What is Stress?

“Stress” is an undeniable part of our busy everyday modern lives. But can “stress” predispose you to heart disease? “Stress” or a better word “Stressor”, in and of itself does not “cause” disease. However, how we respond to stress plays a significant role in our health.

Stress is often referred to as either Acute or Chronic. Acute stress is generally considered to have occurred within the last week. Examples of acute stress are natural disasters, a recent death in the family or undergoing major surgery. Chronic stress, the topic of this blog, can be ongoing or perceived to be ongoing. Examples of chronic stress include concerns about family, job, relationships, and finances.

There is now overwhelming evidence that unbridled chronic stress can have adverse effects on the body and contribute not only to Heart Disease but many other medical conditions such as Hypertension, Diabetes, Asthma, Depression, Anxiety, Gastrointestinal Problems, and Cancer.

A Little Science

Our nervous system is wired to protect us in the setting of an acute stress ( a real danger) – think oncoming car or predator!

The Autonomic Nervous System has two branches, the Sympathetic Nervous System(SNS) and Parasympathetic Nervous System(PNS). This network of nerve fibers connects the brain to various organs and the two branches generally work together to bring about a balanced Autonomic Nervous System.

The Sympathetic Nervous System(SNS) is responsible for the fight-flight-or-freeze response. This response is about survival and was used by our prehistoric ancestors to respond instantaneously to a predator.

The Parasympathetic Nervous System is responsible for the Relaxation Response. It tells the body, OK, you can relax now. The danger has passed. No need to be on alert anymore.

When the brain perceives danger, it activates the Sympathetic Nervous System. This results in a release of adrenaline to the vital organs needed, telling the heart to beat faster, lungs increase breathing capacity and blood flow is diverted away from most other organs to the skeletal muscles so you can run faster.

As the initial surge of adrenalin subsides, the brain activates the adrenal glands to release Cortisol into the bloodstream. Cortisol is an important hormone that maintains our homeostasis – systems in check. Cortisol has many functions but two important functions are the control of Glucose and regulation of the Immune Function.

Chronic stress leads to excess Adrenaline and Cortisol. Excess Cortisol results in increased Glucose (i.e. Diabetes), High Blood Pressure, Weight Gain, Decreased Metabolism, Decreased Immune Function, and Sleep Deprivation.


Now, for the good news! You can do something about it!

While the “stressors” will always exist (work, family, money, health, etc), stress is often fueled by our thoughts. We have a tendency to perseverate and replay these “stress stories” to our detriment.

Yoga teaches us how to manage the incessant mind, what we sometimes refer to in yoga as the “monkey mind”.

Studies have shown that Meditation and Mindfulness practices significantly decrease the effects of stress on the body, including decreased Cortisol levels.

Yogic tools such as guided imagery, Pranayama (breath work) and meditation are used to relax the nervous system, which in turn calms the mind. Simply taking slow, deep breaths has profound effects on calming the mind.

Focusing on your breath and alignment during the physical Asana practice has a similar effect while drawing your attention inward and away from the “stress”. The final pose, Savasana, is also called Relaxation pose, and is not to be missed for here is the remedy!