or chronic, can cause asthma attacks or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).

On the Immune System:
If stress lasts for a long period of time, it can disrupt the immune system because of increased levels of hormones, such as cortisol. Kiecolt-Glaser explains that under stress we have a release of pro-inflammatory cytokines that affect immune function. Elevated inflammation is at the root of numerous cardiovascular diseases and dementia. Even though our body is capable of reacting to inflammatory processes and healing itself, if they become frequent or chronic, they can spread to healthy cells and increase the propensity for infectious and slower healing diseases.

In the Gastrointestinal System:
Another symptom of stress is deregulation of the gut and nausea, bloating, or constipation. In addition, it alters the gut microbiome which triggers inflammatory or hormonal responses, because the intestinal barrier does not function properly, and food by-products can escape from the intestinal tract into the circulation. Thus irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease develop. Gastroenterologist Cindy Yoshida, professor of medicine at the University of Virginia Health System in Charlottesville, in a 2020 study, found that psychological stress was related to flare-ups of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis among 1078 people with inflammatory bowel disease.

On the Skin:
The human body’s largest organ is not immune to the effect of stress, as evidenced by reports of people who say they suffer from acne or eczema at times of stress. According to Rick Fried, dermatologist, clinical psychologist, and clinical director of Yardley Dermatology Associates and the Yardley Research Clinic in Pennsylvania, the skin has its own immune system that constantly interacts with the brain. So when a person experiences stress, this system is activated and can lead to inflammations such as rosacea, psoriasis, hives, and eczema. Another symptom is increased oiliness because stress hormones cause the sebaceous glands to produce more oil.

Be resilient to overcome stress

Stress can cause extensive damage to our systems, thus it is essential to consider the danger that this enemy of modern society poses in your life, if not addressed. Italian researchers Laura Musazzi, Paolo Tornese, Nathalie Sala, and Maurizio Popoli reported in a scientific article that a good part of neuropsychiatric disorders such as depression, mood, and anxiety are related to stress, including diseases such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The latter is the result of a combination of genetics and adverse events.

According to them, each individual responds differently to the pressures of life and stress. If for some people it is a stimulus to improve and increase cognitive ability, for others it is difficult to adapt to environmental changes, both because of genetic characteristics and their personal histories. The more exposure to strong or repeated stressful situations, the greater the difficulty to react. In these cases, in addition to mental illnesses, cardiovascular and metabolic diseases are possible.

The scientists also described that a single exposure to traumatic stressors is enough to trigger a neuropsychiatric disorder. As an example, they cited the residents of L’Aquila, Italy, who in April 2009 experienced the terror of an earthquake measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale. The quake was so strong that it destroyed houses and buildings and killed 309 people, injuring 1600 others.

Ten months later, 900 survivors participated in a study to identify Post Traumatic Stress and the results showed that 41.3% reported symptoms of this disorder which is one of the most studied, frequent, and debilitating. It is usually related to a deep stress caused by a sudden incident, such as the earthquake that hit the Italian city.

The different reactions to stress intrigue researchers, especially to understand resilient versus vulnerable responses. Resilience, which depends on genetics and environmental factors, is an active process that occurs because of brain neuroplasticity that allows a new balance in the environment to be achieved. In other words, resilience is when we adapt to change.

Vulnerability also has a genetic background and stems from previous adverse life events, which through epigenetic changes can alter the shape of the future stress response. Understanding how to be more resilient to stress is the path that researchers believe is best for developing more effective treatments for stress-related disorders. With the help of natural mechanisms, they argue, it is better than the action of traditional drugs like antidepressants.

Another group of researchers reviewed several scientific studies to understand how the neural mechanisms of resilience and vulnerability to stress work and how they are established at behavioral, cellular, and molecular levels. After all, each of us reacts differently to stressful events and others may develop sequelae for a long period of time. Tamara B. Franklin, Bechara J. Saab, and Isabelle M. Mansuy agree that some individuals fail to adapt to stressors and give inappropriate responses that impair restoration, making the stress state persistent. These have higher levels of vulnerability and do not adapt well to adverse situations.

Resilient people, on the other hand, perceive adversity yet soon develop physiological and psychological responses to adapt to it, even in the long term. They explain that coping style varies between individuals and situations, and influences the neuroendocrine and neuroimmunological systems that are activated in response to stress.

In the review, the scientists explain that the anatomical and functional connectivity of the brain determines how resilient or vulnerable an individual copes with stress. The neuroendocrine system is strongly related to each person’s reaction, as it has variable functions that alternate these responses. This is because the HPA axis (hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal) regulates many systems in the body, such as the metabolic, cardiovascular, immune, reproductive, and central nervous systems.

The differential activity of the HPA axis, the researchers point out, is related to gender differences in response to stress: several disorders are more prevalent in women than in men. In a study of people who have experienced major trauma and similar stressors in their life, the specialists found that 31% of women develop PTSD; in men, the rate is only 19%.

Throughout the review, the researchers go through numerous systems and areas of the brain that are affected or modulated by stress hormones, but it caught my attention when they discuss epigenetic mechanisms in resilience and vulnerability to stress.

According to them, in addition to specific neural mechanisms and pathways that modulate HPA activity, neurotransmission, and signaling, resilience and vulnerability involve processes at the level of chromatin – DNA double strand and histone proteins – and genetic and epigenetic factors that together control the expression of genes critical for stress regulation.

By looking at decades of research in human genetics, they have found that complex brain diseases depend on a combination of genetic and environmental factors. In this tangle of knowledge, risk factors for vulnerability or resilience to stress have been identified, but epigenetic mechanisms, they say, are now also recognized as strong candidates for gene-environment interactions that affect stress.
gene-environment interactions that affect stress response.

Importantly, epigenetics is the set of processes that induce mitotic or meiotic heritable changes in gene expression without altering the DNA sequence itself, the scientists describe. They clarify that epigenetic mechanisms occur primarily in chromatin and involve several extremely technical mechanisms, such as DNA methylation, and covalent histone post-translational modifications (HPTMs), among others.

What is known is that these mechanisms can act both individually and in synergy with others to modulate chromatin structure and are very dynamic and can be influenced by environmental factors such as diet, social environments, and stress. Their dysregulation has been implicated in stress-related neurodevelopmental and psychopathological disorders. For them, there is still much to be unraveled
about how epigenetic changes are triggered, and maintained in the brain and the gametes, and whether they can be reversed to mitigate the effects of stress. However, there is a good indication that this is possible.

The fact is that the varied responses of individuals to stress are due to complex and sometimes indeterminate genetic and environmental factors that interact and cause these particularities. In the review, it was noted that the mechanisms that establish resilience or vulnerability likely operate throughout life, but may operate differently and affect distinct neural pathways at varying stages of development and into adulthood.

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