Stress and the Autonomic Nervous System. 
We all have experiences of stress at different levels and times of our lives, and we all seem to think we have a fair idea of what stress actually is. I gave myself the task of sitting down to write my own definition but realized that although I intuitively know what stress is, it is much harder to put into words.

It may help us to understand stress by first looking at different people’s interpretations and definitions of what it means to them:

According to Mindtools, a stress management course,(mainly focusing on stress at work) the most commonly accepted definition of stress (mainly attributed to Richard S Lazarus) is that

“stress is a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize.”

It is interesting also that stress can be related to both the physical body (annamaya kosha) and also the psychological state of mind (manaomaya kosha and vignanamaya kosha).

Physical: “Stress is the force that produces strain on a physical body” - “Special emphasis attached to something.”

Psychological:“Stress is a state of mental or emotional strain or suspense” - “difficulty that causes worry or emotional tension”

I think it is important to take note of the fact that stress is phenomenological, taking many different forms and effecting different individuals in a variety of unique and personal ways. It usually occurs when the body is put into an unusual situation, which can feel threatening, unfamiliar or harmful. Stress is usually looked at as a negative thing, but it we should also take note that without stress the body would not have the motivation to move or get through difficult or unusual encounters.

Hans Selye was one of the founders of stress research. His view in 1956 was that;

stress is not necessarily something bad – it all depends on how you take it. The stress of exhilarating creative successful work is beneficial, while that of failure, humiliation or infection is detrimental.”

He also believed that the biochemical effects of stress would be experienced no matter whether the situation was positive or negative. I feel the easiest way that I can relate to this is the classic example of leaving something to the last minute. If we look at this situation the individual actually puts themselves into this stressful situation because of lack of planning or perhaps circumstance beyond their control. None the less, the majority of the time because the body is under stress, the motivation and drive arises to help us to achieve what we need to do.

I know I have put myself in this circumstance on several occasions. I can also now see that perhaps the stress in this situation was beneficial in achieving the task. One other thing I have found is that I often associate stress with an external situation, usually due to the nature of blaming something or someone else rather than taking responsibility for my own actions.

What we put into our bodies can also play a huge part in how much stress we add to our lives. I know personally the effects that certain chemicals and drugs can have on my body. I know that now if I have caffeine my body will go into stress mode and I feel very nervous, agitated and fidgety. This after a while turns into dizziness and the only option I have is to drink plenty of water until these feelings subside. On the other hand I know and see that other people rely upon the stress that caffeine provides to the body in order to simply get out of bed in the morning, or to motivate them through the afternoon at work.

Alcohol and other recreational drugs which also cause stress on the body could also then be argued are means of providing stress internally to the physical body to motivate us and providing the energy for us to stay up late, gain confidence and dance the night away. As good as this may feel at the time, the consequences of these are usually felt the morning after when the body is exhausted and shows many signs of physical stress. From personal experience I can assure you that constantly causing stress to the body in this way will eventually lead to poor physical and mental health. Just as any continuous stress to the body and mind will result in similar symptoms which if ignored will evolve in to more serious conditions and illnesses.

Although these quick fixes of instant stress related energy bursts may seem good at the time they often result in fatal consequences and shorter life spans.

Another personal experience of stress for me, which I’m sure, many people can relate to, are presentations or performing in front of other people or audiences. The people staring, the deathly silence, the nerves kick in, the papers in my hand begin to rattle, the mind goes numb, I forget what I know I know, I start to wonder why I’m there, I have forgotten already, and who exactly am I? and everyone knows... and everyone can see how nervous I am…… The simple fact being that no one probably can tell, or is bothered and it is merely the body preparing itself for me to get up and get through the presentation.

A good example of some of the many symptoms of stress and also hopefully a point for us to remember when stress and nerves pays a visit, although I’m sure I will be too stressed to remember!

The “fight or flight” response.

The most important thing to remember is that stress is literally a nervous reaction, which occurs within the Autonomic Nervous System. The ANS supplies nerves to all the internal organs of the body through the spinal chord. It is controlled by the hypothalamus and its actions are involuntary, meaning that the actions are not controlled by the brain or our own sense of will. This system is divided into two rather different systems.

The one responsible for the “Stressed out” state is the Sympathetic Nervous System. It’s main purpose is to stimulate the actions of the organs and it also releases noradrenalin which prepares the body for excitement and stress, Hence why it is often called the “Fight or Flight” system as it has a stimulating effect on the organs and physiological systems. The adrenal gland is responsible for secreting a hormone called adrenaline during times of stress, danger or fear, which complements the Sympathetic Nervous system and causes several physical changes within the body.

The Sympathetic Nervous system constricts blood vessels feeding blood to the gastrointestinal tract and the skin, whilst dilating skeletal muscles and lung blood vessels. Bronchioles also dilate allowing more oxygen to be exchanged at the lungs. It also increases heart rate which increases blood flow (and of course blood pressure) to the skeletal muscles and diverts blood away from the other organs which are not as important in this fight or flight response. In a nervous situation one can feel the increased heart rate and often feel an overheating sensation due to increased blood flow. This is perhaps also why people in this state often have digestion issues. Sympathetic nerves also dilate the pupils and relax the lenses enabling one to see further. I find it easy to visualise this response if you picture the Incredible Hulk, maybe not to that extreme and also not green! It is so very important for us to realize that this system is meant for short term encounters, and for threats which last a longer period of time, the sympathetic nervous system takes over and keeps the body at this continuous state and higher level of intensity.

Eventually however, when the threat has disappeared and the external influences return to normal the body functions should be able to return to a relaxed state. If we look at the stressful, competitive way of life theses days, it would not be surprising to learn that many people actually constantly operate in this high level of preparedness for fight or flight. For example if someone has a fear of the boss at work, or a constant fear of not being able to pay the bills. The pollutants we are constantly inhaling, the flashing images we stare at so often, the loud noises we become so used to. Under circumstances such as these, the individual would always be tense, irritable, moody, unable to sleep, suffer with digestion problems and in a continual state of dissatisfaction and general unhappiness. The body also loses its ability to resist disease in this state.

Many people would probably say that they are relaxed for most of their lives, but for most they would probably be unaware of being in this stressed state. Scientific results have shown that the majority of people are almost constantly tense and not aware of it.

Symptoms can often be seen, people will tenses their muscles (hunching shoulders), squint their eyes and bite their nails, and they are not even aware that they are doing it. When a person displays these symptoms, he is preparing himself for the fight or flight reaction. Theses actions may be small and insignificant on an external level, but they are indicating an increase in heart rate, high blood pressure internally. The prolonged stimulation of the sympathetic system can later lead to more serious ailments such as diabetes, coronary thrombosis, ulcers, mental disorders, backaches skin problems and muscular twitches.


Our body needs the Sympathetic nervous system in order for us to be prepared in the external world but it also needs to be able to return to a state of relaxation. This relaxation is controlled by the Parasympathetic nervous system. Just as the waves flow in and out of the sea, so must our bodies find Homeostasis. The two nervous systems must work together to find balance and restore harmony within the body.

The role of the parasympathetic nervous system is to stimulate the opposite reaction to that of the Sympathetic nervous system. Its functions therefore are to slow down the action of the muscles, including restricting the flow of blood to the heart, which will reduce the rate and force of the blood. In contrast to the fight or flight system, the Sympathetic system is also known as the “rest and digest” system. The body feels relaxed, warm and content. The digestion improves, everything flows easier and the intestines expand, allowing body waste to flow through and the nutrients from the food to be absorbed easily and sent to nourish the body.

When the parasympathetic system takes over, the entire system relaxes, there is a feeling of peace within, warmth and contentment. The two systems act together, alternating between themselves to provide the body with balance and harmony. This process is called Homeostasis.

Both parts of the Autonomic Nervous system are important to us. Being in a continous state of “fight or flight” can result in many problems as discussed previously. The only way to prevent his is to enable the body to reach a state of relaxation. The whole body and mind needs to relax everyday in order to conteract the daily stresses. Sleep is the most obvious method that we think of, but the problem with this is that most people are so tense that they are still unable to relax during sleep. Although the body often is able to relax during sleep, the mind is still working hard to try and solve the problems encoutered that day.

The only way of balancing the body, from the effects of the overuse of andrenaline and sympathetic systems, is during deep relaxation. Many holistic therapies aim at helping the body to strengthen the parasympathetic system, through relaxation. Massage is used to help relieve tension and stress in the muscles, helping the physical body to relax and the Parasympathetic system to take over.

Whilst researching the Parasympathetic system, I came across a rather interesting descovery. Evidence of a mushroom which can contain the fungus Amanita Muscaria, which stimulates the receptors of the parasympathetic nervous system.

The effects of digesting this mushroom are described in the Anatomy of Hatha Yoga by David Coultier.

“From the top down, if you don’t die your pupils will constrict to pinpoints, you’ll slobber and froth saliva, your heart rate and blood pressure will plummet to near death, extreme bronchiolar constriction will make it almost impossible to breathe, your digestive tract will thump, thrash and grind like a washing machine gone berserk, and you’ll suffer from exposive diarrhea.”

I feel this helps us to see the complete difference between these two systems and although this is not what we are aiming for in relaxation, what it does do is help us to realise the importance of balance between the parasympathetic and the sympathetic nervous systems, and also illustrate that one without the other can have fatal consequences.

My  personal reflections  on stress.

I am lucky in the fact that I do not need as much sleep as many other people, but I know that after continuos nights of very little sleep I become more susceptible to stressful symptoms. Irrational thought patterns are usually the first sign for me. Logical thinking no longer seems to apply. I am less able to control feelings and emotions, and negativity often seems to override sensibility. The physical body feels weaker all over and less able to cope with interrogation or anyone. There is a desire to just sit and stare, and my posture becomes slumped although also rigid! Often resulting in becoming so stressed I cannot sleep at all and occasionally delirious thoughts then begin to surface.

Whilst writing this it becomes clearer how easy it is to become in a constant state of stress.

I personally find that how I manage my over stress, depends upon how over stressed I am. The first thing I try and acknowledge, although sounding obvious, is to realise that I am in a stressful situation, and then to try and acknowledge the factors that are causing me to be stressed. I sometimes find by doing this the mind begins to concentrate and become more focused instead of being out of control. Experience has led me to realise that allowing the stress to arise will only make me feel worse, although in extremely stressful situations this is difficult to see, and can only be seen upon reflection of the event.

I think the most important thing here is to find a technique which enables firstly the mind to be distracted from the stressor, which is most easily done by, focussing on the breath which in turn helps the body to relax.

The other important thing to realise is what actually is the stressor and how if possible it can be avoided in the first place. In regard to tiredness as a stresssor, obviously it is overcome by trying to get more sleep. (whenever possible!) This may include relaxation techniques, my personal favourites being various holistic leisure activities, swimming, hot bath, aromatherapy and of cause yoga!

There are many obstacles to encounter when attempting to manage stress, one of which is not allowing the stress to remain with you for the whole day or evening, or sometimes even for several days, depending on the situation and stressors. I feel it is important both physically and emotionally to be able to remove the stress as soon as possible. If the mind is not removed of the stress then the physical symptoms arise again later when the mind starts to ponder once more on the stressor.

I have talked mainly about how to relieve the physical symptoms but I also feel it is important to think, or even meditate on different situations which act as stresses to me. I think it is very important to look at these problems or stressors in a much grander scale, and compare them. When the phone does not stop ringing at work, it is not really that stressful compared to what people have to go through at war, or whilst living in poorer countries; when the basic need for food and shelter, must become extremely stressful to the parents of a family.

When looking at personal stress factors at this level you begin to realise how small they really are, and question why they may seem threatening when they are in fact so small in comparison. I also find that juggling several jobs, different work places, studying, finding time for yoga and exercise becomes an obstacle in itself sometimes. Especially when trying also to get enough sleep in order to avoid exaggerated effects of stressors. It sometimes becomes impossible to find time for relaxation, meditation and yoga when there is so much to do in so little time. I know sometimes at work I feel the need to just run away from it all. I try and remember that everything, every experience and every feeling is nothing more than a temporary situation, and it will end at some point. I really believe that every bad stressful occurrence will at some point end, and when I acknowledge this fact, it somehow begins to feel less stressful and more manageable.

It is important to put time aside for relaxation and the more often it is done, the easier it becomes to remember how to do it.

By travelling the world, by experiencing so many wonderful times, meeting so many wonderful people (whom I notice experience much the same as everybody else), it becomes easier to see the benefits of a relaxed state of being. I also know that it is important to me to find that special time for me to go inside and reconnect with what I know and feel and believe to be true. But also remembering to allow for change and conflict and differences in opinions.

In my heart I often try and find room to thank such stressors for the experience, if only to make myself grow as a person. By doing this I am seeing the stressor as a positive experience and less threatening, which will hopefully help in the management of future stress.

I feel it is important as a facilitator of Yoga to encourage students to acknowledge stress and except it as part of our emotions and functions of the human body. I also feel it helps to teach students physical ways of dealing with it to help them grow, instead of ignoring it, hoping it will just go away! I would hopefully aim for them to realise that stress is a natural occurrence of the physical and psychological body, and that the process of returning the body to its more peaceful state of relaxation is just as important.

I believe that through the teachings of yoga, it results in greater body awareness and enables the students to take ownership for their feelings, helping them eventually to help themselves to be able to take these techniques and perhaps use them outside of the yoga class.

I would also try and encourage them to be open to new challenges. In the same way that certain asana can seem challenging, so too can certain stressful situations become like yoga postures. The process of attempting the posture, is itself the posture, rather than just finding the end posture and staying there. To keep returning to the posture and although the posture will remain he same, each time it is attempted the experience is so completely different.

Through repetition and returning to yoga class I hope my students will see that the postures will eventually become more familiar and not so strange, but at the same time equally as beneficial. This can be applied to stressful situations, in the more that we experience them the less threatening they become and so on. I will aim to help my students see that Yoga will eventually help our minds to see things differently and more able to cope with stressful situations.

Yamas, Niyamas and their relationship with stress.

I think it can be true to say that all the yamas and niyamas are moral principles and observances designed to help make life a more enjoyable experience for ourselves and for others, which would obviously lead for a less stressful life.

The five yamas:

Ahimsa - non violence

Most often violent thoughts occur in stressful situations, and can also cause stress. A classic example would be in road rage, which can be a very stressful situation. Often leading to violent behaviour toward others.

Satya - truthfulness

The more untruthful someone is the more they have to stress and worry about who or what they have told to people, I think it is just easier to tell the truth and avoid the worry and stress!

Asteya - non stealing

Again stealing usually occurs from jealousy, or that someone wants something you want but haven't got. It seems obvious that to steal something would just add added worry and stress, in the form of guilt constantly in the back of the mind, wondering if you will be found out etc.

Brahmacarya - sexual moderation

Although sex can often be a great way of relieving stress!! I think in the context of having affairs with more than one partner, again such constant feelings of guilt and emotions could add to stress levels. Although at the same time I think sexual repression may also lead to frustration which could also be a stressor.

Aparigraha - greedlessness or non possessiveness.

I always find that most distractions when trying to relax often come from material possessions. Is it not always the washing machine, or worrying about whether the car has been stolen, or even the stress that too much television or loud music can cause us? I think the desire for more money can also fit here... need I say any more?

I think also that it is important to note that unlike other religious moral codes which are so often seen as black and white rules. ie. Lying is wrong. End of story. The wonderful thing about the teachings of yoga, is that they are moral guide lines to be explored by the students themselves. It is crucial to help the student to see that it is better to just examine their thoughts and not to feel guilt, as often too much guilt can also cause stress.

The niyamas are five observances for us to follow.

Shaucha - purity Santosha - contentment
Tapas - practices that lead to perfection of the body, mind and senses
Svadhyaya - study which leads to knowledge of the self
Ishvara/ pranidhana - surrender to the ultimate reality.

Again by acknowledging these in our lives will help us to lead a more spiritual and pure life, which would hopefully result in a less stressful life.

I also believe that Yamas and Niyamas are not a way to make a person more spiritual, but that they are more to help us simply make room for a sense of spirituality. The stressful lives that we lead and the way the media constantly bombards our minds with so many other distractions, if only for a while, it would be wonderful to try and allow more spiritual thoughts and observances to manifest.

I feel it is important to observe the niyamas more as a whole, as guidance to encourage our minds to hopefully be more open instead of just providing ourselves with a list of rules and regulations, barriers and restrictions!

This to me is one of the most beautiful things about yoga in the way that we as individuals can feel and explore for ourselves the difference, first physically and then as the mind opens, in a more spiritual context.