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Overcoming Stress from an Ayurvedic Perspective

Please enjoy this excerpt from our book, coauthored by our in-house doctor Manish Chandra and Roberta B. Spurr.

Stress is a part of our everyday living.  We can’t evade it so why not transform it?  What we end up with in our body is anything that we perceive as stressful.  Shifting our attention from the event we perceive as stressful (for example pulling out in front of you in traffic and almost causing an accident) and the way we perceive the event will determine a more effective and health enhancing outcome.  For it is how we perceive the event is what we can change, and what will preserve our health. Stress is anything that disturbs our biological or psychological equilibrium,  anything that requires us to adapt, any change that we must adjust to.  Generally we think of stress in the negative as distress such as a job deadline, illness,  or a house guest for too long. Our lives are also full of positive experiences that can be equally as stressful such as starting a new business or a new relationship,  building a new home, or having a baby.

Stress can be examined from a number of different points of view.  In physical science for example, stress is defined as that force which in the absence of any resistance, causes change.  In our own lives we interpret stress not only as the force of the load, and the load itself, but how we experience the load.  Actually every action of our bodies and minds is the result of one stress or another.   There are three primary sources for stressors in our lives: from our environments, our bodies, and our minds.

Environmental Stressors

Our environments encumber us with cultural prescriptions and bombard us with cultural pressures that we must adjust to.  Sometimes these pressures are subtle; for example, men are often raised to think that they should not show emotion or feeling.  Other times these pressures are more obvious such as our cultural emphasis on competition and achievement.  Other environmental stressors include crowding, noise, time pressures, weather, and interpersonal pressures and threats.

Physiological Stress

Physiological stress is the second source of stress.  This includes all the different ways we burden our bodies.  For example our society bombards us with endless varieties and ways in which we need to consume foods.  An obsession with dieting characterizes many people’s lives and self-esteem is remotely sought from a cultural standard that idolizes thinness.  People whose nutritional needs have not been met on a diet of “junk” foods punish their obesity with dieting and then find their bodies raging at them with nutritional needs and the physiological and psychological stresses of actual starvation. Another major physiological stressor is the inevitable aging which our cultural standards of beauty reject. Face lifts and collagen creams and anything we can do to hide our wrinkles and graying are the testimonial reactions to this subtle threat. Other physiological sources of stress are found in the rapid maturation of adolescence, or in disease, sleep disturbances, accidents and all phenomena which encumber our bodies and repress the natural physiological cycle of development. Hans Selye, an endocrinologist and biologist often considered as the leading figure in early studies of stress problems, defines stress as the common denominator of all the body’s adaptive reactions; it is the “nonspecific response by the body to any demand placed upon it.” He believed that the stress state is a state manifested by the specific syndrome which consists of all the non-specifically induced changes within a biological system.  These can be pleasant, stimulating, and creative  (eustress) or unpleasant and disease producing (distress).  The totality of change in the body that helps us adjust to constant internal and external changes is what Selye calls the G.A.S. = general adaptation syndrome, or stress syndrome. Mental Stress Our minds and thoughts create the third source of stress we experience. Mark Twain touched on the problem when he said, “I am an old man and I have known trouble in my day, most of which never happened.” The stress associated with anticipating an event is so often greater than that of the event itself.  Our minds create hypothetical stress by the way we interpret, label and predict our experiences.  Stresses are created in such a way that the body’s functioning is disturbed.  We imprison ourselves by the way we envision future events.  The secret cure is often only a matter of changing the perspective of our vantage or simply the angle of our minds.

In Ayurveda and yoga, the body and the mind are not separate.  The mind reflexes into the body and the body reflexes into the mind.  The relationship between body and mind is so close that when either is stressed or deranged from its equilibrium, it effects and disturbs the whole system.   With negative emotions such as bursts of anger or fear, our whole body is affected — the mind reflexes or reacts on the body.  And conversely, whatever the body experiences is expressed through our thoughts, desires and feelings — the body reacts on the mind.  For example the body imposes on the mind sensations that are not pleasant, suggestions of illness or pain, such as pain in the stomach, nausea, gas, etc.  The mind first becomes restless, anxious and then may settle into a depression. This discomfort “reflexed” from the mind into the body become the fertile soil in which the seeds of past emotions in the mind become active.   Each of us has a different capacity to tolerate stress and this changes from day to day. Our alternatives are; either we can adapt to it and learn to counteract our habitual reactions to stress or we can loose our equilibrium and suffer the consequences.  It’s not that stress always causes trouble.

Even if we have intense emotional stresses, if we are able to adapt to it and “digest” it so to speak, then it will not cause excessive pressure or loss of our physical or mental equilibrium.  In fact stress also produces the mechanism for growth and self-improvement.  We need only learn to transform our distresses into eustresses, a process not unlike transforming food that we eat into our bodies. Each of us is an indivisible individual and each of us has an entirely different capacity to tolerate and adapt to the stresses we experience, just as each of us has a different capacity to digest the different foods we eat. Our capacity to adapt is a kind of digestion.  That is, the adaptation we make to alterations of the environment either external or internal and both, is performed through a process of digestion, whether it is mental or physical digestion.

Digestion is understood in Ayurveda as the essential root of mental and physical health.  Improper digestion, gastrointestinal, that within the metabolic activities of the body, as well as that of a mental nature, lies at the root of our diseases.   When our digestion is efficient we can flow freely with life.  It is when we can maintain our equilibrium with the flow of both physical nutrients and life’s experiences continually entering and leaving our beings that our digestion is efficient.  Adaptation is digestion.  Our adaptation to a change in our environment, either external or internal or both, is performed through the process of digestion — whether it is mental or physical digestion. Usually we don’t examine our stresses until we can no longer tolerate them — when they become indigestible.  We wait until we are sick before we get concerned; then we go visit the doctor.  What we are doing by this is handing over the responsibility for our own health to the institution of western medicine.  This system can never be satisfactory because each of us has a unique body-mind complex. No one or institution can come to know each unique system better than each unique system itself.  The responsibility for our own health and nutrition must rest with each one of us individually. A fundamental premise in Ayurveda is that illness or disease in any form is caused by an individual transgression against the natural order of nature.  Nature causes the disease, but nature is also the healer.

Disease can be prevented by knowing our own individual nature and abiding by it. But once our nature is transgressed and we succumb to illness, it is again nature which heals us.  Our job then becomes removal of the transgression and any other impediments to natural healing.  In either case the responsibility is ours alone.  In Ayurveda the emphasis is placed on preventative medicine— understanding and reducing the way we experience harmful stress in our lives.


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