- Understanding stress and its impact on us
- What happen when stress turns into distress?
- How stress leads to weight gain?
- How can yoga help and benefits in stress management?
Understanding Stress and its need in our survival
In times of stress, our body is often the least of our worries and priorities – we are focused instead on dealing with the stressful situation, reacting to it, or simply hoping that we would tide by soon. In psychological and physiological terms, stress refers to any situation or circumstance that exceeds the body’s resources and abilities to cope, which in turn leads to negative thoughts, feelings, and actions. Practically, this means that stress has a very broad definition. Indeed, many researchers today suggest that even positive events such as weddings and celebrations can be stressful and that what is stressful for one person may not be stressful for another.
To a certain degree, however, stress is considered as effective, and even necessary. Think about it. Without being anxious or worried about certain outcomes, you will never work to achieve or avoid them. This eustress can quickly turn into distress, however, as a natural human tendency (a leftover from our survival instincts) is to always assume the worst in order to protect our body and mind.
What happens when stress (eustress turns into distress)?
High levels of stress and continual levels of stress have been associated with a number of poor health outcomes. Stress leads to physical changes in the body, increasing heartbeat, oxygen consumption, diverting blood to the core organs of the body, and of course, the release of the stress hormones, all in the preparation of fight or flight. But overproduction of these symptoms and the stress hormone can lead to hypertension, fatigue, increased risk for heart problems, and even a compromised immune system. All of this means that the individual may fall more seriously sick more easily, which in turn means even more stress, thus creating vicious cycles of continued stress and suffering.
Stress, Cortisol and Weight gain
Another major way in which stress compromises health is by promoting weight gain. Cortisol, normally secreted by Adrenal glands, is a hormone released during times of stress, whose job is to ensure that the body has the energy it requires for the (apparent) upcoming fight. Cortisol stimulates fats, carbs, and insulin levels in the body to ensure that blood glucose levels are maintained, which in turn means that the individual feels more hungry. And unlike other stress hormones like epinephrine and norepinephrine, cortisol remains in the body longer, meaning that it has a longer impact on appetite, too. Then, anybody who has ever been stressed knows very well what ‘comfort foods’ are all about. These foods are usually densely packed with calories, highly processed junk foods, such as cookies, chips, or take-out foods, which indulge the individual and help them remember the good things in life. Well with current lifestyle and the environment we have stressors all day long and on top of it we don’t know how to bring ourselves back to normal mindset. As stress is prolonged, eating habits can thus also take a hit. Stress can also push an individual towards addictive substances such as cigarettes and alcohol, both of which can also push weight gain.
Additionally, cortisol reduces the production of testosterone, leading to reduction of muscle mass, in effect lower calories consumption in the body.
Then there are the usual suspects – poor sleep, no time to exercise, reduced social connections and desire to be active, etc. Thus, stress not only acts on its own to increase weight, but it also exaggerates the poor lifestyle choices that can lead to weight gain. Another important aspect, as per some of the studies, this fast is more likely to get deposited in your belly as compared to hips, leading to higher risks of many other disorders.
What to do next?
So, what can be done to avoid this? We wish the answer lay in simply making our stressful situations go away, but the truth of life is that we will always have situations that exceed our abilities to cope. Thus, instead of hoping for stress-less situations, we need to develop mechanisms and practices that effectively inoculate us against stress and help us deal with stressful situations in a productive and healthy manner when the need arises.
Yoga and Stress
For this, the answer lies not in medicine, but in lifestyle practices. And what better a lifestyle practice than Yoga for stress?
Numerous studies have time and again confirmed that yoga is an excellent practice for stress management. Firstly, the appeal lies in its practicality. Yoga asanas range from simple to complex, providing a good base for beginners and great challenge for experts. Meditation and breathing exercises can be taken up virtually anywhere, even in stressful situations such as traffic jams. As an activity that works both the mind and the body, and the link between the two, yoga and meditation can effectively tackle all the negative consequences of stress.
Yoga also works in multiple ways to reduce stress. Firstly, it provides you with time and space where you can forget about your problems, and focus instead on your mind and body. The stretching involved in yoga releases the tautness from your muscles, thus helping you feel relaxed. Endorphins, the feel-good hormones, are also released with vigorous yoga. As yoga practice continues, the heart rate variability increases and stress levels in the body drop, thus increasing the body’s capacity to withstand stress.
A pack and parcel of yoga is breath control. Deep, conscious breathing has been proven as an effective way of bringing the body back from the sympathetic state (fight or flight) to the parasympathetic state (normal, relaxed state). With its numerous breathing exercises, yoga can thus provide a very quick and effective tool that can act as an immediate tool against stress.
Meditation too, carries great value for stress relief. With meditation, one gets to introspect into their lives and circumstances. You may realize that you can in fact deal with the situation that is giving you so much worry, or you may realize that this situation does not warrant being stressful at all. Or, you may realize why you are thinking and feeling certain things in this situation of stress which can help you deal with the current and future situations better.
Yoga can also help you deal with the lifestyle situations that are a product of your stress and causing weight gain, such as lack of exercise or poor sleeping habits.
Thus, yoga and its added components of meditation and
breathing exercises, can effectively help you tackle stress, and thus by
extension, the weight gain caused by stress. An added benefit of incorporating
yoga is the fact that yoga directly acts for weight loss too. Thus, you would
have an ideal win-win situation, one where you can improve both your life and
weight for the better by incorporating this activity into your routine, thus
ensuring long-term resilience to both stress and weight gain.
 “Does Stress Make You Fat? – MedicineNet.” https://www.medicinenet.com/does_stress_make_you_fat/ask.htm. Accessed 27 Dec. 2019.
 “Eight Ways Stress Can Lead to Weight Gain – Hooman ….” 22 Jan. 2018, https://www.thespinepro.com/eight-ways-stress-can-lead-to-weight-gain/. Accessed 27 Dec. 2019.
 “Yoga: Fight stress and find serenity – Mayo Clinic.” https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/yoga/art-20044733. Accessed 27 Dec. 2019.
 “Yoga for Stress Relief | Psychology Today.” 8 Dec. 2015, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/urban-survival/201512/yoga-stress-relief. Accessed 27 Dec. 2019.