If you are a researcher, you are probably driven by ambition to understand the unknown, and deadlines. Do you recognize the stressful moments – when your head is too full of stuff? If this pressure keeps building, however, your body will let you know in less pleasant ways. Studies show that yoga is one potential answer to the question of “how to relieve stress”. This is why, in my view, yoga is especially important for those who sit a lot during their work. In this post, we take a deep dive into stress. And more importantly, we go into the scientific ways to relieve stress with yoga and the pathways for how the body does this. We also discuss some of the evidence that is still needed on this topic. This way, this article aims to make the whole yoga and stress link a bit more tangible.
How stress works in your body.
First, we need a basic idea of how stress works in the body. Your body has an evolved way to deal with stressful situations. For example, when a car approaches very fast or when you are swamped with work.
When something stressful happens, the hypothalamus takes over and activates the sympathetic nervous system. Adrenaline is released to make sure that the body can fight (or fly) from the situation. For example, the heart rate increases to ensure oxygen flows to all the important body parts.
After the initial response, the hypothalamus activates the HPA axis. This system produces stress hormones such as cortisol to keep the body on high alert. At first, stress helps us deal with situations in a good way as it protects us from dangerous situations. So far, so good. However, what is the bad news about stress?
But what happens when stress stays longer?
Stress may work against you. For example, when you are unable to stop the stress response. This can happen when you are constantly thinking about things that are happening at work. However, this changes when we are in stressful situations for long periods of time. Extreme or lengthy episodes of stress can derail the stress system. This keeps the HPA axis activated and produces stress hormones.
Did you know that longer periods of stress are associated with a whole array of negative outcomes? In the short term, higher stress levels lead up to a feeling of overwhelm and sleep loss. However, there have been many studies showing that stress is associated with negative health in the long term. For example, weight gain, burnout, heart disease, and cancer.
As stress is an important factor in these diseases, there should be a focus on stress management. Yoga is one potential way to find some relief for maintaining stress. And just as a side note: Yogademics can help with this. You can learn about how to start with a yoga practice here. We also offer our work shorts and our YouTube videos and there is a course coming up soon.
Why yoga would help to relieve stress
The word “yoga” stems from a Sanskrit word meaning union, or “to join”. Why is this translation important for stress? In yoga, we join the body with the mind. Thus, yoga is often described as a mind-body exercise as you’re engaging in muscular activity while simultaneously, directing your focus inward. The latter is done, for example, by directing your attention towards yourself and your breath. The combination of exercising mind and body at the same time makes yoga unique. This is highly effective in decreasing stress that builds up over time, even without us being aware of it). As such, many studies have seen positive effects of yoga on symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression. So, what actually happens when you make time for this mind-body exercise?
What yoga does with the body
Yoga shifts the balance from the sympathetic nervous system (flight-or-fight response) to the parasympathetic system (relaxation). The latter is calming and takes care of restoring the body. For example, it slows down the breath and heart rate. It also lowers blood pressure and cortisol, and improves blood flow to your vital organs. Research just starts to understand why this happens. Most of the studies out there are still theories that need proof. However, some studies do show psychological and biological markers that help understand how the body restores the stress levels when doing yoga.
Biological ways how yoga relieves stress
As discussed above, yoga decreases the stress response. Next, we go a little deeper into the biological ways through which yoga relieves stress in the body. I’ll try to keep it basic. For more details, I’d suggest you read this review!
- The activity of the hypothalamus and HPA-axis. (You remember? That is the system in our body that regulates stress). Yoga inhibits its response and thus, inhibits a stress reaction. However, this evidence is still gaining traction.
- Lower cortisol. Studies in the systematic review showed that yoga was associated with immediate lower cortisol levels. So, less stress. To be fair, cortisol levels are associated with many factors and can be measured in different ways.
- Studies show that yoga has a positive effect on immune response during periods of stress. This basically means yoga offers better protection from an illness during stressful periods.
- There is strong evidence that yoga decreases stress-related measures such as heart rate and blood pressure.
Psychological ways how yoga relieves stress
Yoga has positive effects on your psychological wellbeing. There are many studies on the psychological ways that yoga helps to reduce stress. These ways include:
- Yoga increases mindfulness, which reduces stress. This is when you are aware of what is happening in the present. Most studies investigating the link between yoga and stress have focused on exactly this mechanism.
- Another (proven) way that yoga is linked with stress is through self-compassion. In simple terms, this means that you are kind to and care about yourself. You may recognize this scenario if you do yoga. During my first class ever, I expected that I needed to be fully flexible and be able to do all the poses. I soon learned that this was not the case. In fact, the teacher of that class showed me how to do these poses in a way that I was gentle to myself.
Psychological ways that need more research
There are other ways through which yoga reduces stress. However, these were not studied yet. For example,
• Yoga may change your attitude toward stress. Thereby, you start viewing life and stress more positively.
• Similarly, yoga might be a better way to deal with stress. For instance, one study showed that yoga helped medical students to better cope with high-stress situations in their work.
• Lastly, yoga might help to feel more in control over oneself. Staying in yoga poses can be quite tough on the body sometimes and you start to look for escapes. Learning how to breathe through these poses can help you feel in more control of yourself.
How much yoga should you do?
You might feel like trying to relieve stress with yoga. At the same time, you are wondering how much of it you should actually do. And which yoga style would be most beneficial? In short: there is no strong uniform evidence about the frequency and length of the yoga practice and its relation to stress. At first, I would suggest starting with one or maybe two yoga classes per week. Then, gradually building this up to a more regular practice. The general rule is: the more the better. Of course, while taking into account how your body feels. Gently fit this mind-body exercise within your lifestyle. Read this if you would like some information about how to start your first yoga class today!