Know Your Stress Type + How to Balance It

Does stress leave you anxious to eat or too lethargic to get off the couch?

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woman doing chandra bhedana moon breath meditation pranayama

Consider this scenario: Anne, Janeen, and Stuart arrive at the office one morning to find their boss waiting, pink slips in hand. Profits are down, she says. Effective immediately, the company needs to downsize. She tells them to gather their belongings, wishes them good luck, and escorts them to the door. The news comes as a terrible surprise to all three, but in the days that follow, each reacts in a markedly different way.

Anne feels anxious; her worrying distracts her from getting anything done during the day, and insomnia keeps her up at night. Janeen becomes consumed by anger and blames her boss, coworkers, and clients. As her resentment mounts, so does her blood pressure. Stuart resigns himself to the news, feeling powerless to change it. He stays home, snacking in front of the TV. His lethargy leaves him with feelings of depression, and eventually leads to weight gain and aggravated respiratory problems.

In the West, we don’t usually dwell on the distinctions between our reactions to stress—we tend to focus on general coping solutions applicable to all, such as a hot bath, a long walk, or a day at the beach. But in the ancient Indian healing system of Ayurveda, stress reduction hinges on a complex understanding of each person. Since no two people handle setbacks the same way, everyone requires a different stress-relief strategy: What might work for Anne could aggravate Stuart, and what might work for Janeen could prove ineffective for Anne. Ayurveda provides specific lifestyle, dietary, herbal, and yogic solutions for each individual that can not only diffuse tension but also help build a foundation for lasting peace of mind.

Ayurveda Explained

Yoga’s sister science of Ayurveda is a system of healing that integrates basic physiology, emotional disposition, and spiritual outlook, then presents all three in the context of the universe itself. Dating back 5,000 years to the ancient Sanskrit texts the Vedas, Ayurvedic theory takes nearly every conceivable stress influence into consideration—from seasonal and planetary changes that affect our well-being to subtle bodily impurities that can precipitate disease. It also sheds light on the thought patterns and physical tendencies that make stress either a constant stumbling block or a nonissue, depending on how well we understand ourselves. Comprehending such an exhaustive system may seem daunting to those who haven’t made it their life’s study. But when it comes to managing stress, Ayurvedic concepts can be boiled down to a basic idea: Trace stress back to its roots, then find lasting ways to change the patterns that cause it.

We often speak of stress in terms of the situations we find ourselves in—traffic jams, looming deadlines, getting laid off. But Ayurveda holds that stress actually originates in the mind. “Fundamentally speaking,” says Nimai Nitai Das, an Ayurvedic physician in Boston, “stress is a disorder of rajas.” Rajas represents passion or undirected activity; it’s one of three universal qualities, or gunas (the other two are sattva, or purity, and tamas, or inertia). According to Ayurvedic texts, too much rajas shows up in the mind as attachment, craving, and desire—by their nature, these impulses can’t be satisfied and therefore create a negative psychological disposition.

While overly stressed people might have excess rajas in common, how they respond to the condition depends on their individual mind-body constitution. Each Ayurvedic principle—vata (air), pitta (fire), and kapha (earth)—exists in all of us to varying degrees as doshas, with usually one, sometimes two, and, in rarer cases, all three predominating to create our constitution.

Our predominant dosha shapes who we are, what we look like, and how we think; it influences everything from our career choices and favorite foods to the style of yoga we prefer. For self-understanding, it’s crucial to identify our inherent constitution and which doshas predominate. (Take our Dosha Quiz here.) But for the purposes of stress management, our doshic imbalance can prove even more revealing. In other words, it’s not so much which dosha most shapes our constitution but rather which one is out of whack.

When we act out our excess rajas, the resulting stress manifests itself in the body as a vata, pitta, or kapha imbalance, depending on the person. For instance, a person may have a strong kapha constitution, being grounded, wise, stable, and compassionate. But at her worst, she may display a classic pitta imbalance, being irritable, judgmental, and quick tempered.

Constitutional Amendments

So how do we know when we have an imbalance? Experts strongly advise visiting an Ayurvedic physician who will make an assessment based on pulse diagnosis, tongue evaluation, and your personal history. As Ayurveda has many subtleties, it’s hard for a layperson to do a self-assessment; trying to reduce stress using an incorrect diagnosis could make matters even worse.

That said, doshic imbalances do have certain general mental and physical symptoms, which we can often recognize in ourselves. Here are some common stress reactions—and solutions—for each doshic imbalance. Consider them a starting point for your own self-inquiry.

Vata Imbalance

At Their Best: Highly creative, quick thinkers

Out of Balance: Prone to distraction, anxiety, worry, weight loss, teeth grinding, insomnia, and constipation

Friendly Foods: Warming foods like rice, wheat, nuts, and milk products; avoid raw food like salads and dry, airy foods like popcorn

Healing Herbs and Scents: Ginger, cinnamon, and cardamom

Recommended Yoga: Slow, meditative practice, including Tadasana (Mountain Pose), Vrkasana (Tree Pose), Balasana (Child’s Pose), Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend), and Halasana (Plow Pose); Focus on Ujjayi breathing to ground the mind

Other Tips: Add soft music or a guided meditation tape to your meditation practice; Massage warm oil on your body before showering and on the soles of feet before bed

Pitta Imbalance

At Their Best: Focused, driven, and goal-oriented; naturally alert, intelligent, and perseverant

Out of Balance: Bouts of anger, outbursts, criticism, migraines, ulcers, inflamed skin, and burning hands and feet

Friendly Foods: Cooling foods like cucumbers, melons, and dates; avoid spicy and astringent foods, like chili peppers, radishes, tomatoes, cranberries, and grapefruits

Healings Herbs and Scents: Jasmine, lavender, and rose

Recommended Yoga: Mild hatha, gentle vinyasa, restorative, or Iyengar Yoga; include twists and seated forward folds like Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose), Janu Sirasana (Head-to-Knee Pose), and Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend); Avoid yoga at peak-heat time of day

Other Tips: Cool down with nostril breathing (inhale through the cool/moon/water channel on the left with the right nostril covered and exhale through the hot/sun/fire channel on the right with the left nostril covered)

Kapha Imbalance

At Their Best: Loyal, grounded, and patient; inner sense of stability and contentment shows up as compassion and warmth toward others

Out of Balance: Stubborn, lethargic, possessive, depressed, prone to overeating, and resistant to change

Friendly Foods: Artichokes, eggplant, broccoli, cherries, cranberries, and pears; avoid sweets and nuts; carefully monitor quantity of food

Healing Herbs and Scents: Rosemary and frankincense

Recommended Yoga: Heat producing, vigorous movement including Sun Salutations, backbends, and inversions; practice chest-opening poses, such as Dhanurasana (Bow Pose) and Ustrasana (Camel Pose), and heart-opening poses, such as Matsyasana (Fish Pose) to counteract depression.

Other Tips: Pranayama techniques can be helpful, such as Kapalabhati (Shining Skull Breath) and right nostril-led breathing (breathing through the right nostril and out through the left); Chanting may help fight lethargy

Whether we have a vata, pitta, or kapha imbalance greatly influences the course we chart to address overall stress. Adjustments that work for one dosha might leave the others more aggravated that before. Whatever steps we take, our efforts toward balance represent an evolving process rather than a static goal—one that changes right along with the doshic fluctuations in ourselves and our environment.

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