Healing Stress and Overwhelm with Yoga
Everyone seems to have their own tale of stress and overwhelm from 2020 – Fiona Agombar shares 12 ways that a yoga practice can help
by Fiona Agombar
Jenny manages a small but busy café on the South coast. When England’s first lockdown of 2020 happened in March she was relieved that furlough paid for her staff, but she found home-schooling her two young children challenging, especially as her partner wasn’t willing to get involved.
Their relationship was already in crisis but now their arguments grew worse. By the autumn it was clear that lockdown would happen again and this time round she didn’t think her business would survive. Or, perhaps, her relationship. ‘At least the schools remained open, but now I wasn’t sleeping, I had chronic headaches and I developed a severe rash on my arms and hands. I started to have panic attacks and a feeling of hopelessness – that there was nothing to look forward to. I was worried about what would happen if my business went under. We could lose the house. Ideally, I wanted to leave my partner but I also wasn’t sure how I could cope without him.’
Jenny’s story is not unusual – everyone seems to have had their tale of overwhelm in 2020. And research shows the less control we think that we have, the more stress impacts us. This last year has certainly shown us that we actually do have very little agency over what happens. So is there a way to manage stress and burnout more effectively?
Most of us are aware that stress happens when the body/mind complex feels unsafe. Our more rational brain is hijacked as our limbic system interprets stressors, like the examples above (fear of losing a job, trying to manage childcare, being trapped) as a threat. The body reacts in the same way as it would have centuries ago when our ancestors were in danger from the ubiquitous sabre-tooth tiger.
Adrenaline, cortisol and other hormones trigger the ‘fight and flight’ response. This is the sympathetic division of our autonomic nervous system (ANS) working to protect us from immediate danger. All of this is fine if we rest after the emergency has passed, which allows our parasympathetic system (the other branch of the ANS) enough time to then do its job of repair. The real problem comes if we don’t give ourselves enough down-time to recover.
Situations like money worries or relationship challenges are not immediately dangerous, although our body responds as if they are. These everyday lower-level stressors cause a more chronic arousal meaning the body doesn’t down-regulate properly. This takes its toll on our biology.
12 Ways Yoga Can Reduce Stress and Overwhelm
The real problem is we live in a society that doesn’t honour the idea of resting or taking time out. We are expected to be ‘gritty’ or ‘resilient’ – words that describe the more masculine characteristics of pushing through, striving, achieving, and being productive.
Concepts like relaxing, taking breaks or just stopping have, until recently, been frowned on. They may even carry a stigma of being lazy, which means we then have difficulty in making lifestyle shifts to self-care (no one wants to be judged a sloth)! Yet resting is exactly what we need to do if we are to thrive and encourage a more connected and compassionate society.
There is good news though. The popularity in yoga increased exponentially during lockdown – and yoga is very effective in dialing down the stress response. It has to be the right type of yoga though and not something which becomes ‘another thing to do’ or which hypes the body up. I spent eight years researching my book: Yoga Therapy for Stress, Burnout and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and I’ve set up live online classes for those with anxiety, overwhelm, fatigue (including long-COVID) and ME. These are twelve things I found that short-circuits the stress response and quickly gets us back to feeling calmer.
- Yoga should always include deep rest and this is something that you can practice at home. There are many free yoga nidra (very deep relaxation) recordings online – I advise doing one every day to help the body recalibrate back to its healing state.
- In a yoga practice we rest between each posture and so learn to pace. Off the mat this translates as taking regular micro-breaks between tasks and not ‘powering through.’
- If you are stressed, keep your yoga practice gentle. Doing too much physical activity is another stressor on the body. Movement should be slow and mindful, meaning we feel into the body and its relationship with the floor and surroundings in the moment.
- We are mammals, so touching and stroking calms our limbic system. You can incorporate this into your yoga practice by bringing your hands to your heart and visualizing sunlight coming in on each in-breath, and relaxing more and more with every out breath.
- Find a resource that you can use if you feel overwhelmed or stressed. This could be the connection of your feet on the floor or your bottom on the chair, the softness of your hands or the warmth of your breath. If you are anxious, just bring your attention to your resource and breathe slowly for a few minutes. Allow yourself to ground by focusing on your root chakra at the base of the spine and through your feet.
- Yoga teaches us acceptance, so if a difficult emotion comes up, unless it is very traumatic, do your best to allow the emotion to surface whilst at the same time bringing kindness and compassion to how you are feeling. Try to feel the emotion in the body rather than analyse it in the head.
- Yoga is mindfulness – which means being here now, fully embodied in this moment. Sense into the physical being whenever you can, rather than letting the mind run ahead into the future, which hasn’t yet happened.
- People-pleasing and saying ‘yes’ to everything increases our stress load. Yoga teaches us healthy limits as we gain a sense of who we are through our practice. Self-compassion is the root of good boundaries. If we can be kind to ourselves, it’s easier to say ‘no’.
- Karma yoga is an important concept in yoga and is about letting go of outcome. It means that we can take an action, but we shouldn’t be attached to what then happens. Let go of control.
- Breathing properly is perhaps the most important stress fixer. Breathe more slowly, through the nose and from the diaphragm. Be aware if you have a pattern of hyperventilation, checking your breath regularly throughout the day. Focus on a slightly longer exhalation, which helps to engage the parasympathetic division. (There is more about the breath in my book).
- Develop a daily meditation practice, sitting in stillness for twenty minutes. If you think you haven’t got time – get up a little earlier.
- Take your hands to your heart and chant ‘sūrya namáhā’ (sooriya namáhā) slowly three times, whilst visualising love and compassion coming into the heart.
And finally, Jenny started online yoga recently and is now evangelical about how it has helped her. ‘I may or may not lose my business, but I am much more focused on the here and now. I know I can’t control what’s ahead and I will deal with whatever happens whenever it happens. My relationship is better because I am happier and more relaxed. I would recommend yoga to anyone who is stressed. It saved me!’
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