3 Surprises about Stress

3 Surprises about Stress

The surprising ways that Stress hurts you, and how yoga can help.

 

I’m absolutely certain that you already know that stress isn’t that great. You’ve felt it in your own body: the raised heart rate, the jitteriness, the sleeplessness, perhaps the anxiety or emotional eating…

And I am also sure you are aware of the main negative health effects! But just to make sure here is a quick list

  • Heart disease and stroke
  • Auto-imune conditions
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Weight gain and diabetes
  • A reduced immune defence against viral infections

So…. That’s said! Shall I just end my blog there?

Well, the picture is actually a little more interesting, so I’d like to talk about 3 surprises about stress.

These surprises are based a fantastic review of the scientific research by Connor et al. (2021). It’s a heavy read, so I’ll give you a whistle-stop tour.

However, if you’re up for putting your nerd glasses on, then have a look at the reference to the full article at the end!

 

Extremely Strong Evidence

Connor et al. (2021) state that “the cumulative science linking stress to negative health outcomes is vast” (Just think: heart disease, auto-immune disease, obesity, dementia). If this is all that you rake away from today’s blog – then that’s great!

Once we understand how bad mental stress is, then we might be motivated to take steps to help manage our own stress response in everyday life.

However, it’s not as simple as stress = bad, no stress = good.

In fact, it’s all about our own RESPONSE to a stress. Does your body response very quickly and intensely? Does it then release the stress quickly? Or are you not able to adequately response to a stress?

This brings me to the first surprise about stress.

 

1) It’s complicated: The Goldilocks of Stress Response

Being constantly stressed is not good, yet when our bodies have a too low stress response this isn’t good either! A healthy stress response looks a little like the Goldilocks story!

When we have constant work or life stress, then our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is always on. (The ‘Fight or Flight’ system).

This chronic activation of the ‘fight or flight’ nervous system is called autonomic imbalance. This is associated with a wide range of mental and physical negative health consequences, including high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes and even psychotic disorders.

Stress shows up in DIFFERENT ways!

Job and life stress can increase the production of the stress-hormone Cortisol. However, people with burnout, fatigue, exhaustion or Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome generally have too LOW levels of Cortisol. Researchers agree that both situations are associated with poor health!

A healthy body ideally is able to produce adequate stress hormones (not too much, not too little – but the Goldilocks amount) when a threat is perceived. Then, soon after the ‘threat’ has gone a healthy body can relax again.

The issue with modern life is that our bodies perceive threats pretty consistently throughout the entire day!

 

2) Playing Havoc on the Immune System!

Stress literally changes your gene expression. Most importantly, the expression of the genes governing our immune system!

Scientists used to think that stress only down-regulated the immune system, but now there is lots of evidence that it can act in two opposite directions! (Both up-regulation and down-regulation).

This is why stress can cause inflammation-related diseases such as heart disease and autoimmune conditions (due to increased activity of the immune system). Yet, stress can also cause impaired responses to viral infections and vaccinations (due to immune suppression).

In fact, scientists believe that when the hormone cortisol is consistently high in response to chronic stress, the immune cells become blunted to the signal to switch off, resulting in a mild but persistent level of inflammation.

Chronic inflammation (an overactive immunise system) is a body-wide problem that is linked to a variety of negative health effects such as problems in your bowls, skin rashes, polycystic ovarian syndrome, tendonitis and joint issues to name just a few.

Yet, in other situations stress can lower the effectiveness of the immune system’s ability to fight viral infections.

So, stress is a real bugbear! It plays complete havoc on our immune system.

 

3) Yoga & mindfulness change gene expression (in the opposite way to stress)!

I realise that the previous sections were a little heavy. So here is the good news… We can do something about it!

Early intervention trials on groups of people especially prone to stress (i.e. breast cancer survivors with persistent fatigue, and carers of family members with dementia) have show to counteract the negative effects of stress on the immune system. (Black et al., 2013, Bower et al., 2014).

Specifically, 12 minutes daily meditation for for 8 weeks by 39 family dementia caregivers, resulted in the up-regulation of genes involved in anti-viral immunity, and down-regulation of genes involved in inflammation in the body. (Black et all., 2013)

Similar up-regulation of genes involved in anti-viral immunity, and down-regulation of genes involved in inflammation was also seen after 16 Breast cancer survivors with persistent cancer-related fatigue participated in 12 weeks of Iyengar Yoga (Bower et al., 2014).

Thats exciting!

 

The take-away message?

If you’ve made it this far… hurrah!! It’s difficult to talk about this topic in an easy-to-read way. So, well done for persisting!

Here are few things that might help you deal with everyday stressors:

1. It’s not stress itself, but your RESPONSE.

There’s no need to avoid stress entirely (and it’s not possible!) The important thing is to work on your OWN reaction. Try to stop and think about whether a stressful event is worthy of a high or low stress response from you.

(Is it life threatening? Then high stress is warranted. If it’s not… then maybe a lower reaction).

If you DO get very stressed, then try to take a deep breath when the moment is over so that you can let goooooo of the stress response, and come out of your ‘fight or flight’ nervous system again.

 

 2. Try yoga or mindfulness!

I’m biassed, I know. But there is also a lot of evidence now that yoga and/or a mindfulness practice is REALLY helpful in helping us change our stress-response (see a previous blog on this here!).

Stressful things WILL happen in life, but the way we RESPOND to them can change. But this takes practice, and I believe yoga can help with this.

I am personally someone who is prone to stress and anxiety, and this is why my yoga practice is something sacred to me. I’m convinced it helps me stay calm in situations where I could otherwise drown in emotional stress. (Not that I keep my cool all the time!!!)

I’d love for you to benefit in this way too!

Need a little help?

If you need a little help getting started with 15-20 minutes of mindful yoga at home have a little look at my classes… 😉

Learn more about BendyLife yoga...

I hope you enjoyed this mini blog. 🤓

Please share your views in the comments below!

Jolanthe x


Reference

Black, D. S., Cole, S. W., Irwin, M. R., Breen, E., Cyr, N. M. S., Nazarian, N., … & Lavretsky, H. (2013). Yogic meditation reverses NF-κB and IRF-related transcriptome dynamics in leukocytes of family dementia caregivers in a randomized controlled trial. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 38(3), 348-355.

Bower, J. E., Greendale, G., Crosswell, A. D., Garet, D., Sternlieb, B., Ganz, P. A., … & Cole, S. W. (2014). Yoga reduces inflammatory signaling in fatigued breast cancer survivors: a randomized controlled trial. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 43, 20-29.

O’Connor, D. B., Thayer, J. F., & Vedhara, K. (2021). Stress and health: A review of psychobiological processes. Annual review of psychology, 72, 663-688.

Strength, Posture & Mindfulness

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Does Yoga Improve Sleep?

Sleep, glorious sleep!

Can yoga improve your sleep?

 

Do you find yourself mulling over all your worries when you’re trying to fall asleep?

It’s annoying isn’t it!? You know that the best thing for you right now is to drop off, but still your brain just won’t let you.

(It’s even MORE annoying if you have young children that wake you up a lot – so that when you have the opportunity to sleep, you really want to make it count!)

Well, I feel you. I’ve had it very often myself.

That’s why I thought that today I’d delve into a few studies to see if yoga can improve sleep! And I’ll go into my personal journey of how I am trying to improve my own sleep.

 

My personal story

I’ve never been a ‘good’ sleeper. There’s been periods in my life when falling asleep was really, really difficult. And the more I got frustrated about it, the worse it got!

I do the usual things like avoid caffeine after 12 noon and am even a little worried that chocolate will keep me awake. So no after dinner chocolate for me! (Plenty before though…)

I have noticed that the times in my life when I’m more mentally stressed definitely coincide with worse sleep. So, it naturally follows in my mind that a yoga practice that can effectively ease my stress might help with my sleep too!

I’m personally a little guilty of doing mostly the physical side of yoga. I love the way it tones my muscles and the feeling of ease it gives in my body. But, one of my aims is to work a little more on the mental relaxation side of yoga as well.

(More on HOW I plan to do this later in this blog!)

But first, let’s delve into a few studies on yoga and sleep…

 

Research on Yoga and Sleep

A quick search on Google Scholar immediately popped up a few recent studies on yoga and sleep!

Here is a quick and dirty summary of a few of them:

  • University students doing 8 weeks of either a slow-flow vinyasa class or a strenuous Ashtanga class 2 times/ week improved in their amount of reported sleep, stress and anxiety, compared with the control group (Street, 2020).
  • Health care professionals attending an 8 week ‘yogic mediation’ course improved their sleep quality compared with a control group. This was proven objectively, using a brain-scan (Guerra et al. 2020).
  • 16 experimental studies on yoga and sleep (out of the 19 studies) showed a positive effect of yoga on sleep in a systematic review by Wang et al. (2020). That said, this effect was only seen for healthy individuals who did not have cancer and were not in a peri-menopausal life-stage.
  • An 11-minute Yoga Nidra meditation (an audio file listened to at home) led to lower stress, higher well-being and improved sleep quality after a 30-day intervention, compared with a control group who did not listen to the meditation. This positive effect was still seen even six weeks after the intervention had finished! (Moszeik et al. 2020)

This is only a whistle stop tour of a few studies. If you’re interested yourself, I’d highly recommend browsing Google Scholar when you search for ‘yoga + sleep’.

 

Which type of yoga?

Yoga is a broad term and it includes a huge variety of movement (and non-movement) types. You might be familiar with a sweaty Vinyasa class, or perhaps a Yoga Nidra practice where you literally lie on the ground with your eye closed. Very different!

What I noticed in the studies on yoga and sleep is that they all focussed on adding the mindfulness aspect to the physical yoga poses or they used a non-physical ‘yoga mediation’ or the Yoga Nidra style (the lying down one).

So, HOW can this mindful side of yoga help with sleep?

 

Bringing back ‘Rest & Digest’

When we can’t sleep it is because our nervous system is fired up! Our ‘fight, flight or freeze’ system is active and it stops us from falling asleep.

The mental stress of the day, our ruminating thoughts, the high energy/violent impressions from the Netflix show we’ve just watched or the caffeine still flowing in our veins are all possible causes.

Even if you’re super tired, this survival drive will keep you up, because, instinctually, your body thinks there might be danger!

(How annoying is it when you’re tired to your bones, but you just won’t fall asleep!?!)

Well, a mindful yoga practice has been shown to help reduce the activation of your ‘fight or flight’ nervous system (the sympathetic nervous system), and increase the activation of its opposite: the ‘rest and digest’ (the parasympathetic nervous system).

 

Benefits not just after a yoga class…

What we aim for with a mindful yoga practice is that we not only get this ‘rest and digest’ benefit immediately after a session, but that at any time in the day it is easier to tap into this restful and peaceful state.

So, when you get stuck in traffic, you might be able to stay calmer by taking a slow breath and, in so doing, avoid a huge spike in adrenaline. Or when you’re watching an action film, you might be able to stay calmer in your body rather than letting yourself experience as much adrenaline as the stunt actors!

Studies on long-term yogis tend to support this outcome, as they show that yogis generally have higher mental wellbeing than a random selection of non-yogis (Morris et al. 2023).

(Have a look at my previous blog about Ashtanga and mental health here for more details about this).

 

How I am going to improve MY sleep…

As I mentioned at the start of this blog, I LOVE a strong and sweaty Ashtanga session! I love feeling my muscles work and that satisfied feeling after exercise.

My regular Ashtanga practice at home, does give me huge mental health benefits already, but recently I’ve been looking for something more.

Specifically… I’ve been reading more and more about Yoga Nidra. (I highly recommend the book ‘Practical Yoga Nidra’ by Scott More). And I’m starting to add this into my own yoga routine.

 

What is Yoga Nidra?

Yoga Nidra is a non-physical form of yoga that is a mindfulness exercise. In a comfortable position, you bring your awareness to either your body, your energy, your emotions or your thoughts in an open and curious way. This is most easily done while listening to an audio recording.

It is translated literally to ‘Yogic Sleep’! And it can last anywhere from 2 minutes to 60 minutes!

And as you might remember, the study by Moszeik et al. (2020) found that 30 days of listening to an 11-minute Yoga Nidra audio recording improved sleep quality!

So this is my newest personal challenge…. Along-side my very physical Ashtanga Yoga practice, I will be adding a short and sustainable Yoga Nidra practice.

Would you like to join me???

 

New Yoga Nidra (Sleep) Challenge coming up!

In this personal Sleep Quest I am creating a series of Yoga Nidra audio recordings. (Guided by Scott More’s book: Practical Yoga Nidra).

And I’ll be inviting you to join me for this challenge when it’s ready! This will be available by Christmas this year (2023), so that you can either do it over the Christmas holidays or start it in January.

This will be a programme of daily 5-10 minute sessions, for which you just need to lie on the ground or sit on a comfy chair, and listen…. Easy! 😉

Watch this space my friends!

 

The take-away message?

If you’re struggling with sleep – then I FEEL your pain! It’s so awful and annoying and frustrating.

But the good new is… a yoga practice (of any type) might help you!

It can be super physical (like Ashtanga) or much more relaxed, as long as you bring in some mindfulness. This looks like including slow and conscious breathing and bringing your awareness to how your body, energy, emotions and thoughts are feeling in the moment, in an open and curious way.

 

We all deserve restful sleep!

Need a little help?

If you need a little help getting started with 15-20 minutes of mindful yoga at home have a little look at my classes… 😉

Learn more about BendyLife yoga...

I hope you enjoyed this mini blog. 🤓

Please share your views in the comments below!

Jolanthe x


Reference

Guerra, P. C., Santaella, D. F., D’Almeida, V., Santos-Silva, R., Tufik, S., & Len, C. A. (2020). Yogic meditation improves objective and subjective sleep quality of healthcare professionals. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 40, 101204.

Morris, B., Jackson, J., & Roberts III, A. (2023). Effects of long-term Ashtanga Yoga practice on psychological well-being. Mental Health and Social Inclusion.

Moszeik, E. N., von Oertzen, T., & Renner, K. H. (2022). Effectiveness of a short Yoga Nidra meditation on stress, sleep, and well-being in a large and diverse sample. Current Psychology, 41(8), 5272-5286.

Street, K. (2020). Effectiveness of Ashtanga and Vinyasa Yoga: Combating Anxiety, Depression, Stress and Sleep Quality. University of Arkansas.

Wang, W. L., Chen, K. H., Pan, Y. C., Yang, S. N., & Chan, Y. Y. (2020). The effect of yoga on sleep quality and insomnia in women with sleep problems: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC psychiatry, 20, 1-19.

Strength, Posture & Mindfulness

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with short, easy-to-follow yoga classes from your LIVING ROOM!

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I enjoy getting to know each and every new yoga student – so can’t wait to meet you!

Love, Jolanthe x


Mindfulness for A Crazy Life

Mindfulness for A Crazy Life

What is Mindfulness? And How can I fit it into my busy life?

 

Do you ever realise you pretty much rushed through every moment of your day?

Or have you been at the end of a car journey, and didn’t really remember the details of driving?

Or do you feel your life is just rushing by?

 

We operate on Auto-pilot

This is because we are often on… auto-pilot! Automatically doing our daily tasks, with our minds already planing the next thing on the to-do list. And in this process, we never TRULY experience and enjoy our present moment!

This is SO normal in our crazy, busy, over-filled lives. So no judgement from me! I’m right there with you!

“I’m just so busy – this is just life for me!” I hear you say.

Well, I will try to convince you that, the busier you are, the MORE you need some mindful (mentally present) moments in your life.

…and you’ll be surprised to hear, that there is a REALISTIC way of getting these moments!

 

What exactly is Mindfulness?

It’s more simple than you might think. Mindfulness originates from Buddhist teachings on meditation, but don’t let that scare you! It’s not really about meditating for hours on end.

Mindfulness is bringing your attention to your senses: touch, sight, smell, hearing, taste and proprioception (feeling your body’s position). Usually one at a time!

For example, you might bring your attention to the feeling of your body, slowly moving from your feet to your head (this is a body scan). You might bring your attention to the sensation of your breath. Or you might focus on particular sights, sounds, tastes or smells in your environment.

This can take anywhere from 10 seconds to ….as long as you want!

Sounds simple – right?

While it’s essentially simple, it’s nevertheless difficult to stop and apply a moment of mindfulness when you’re in a crazy busy time of your life! (I feel your pain!!!)

So…  hearing WHY mindfulness is important might help to increase your motivation to stop and take a mindful moment more regularly.

 

Why is Mindfulness good for me?

Stopping the hamster-wheel in your mind for a moment is SO. GOOD. FOR. YOU!

But I think, intuitively, you already knew that.

When you stop, observe your senses and slow down your breath (aka. have a mindful moment), this slows down your heart rate, lowers your blood pressure, lowers your cortisol level (the stress hormone) and basically signals to your body that you are safe!

These are all physical and mental things that we struggle with when we are too busy. So adding in a little mindfulness is ESPECIALLY important for the busiest of us!

Yes – it’s difficult to fit it in, but keep reading! The next section shows that it doesn’t have to take a long time!

A lot of scientific research has praised the benefits of mindfulness, but I want to focus on a lovely systematic review study by Howarth et al. (2019).

This is why…

 

Just 5 to 25 minutes of mindfulness!

Ana Howarth and her team at the University of London reviewed the findings of 84 experimental studies looking at mindfulness. But what’s most interesting is that the vast majority of these experiments only gave ONE single session of mindfulness to their participants (only lasting between 5 and 25 minutes)!

Amazingly, 93% of the experiments resulted in significant positive health effects!

There was a mix of study participants. The majority were ‘general’ healthy people, and 19 studies included specific groups of people with an underlying health issue.

In BOTH groups, a very BRIEF mindfulness session had positive results!

 

Improved memory & lowered stress

The study’s results indicate that including very SHORT mindfulness moment into your life could increase how you enjoy yourself day-to-day AND how productive you are at work!

This is so because mindfulness improved:

  • Memory and attention
  • Cortisol (the stress hormone), negative emotions and overall emotional regulation. Both in a real-life context, and when stress was induced on-purpose in an experiment.
  • Lowered perceptions of pain (when induced by an experiment)
  • Cardiovascular reactivity (which indicates better heart health)
  • Healthier eating or smoking behaviours

 

Reduced pain & lowered blood pressure

And not only did ‘generally-healthy’ people benefit from stress reduction and improved mood, but people with serious health conditions benefitted from a very BRIEF mindfulness experiment.

 

Specifically, the study saw:

  • Lowered blood pressure in hypertensive men with chronic kidney disease
  • Improved body satisfaction in participants with eating disorders
  • Reduced pain-related distress, and lower perceived intensity of pain in patients with chronic or acute pain.
  • Improved brain-function for those with a traumatic brain injury

 

How do I fit Mindfulness into my CRAZY life?!?

I’m sure you appreciate the amazing findings by Ana Howarth and her team at the University of London (2019), but are still thinking:

“That’s great, but I HAVE NOT got time to sit and breathe!”

And I hear you loud and clear.

The beauty of mindfulness is that is doesn’t have to be a proper ‘session’. You can fit it into you life in little ‘snacks’! (Just like how you can exercise by exercise ‘snacking’ – see my blog on this here).

 

Some examples that are EASY to fit in to a crazy busy life:

  • 2 minutes of mindful breathing in your car after you’ve dropped of your child at nursery or school.
  • 3 minutes of mindful breathing as you stand in your garden, letting the winter/summer sun warm up your skin.
  • 2 minutes of mindful breathing as you wait for the kettle to boil in your office kitchenette
  • A 5 minute body scan (maybe listening to an audio guide), just as you come home from a stressful day of work.
  • A 10 minute yoga practice (or a longer one!) where you focus on mindful breathing and feeling the sensations in your body.
  • 1 minute of mindful breathing while you’re in the loo!!!

Do you get the idea? You can do it at ANY time of day, in ANY clothes, in ANY place!

 

The take-away message?

Basically – the busier you are, the more you NEED mindfulness. Or you risk life passing you by like a runaway train. (As well as risking an upward creeping blood pressure and stress level!)

And, thankfully, it is POSSIBLE to add very SHORT mindful moments into your day. This can be as simple as a few slow breaths in your car, stopping to let the sun shine on your face, or a short yoga practice on your kitchen floor.

(Hint hint: I can help you with that short yoga session! I have a bunch of 10, 15 and 20 minute online classes!)

 

To conclude…

I hope that this blog will help you to realise that you deserve those mindful moments.

That taking a moment is SO GOOD for you. And because you’ll be less stressed and more attentive it’s also good for everyone AROUND you!

You deserve this. ❤️

Need a little help?

If you need a little help getting started with 15-20 minutes of mindful yoga at home have a little look at my classes… 😉

Learn more about BendyLife yoga...

I hope you enjoyed this mini blog. 🤓

Please share your views in the comments below!

Jolanthe x


Reference

Howarth, A., Smith, J. G., Perkins-Porras, L., & Ussher, M. (2019). Effects of brief mindfulness-based interventions on health-related outcomes: A systematic review. Mindfulness10(10), 1957-1968.

Strength, Posture & Mindfulness

I’ll help you gain body confidence and contentment

with short, easy-to-follow yoga classes from your LIVING ROOM!

On-demand and LIVE

Check out what I offer!

I’m a Small Business

Give yourself the gift of self-care for a super affordable price, while supporting an independent, small business!

I enjoy getting to know each and every new yoga student – so can’t wait to meet you!

Love, Jolanthe x