Move to overcome the impact of stress on health
Another enlightening article on the physiology of stress that I came across was from the Neuroepigenetics Research Group in the School of Clinical Sciences at the University of Bristol in England. In the text, the researchers show what role glucocorticoid hormones play in resilience, what are the recently discovered mechanisms that help regulate their availability, the epigenetic influence, and the contribution of physical activity to increase resilience to stress.
Glucocorticoids are hormones that play an essential role in individuals’ response to stressors, but increased secretion of glucocorticoids following risk situations can be detrimental to health. Hyper- or hyposecretion is related to the development of metabolic, immunological, endocrine, and neuropsychiatric disorders. Stress-related psychiatric disorders can be major depression and anxiety disorders, for example, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Genetic traits and traumatic events early in life can increase the likelihood that a person will develop psychiatric illnesses, scholars say. However, there is evidence that a physically active lifestyle can strengthen resilience. They concluded that long-term physical activity causes changes in the control of the HPA axis, sleep, and anxiety. We yogis know the power of consistent practice for our longevity.
Going back to the article, the researchers said that the glucocorticoid dual-binding receptor system regulates physiological responses, including endocrine and autonomic, and behavioral responses under stress conditions. Thus, it maintains homeostasis and facilitates long-term adaptation, which is nothing more than the body’s resilience. Each person’s ability to cope and adapt to stressors is influenced by lifestyle, genetic vulnerability, and personal history.
We know that each person decides how they want to lead their own life, but prioritizing health is a fundamental factor in keeping well both physically and mentally. Scientists have shown in their studies that it is necessary to exercise regularly to have better cardiovascular health and not alter other functions of our body. According to them, many physical activities, such as yoga and meditation, are advisable.
Many studies show the impact of physical activities on the molecular, cellular, physiological, and behavioral levels, i.e. they have a profound effect on many functions of the body. In the long term, exercise affects the physiological system, such as the HPA axis, the sympathetic nervous system, and sleep regulation. As a mechanism to adapt to stress, physical activity outperforms the use of drugs, not least because it has no adverse effects.
In adulthood, according to the British researchers, resilience is impaired by times of chronic depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other mental disorders. Many individuals develop chronic depression due to adversity experienced in childhood, such as parental neglect and physical or sexual abuse. When analyzing some studies, they concluded that a troubled childhood can make a person, in adulthood, to live with mood disorders, anxiety, bipolar disorder, PTSD, ADHD, and alcohol and/or drug use among other issues.
However, according to the Connor-Davidson Resilience Scale, the presence of resilience characteristics such as robustness, tenacity, and adaptability may diminish the negative effect of early childhood stress on some of these disorders. Studies show that the physiological effects of childhood trauma on the stress coping systems – the HPA axis – show that complex changes occur in both the response of this hormone and the hormone ACTH – produced by the pituitary gland and responsible for stimulating the production of cortisol, aldosterone, and androgens – in circulating levels of glucocorticoids.
Some studies say that long-term changes in the function of the HPA axis caused by childhood trauma are related to changes in the epigenome. There is evidence of an epigenetic link between these experiences in early life to lifelong changes that occur because of HPA axis function.
Interestingly, some scholars of human development argue that early experiences can enhance the ability to adapt to adverse situations. This is the psychiatric illness matching/incompatibility hypothesis. It suggests that individuals are best adapted to an environment that matches their early life experience. Thus, although childhood stress causes long-term changes in the HPA axis and stress responses, it is possible to improve resilience in adulthood. There is still much to be studied on the topic and to evaluate which environmental and social factors contribute to confirm this hypothesis, but it demonstrates the diversity of human behavior in the face of trauma.
Another interesting finding came from American researchers Susan K. Wood and Seema Bhatnagar. They reviewed studies on social stress models in which individuals’ different strategies to respond to the situation produce resilience or vulnerability.
They argue that socially stressful events such as bullying, the death of a loved one, or psychological abuse contribute to the development of psychopathologies. However, the pathogenic potential is not limited to the severity of the event, but also to how the person reacted. Even if one experiences a common stressor, some become more resilient while others become vulnerable.
One example cited in the article is of a group of American veterans who were exposed to many traumas throughout their lives, but by adulthood, 70% of them were resilient. This characteristic can be explained by the way each of us deals with stress.
Some have an active (or proactive) response and use their own resources to minimize the physical, psychological or social damage of a situation. This behavior, in addition to being resilient to stress and symptoms of mental illness, is typical of individuals who have a sense of coherence in their lives or community and who exercise self-control by developing a strong sense of identity.
The researchers explain that not everyone adopts adaptive strategies such as those mentioned above. Some are passive (or reactive). These people have a profile marked by a feeling of helplessness, blame others for the solution to their own stress, and are more vulnerable. The distinction in decision-making between active and passive strategies impacts physiological and neuroendocrine outcomes.
One of these is freezing, a classic manifestation of passive coping. It is accompanied by low plasma levels of norepinephrine and high plasma levels of corticosterone. This behavior is also related to the high reactivity of the HPA axis. On the other hand, the active has low HPA axis reactivity and high sympathetic reactivity to stressful situations.
The diversity of stress responses in active versus passive coping individuals in the face of chronic stress can cause negative physiological and psychological consequences when the response is not adequate to reduce the effect of stress on the body.
The researchers raised that psychiatric disorders caused by stress, in addition to having effects on mental health, increase the risk of developing other comorbidities such as cardiovascular disease and hypertension. Social stress can also cause urological disorders. According to the researchers, cases of trauma or loss of a loved one have been reported to cause urinary retention in the patients studied.
How yoga contributes to resilience
Being resilient is to adapt positively or have the ability to maintain or regain physical and mental health, even when facing adverse situations throughout our lives. As we saw above, the point is not to run away from stress, because this is impossible, but to know how to deal with it. One of the resources is yoga, and I don’t say this just because of what I have experienced in classrooms throughout my life; some scientists have also considered the practice as a tool to mitigate the negative effects of stress.
A multidisciplinary group of researchers from Ohio University in the United States compared the inflammatory and endocrine responses of novice and experienced yoga practitioners before, during, and after a class. The goal was to understand whether the practice accelerated the individual’s recovery. After all, inflammation is an indicator of mortality from most diseases in the elderly, so preventing the onset of this process contributes to a person’s longevity.
It is well known that yoga contributes to reducing stress and has mental health benefits. The researchers pointed out that some studies report that the practice reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression because it decreases the activity of the sympathetic nervous system and increases vagal tone, factors that may have favorable endocrine and immunological consequences, including reduced inflammation.
They drew on a study that showed positive results for inflammation after heart failure patients practiced yoga for two months. The classes promoted a 22% reduction in Interleukin-6 (mediator of the inflammatory response) and a 20% reduction in CRP in patients, compared to others who had traditional medical care. Another group that took classes for 6 weeks, some with and some without coronary artery disease, had significant reductions in blood pressure, heart rate, and body mass index (BMI).
In the study conducted by the group, 50 healthy women were evaluated, 25 novices and 25 experienced. The yoga sessions were held after stressful events, so it was possible to examine whether the regular practice would have any reactivity to the stressor. An interesting detail is that the postures that comprised the classes were gentle for both novices and experienced practitioners.
At the end of the study, it was possible to identify that novice and experienced practitioners had different responses. One of them was the average level of interleukin-6 (which identifies violent inflammatory states): in novices, the index was 41% higher than in those who had already been practicing yoga for some years. To the researchers, this data suggests that regular yoga practice can reduce inflammation below levels predicted by risk factors such as age, abdominal fat, cardiorespiratory capacity, and depression.
Another very interesting topic I found was about how stress affects our immune response by Indian researchers, Sarika Arora and Jayashree Bhattacharjee. According to them, our immune system is a network of glands, nodes, and organs that work to protect the body from bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other health threats. When we are under stress, a complex network of signals between the central nervous, endocrine, and immune systems is compromised. The mediators of these interactions are mainly neurotransmitters, neuropeptides, hormones, and cytokines that, as we have already seen, have altered levels in stressful moments.
According to them, at the molecular level, our immunity is mediated by the release of cytokines in the immune system and endothelial cells. Stress alters the concentration of cytokines; when their production increases, it can cause inflammation, and when it stabilizes, it inhibits it. There are still other complex processes in the physiology of stress and its impact on human immunity that involve hormones, but I would like to focus on the relevance of this for understanding how yoga can reduce the damage of stress to our health.
The researchers reported that by proactively dealing with the stress of everyday life, we reduce the constant activation of the endocrine system, increasing the immune response. Their conclusion is based on psychoimmune studies that looked at the potential of hypnosis, relaxation, exercise to amplify coping capacity.
Yoga was also a source of the research, as the postures stretch and strengthen different parts of the body, massaging and circulating blood between internal organs while triggering the nervous system and lubricating joints. They reinforce that each asana can have a specific function and generate specific effects, but above all, yoga promotes stress relief.
This is precisely why it is an effective approach to dealing with the stress. This is because it inhibits the posterior or sympathetic area of the hypothalamus, improving the body’s response to stressors. The practice also reduces the activity of areas responsible for fear, aggression, and anger, stimulating reward centers in the medial forebrain and other areas. Thus, a sense of well-being is generated. As a result, the researchers claim that we feel less anxiety, our heart rate decreases, and blood pressure is regulated, among other benefits.
Maintain a healthy relationship with stress
Knowing how to deal with stress is essential to mitigating its effect on your health. Running away will do no good, as it is part of everyday life in modern society, so I recommend learning to manage the impact it can have on your brain, via the nervous system, to mitigate the activation of inflammatory processes and disease.
Stressful situations, big and small, are part of daily life, so you need to learn to be more resilient to calm your body’s response to these pressures. Remember that small stressors should also be considered because the accumulation is as damaging as major traumas. Recognize that negative and positive stress has only one purpose: to help you adapt to a situation.
We are all capable of coping with great demands, but we need to know how to counteract the effect of stress. As we saw above, some studies have recognized the value of yoga as a resource for relieving tension. This is because the practice is a therapy that integrates body and mind, improving the brain synapses that help regulate the entire body.
Through yoga postures you promote positive stress in each joint in a planned and safe manner, activating a resource to rescue the potential nature of each joint. As a consequence, the brain’s motor cortex is positively impacted and you enter into a process of self-education that increases your resilience. The regularity of the practice leads to a perennial state of relaxation, and the student learns to use the body in the most efficient way, as communication with the central nervous system is enhanced.
In this process, the brain understands the practice as something very good, and this message becomes dominant. Physiologically, this happens because of the peripheral nervous system, a kind of information system of the body, connected by nerves and ganglia. This communication generates signals that activate neurotransmitters (acetylcholine) in the synaptic cleft of the motor plate and interact with the muscle cell membrane, stimulating movement through muscle contraction.
Our motor cortex is a kind of map of the body in the brain. When you engage it properly, safely, and without activating defense mechanisms, there is a gradual expansion of the map in the frontal cerebral cortex. Thus, understimulated areas begin to reconnect with the rest of the body.
Within the Kaiut Yoga Method we understand that positive stress applied intelligently to one or several joints, or even to the whole body, including the organs, and lymphatic, circulatory, and nervous systems, is always positive. Yoga positions are positive external stressors that are in alignment with our nature. In restoring the resiliency of our joints, circulatory and all other systems in our body, we rescue our ancestral nature and experience improvement in our health and vitality.
In this process, the student needs emotional and intellectual support such as explanations, that help them to welcome the stress applied by the yoga position and practice overall. The student becomes mentally and emotionally resilient in the face of stressful situations—this helps them cope better with the stressful situations of everyday life. They learn to deal with stress in a positive way, so that, in a way, stress, what its cause and nature, is only a positive in their life.
The Kaiut Yoga Method is a resource for overcoming the chronic stress of modern life. The simple and subtle practice helps the body adapt to stimuli little by little. The more stimulation your body receives, perceived from the right perspective, the better your health will be. This is how we enter into a continuous progression of neural connectivity that develops in the student a taste for the practice of yoga, and begins to recognize the benefit of deeper positive stress. The combination of postures and breathing has a direct action on the nervous system, regulating all our functions, including those impacted by stress. It’s as if we create a barrier that doesn’t let stressful situations throw our body off balance.
The longer you dedicate yourself to the practice, the more resilient you become to adverse situations. This is how your health improves, increasing your quality of life and longevity. Through yoga, you can live with stress, but without distress!