Fear and stress amidst challenges, like a pandemic, are completely natural. Although we can't stop these emotions (nor is it healthy to try), we can control our reaction and response to them. Stress—particularly distress—negatively affects your immunity and wellbeing. Luckily, we can use yoga to transform distress to eustress.
What the Heck is Eustress?
Eustress is a beneficial type of stress that allows us to be resilient and thrive.
It is natural to feel tension in your body, have difficulty sleeping, and even snap at loved ones when you’re under pressure. You are not alone. Take a minute to notice the stress and how it surfaces: How do you react? Where do you feel it in your body? What happens to your breath?
Simply acknowledging the stress as real and normal can help you cultivate self-compassion and compassion for others when they snap at you. Next, be proactive about self-care.
Your immune and lymphatic systems work closely together to fight off invaders like viruses. Specifically, the job of your lymphatic system is to help cleanse body fluids. It does this through collecting samples of fluids (like from your blood), transforming them into a new fluid called lymph, and filtering it through stations around your body called lymph nodes.
Have you ever had a swollen bump around your neck when you are sick? Those are your lymph nodes in action. Yoga helps lymph flow through this filtering process more efficiently since the vessels rely on movement like from asana and pranayama.
The job of your immune system is to fight the foreign invaders (antigens) with its special army, including white blood cells (leucocytes). Research suggests that yoga boosts your immunity, which can help you get sick less often and less intensely. Your body intrinsically has the capacity to heal, and yoga helps facilitate this.
The Neurological and Hormonal Effects of Distress
You probably have heard that stress is generally bad for your immunity and overall health. But, not all stress is bad. It becomes “harmful stress”—or distress—when your fear center is activated, causing anxiety and poor decision-making. At this point, you release stress hormones which tax your entire body, including vital organs.
When you are in a state of fear, an alarm bell in your brain rings in your fear center located in the amygdala. Yoga has been shown to lessen electrical activity in the amygdala and increase activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for careful planning, conscious thinking, and emotional regulation. One yoga class could lessen amygdala activity immediately, and a regular yoga practice can help you develop healthier neural circuitry, resulting in fear taking over less.
When under pressure, your body also creates a chemical cocktail of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones flood your bloodstream, circulating to every part of your body. Your organs divert their attention to emergency activities like powering your heart and large muscles in your thighs so you can run from the real or figurative predator. Less energy is focused on proper digestion or fighting invaders in an immune response. If you are in this stress state often, you live in a state of “high alert,” resulting in high blood pressure, poor digestion, and lowered immunity. But, the good news is that research suggests you can consciously break this stress cycle.
Of course, yoga is considered physical exercise, which is widely known to help manage stress. But, yoga also helps us cope better by improving our emotional regulation and mental health. Here’s how.
How Yoga Reduces Stress
Yoga teaches your body how to calm down quicker. Through poses, breathwork, and deep relaxation practices like meditation, you build the skills needed to move from stimulation to calm more efficiently—transitioning easily from the stress response (sympathetic nervous system activation) to the relaxation response (parasympathetic nervous system activation). When you are relaxed, your organs function better, which boosts your body’s capacity to fight invaders and heal.
You have probably heard of homeostasis, which is the dynamic process your body goes through to maintain balance. But, you may not have heard of allostasis: the dynamic process of maintaining homeostasis amidst increased stress. When you are under significant stress, for example, during a significant life change such as a divorce, death, or even a pandemic, your body has to work harder to find and maintain balance. Humans are built to be strong and resilient. Yoga can help to maintain that resilience.
Positive Stress Vs. Negative Stress
Your body’s stress response is not necessarily negative. as long as it doesn’t get out of control. Instead, think of your natural stress response as simply your body rising to the challenges you are facing.
Handling a crisis in a positive state of eustress means you:
- Have a greater sense of purpose and mission in mind
- Accept your body's stress response as your body rising to the challenge
- Have the tools to be calm in an emergency
Imagine you are in a fire and you have to save a baby. Well, you definitely have a meaningful purpose here, so that helps! Having a higher mission—often called a sankalpa or intention in yoga—prepares your body to be resilient during challenges. In this situation, your body will naturally create a fight or flight stress response, resulting in a surge of stress hormones that constrict your blood vessels and raise your blood pressure so that you can handle this life-or-death situation. A firefighter in the same situation is rigorously trained, knowing what precautions to take and how to calm down in the moment. They go into a stress response too, but in a state of eustress, which is less taxing on their bodies. Having tools like yoga to be calm in an emergency situation like a fire, will help your body remain in a state of eustress instead of distress. You can’t stop all fires—or viruses—but you can develop the tools to condition yourself before and during a challenge.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” –Viktor Frankl
Yoga can truly help during these times. This isn't just speculation; research shows yoga can lessen anxiety and depression symptoms, lower stress hormones, relieve pain, and improve emotional regulation.
3 Tips to Build Immunity
Transform your distress into eustress to boost your immunity and thrive during adversity. Here are three research-backed ways to do this:
1. Stay Connected
Humans are herd or pack animals, not designed for isolation. Call your parents, grandparents, single friend, or someone you haven’t talked to in awhile just to check in. Take a live-streamed yoga or meditation class and say hello to the others in the class.
Offer help and support. This gives you a mission, purpose, and meaning. When you help others you shift distress to eustress and create what Stanford researcher, Kelly Mcgonigal, calls “the biology of courage.” We really are all in this together.
2. Do More Yoga
Do a yoga flow or inversion poses to keep the fluids moving (because I know you are drinking plenty of water!) To ease pressure consider practicing yoga in bed to wind down or first thing when you wake up.
One quick thing you can start right now is a simple breathing technique. Simply sit tall and take fuller breaths, practice doubling the length of the exhale for a 1:2 ratio for your inhales and exhales. Start with a 2-count inhale and a 4-count exhale. If that is comfortable, you can move up to a 3-count inhale and 6-count exhale and so on, but don't force it. Elongated exhales stimulate the rest, digest, and rejuvenate part of the nervous system (parasympathetic nervous system). With the long exhales, you hack your nervous system by stimulating your vagus nerve which gives your heart a signal to slow down.
Any type of meditation will help. To cultivate a sense of connection with others, try this visualization: imagine a light within you expanding with each breath. See it expand beyond your body, home, city, and nation. Envision your light touching the light of others surrounding you. (If you have 20 min, try the practice with me in the video below.)
Rest is key to keep distress down and immunity up. If you can, give yourself permission to sleep at least 7-8 hours a night or take a 20-minute nap during the day. Take breaks during the day to meditate and relax. Take the time to wind down before bed. Try this 20-minute yoga nidra (deep relaxation practice) as a rest during the day or before you go to bed.
In times of crisis, your body and mind can easily fall into distress. Staying socially connected, practicing more yoga, and resting boosts your physical and mental resilience and strengthens immunity. Remember, we are all in this together.
Images excerpted from Science of Yoga by Ann Swanson, reprinted by permission of DK, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019 Ann Swanson and Dorling Kindersley Limited.