Stress: it’s harmful, it’s agonizing, and it’s ubiquitous. Unfortunately, the modern life is not exactly conducive to a strong, healthy nervous system. Modern living necessitates long commutes, sedentary living, consuming processed foods for the sake of convenience, staying up late, waking up early, sitting in traffic, and more. Even the lights on our phones and computers induce the secretion of stress hormones in the body! Both physical and psychological stress are difficult to “turn off,” so to speak. Thankfully, there are many tips from Ayurveda for stress relief.
The Source of Stress, According to Ayurveda
According to Ayurvedic philosophy, physical and mental stress are the result of bodily imbalance. An imbalance in our doshas, the life force energies, or in our Agni, the digestive fire, causes physical and mental disturbances that generate stress. This stress may manifest as insomnia, anxiety, digestive upset, depression, and rapid heart rate, among other ailments. Further, it can in turn contribute to chronic conditions by disturbing the balance of microflora in the gut, impairing immunity, and undermining reproductive health. Those who experience chronic stress are therefore likely to encounter fatigue, depression, pain, skin irritation, illness, and, over the long term, serious conditions like adrenal dysfunction, hypothyroidism, and even cancer.
The reason that physical and psychological stress are conducive to disease is that they trigger the release of the hormone cortisol. The body releases cortisol in the event of a major stressor to motivate the fight-or-flight response. When our bodies secrete cortisol, we experience a surge of physical energy designed to fuel our fight against, or flee from, a threat. In order to make energy available for fighting or running, cortisol shuts off multiple other bodily functions.
Cortisol secretion is an evolved, adaptive response to danger and the reason that our species survived. However, in modern times, the stress response is rather maladaptive. We are exposed to stressors constantly. Our bodies cannot discern the difference between minor stressors and a threat to life. Thus, in response to insignificant daily stressors, our bodies are constantly secreting cortisol, shutting down the digestive system, suppressing immunity, and disabling the proper functioning of other critical bodily systems.
Ayurveda for Stress: Strengthen and Nourish
In order to tame the cortisol response and ease stress, Ayurveda recommends that we seek to restore balance. Ayurveda for stress maintains that like increases like and opposites balance. Thus, in order to establish balance, it is critical to introduce qualities opposite to those that characterize the stress response. Foods and activities that are strengthening and nourishing effectively counteract stress and anxiety.
One of the primary mediums for introducing strength and nourishment is through diet. Heavy and oily foods are considered strengthening and nourishing. Eating stir fries, soups, and stews that are warm and dense are grounding and soothing. Choosing oils that are rich in omega 3 fats is particularly beneficial, as they will tame the inflammation that cortisol creates. Try consuming kitchari or warm milk with ghee.
Another quality that opposes those of the stress response is stability. Ayurveda for stress recommends practicing dinacharya, the Sanskrit word for “following the rhythm of the day.” Establishing daily routines makes your life more predictable, creating stability.
Our bodies evolved to function in accordance with sun cycles, developing intuitive circadian rhythms. They also evolved to adapt to seasonal changes. The emergence of technology and changes in our economy have led us astray from our intuitive rhythms. We drink caffeine to stay awake finishing projects, or we stay up on our phones, which produce blue light that impairs our ability to produce the sleep hormone melatonin. Establishing a daily routine of rising with the sun, eating, working, and exercising at regular times, and going to sleep just after sunset helps us rekindle our natural rhythms, thereby restoring hormonal and digestive patterns that have been disrupted.
Taking time to slow down and relax is another great way to restore a sense of stability. Take a hot bath, get an Ayurvedic massage, or smell soothing essential oils. Take time to walk in nature. Set aside a day to spend quality time with family and friends to foster healthy, stable relationships. Slow down to enjoy small beauties and appreciate the intelligent simplicity of the natural world.
Ayurveda for stress recommends incorporating regular exercise into your dinacharya practice to ease the mind and body. Regular exercise balances the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. It also encourages elimination and stimulates the lymphatic system, detoxifying the body to alleviate stress-inducing inflammation. Exercise promotes sound sleep, supporting the natural circadian rhythm, and provides the energy and concentration necessary for maintaining other rhythms and schedules.
It is important to keep in mind, though, that overdoing exercise can actually have the converse effect. Excessive exercise can lead to chronic cortisol elevation and, by extension, chronic stress and fatigue. It’s also important to remember that different doshas respond favorably to different types of exercise. Whereas kapha types benefit from vigorous exercise, vata types may find intense exercise overstimulating or draining.
Generally speaking, vata and pitta pacifying exercises like yoga and light cardio are good for stress relief. Yoga can also help to re-establish doshic balance. In combination with pranayama and meditation, yoga helps to release the buildup of toxic substances called ama, relieving physical pain and psychological stress while restoring alignment and reinvigorating the strength and circulation of life energy, or prana.
Believe it or not, acting with gratitude can actually have a significant impact on your health. In fact, ancient Ayurvedic texts actually list acts of service to others as a remedy for stress and poor health. Performing selfless acts in the service of others helps you to get outside of yourself, so to speak, and gain perspective on your worries and your life.
Karma Yoga is another great way to live mindfully and reduce anxiety. Many people are under the impression that Karma Yoga, like Hatha Yoga, is a purely physical practice. But Karma Yoga is actually sattvic action, an act that brings truth to light and inspires humility. Indeed, “Karma” is actually the Sanskrit word for action. Karma Yoga encourages us to revel in the action, to work out of gratitude and not just in the interest of achieving a particular end. When you learn to appreciate processes without identifying with the results they generate, life becomes less stressful and more gratifying. You become capable of releasing the egoistic desire for control that is so conducive to stress and anxiety.