You’re sitting in traffic, late for an important meeting, watching the minutes tick away. Your hypothalamus, a tiny control tower in your brain, decides to send out the order: Send in the stress hormones! These stress hormones are the same ones that trigger your body’s “fight or flight” response. Your heart races, your breath quickens, and your muscles ready for action. This response was designed to protect your body in an emergency by preparing you to react quickly. But when the stress response keeps firing, day after day, it could put your health at serious risk.
If like increases like, opposites balance, and the stress response is unequivocally reducing, lightening, and catabolic in nature, then the antidote to excess stress is to offer our systems an abundance of the entire group of building, nourishing qualities—through our diets, our lifestyle, our practices, our relationships—basically, anywhere that we can get them. This means welcoming influences that are heavy, grounding, slow, unctuous, nourishing, soft, and stabilizing, while doing our best to minimize the influence of their opposites. At its core, the Ayurvedic approach to balancing excess stress is really that simple.
The rest of this article focuses on how exactly to invite these qualities into our lives in a supportive way. But it also explores how to release accumulated stress and tension from the mind and tissues in order to help promote a more easeful relationship with life. In the following paragraphs, you will find five simple steps to mitigating the effects of excess stress in your life.
1. Slow Down
One of the most important first steps in balancing stress is to slow down. However, when we’re accustomed to living a fast-paced, busy life, slowing down can feel utterly impossible. It is not. It is, for whatever reason, very challenging—and often frightening. For those of us who can muster the courage to begin to invite a slower, more balanced way of being into our daily routine—one gentle step at a time—the rewards are often felt quite immediately.9 Then, with time, the positive changes reinforce our intentions and can encourage us to slow down a bit more, and then a bit more, and later even more. But how to begin? That is truly the crux of the entire endeavor. One of the best ways to slow the pace of our lives is through devoted and purposeful self-care: taking time every single day to be still, quiet, and immersed in self-nourishment. It is so important, in fact, that it is the next step in returning to balance.
2. Indulge in Quality Self-Care
Purposeful and committed self-care can be a beautiful part of the healing process, and a meaningful opportunity to practice self-love. Each day, regardless of what else might be going on in our lives, a devoted practice of self-care reaffirms a deep commitment to Self, to wellness, and to vibrant health. Choosing to prioritize things like adequate rest and other nourishing practices can help us stay centered as we navigate the turbulence of the world around us.
In truth, there are countless ways to nurture and care for ourselves. Those that impart a sense of grounding, relaxation, warmth, unctuousness, and stability will be best for balancing excess stress, but it is important that you follow your intuition; you know you best. Below, we have outlined a number of different possibilities. The list is by no means all-inclusive, but it is meant to provide a number of choices to spark the interest of diverse individuals. Trust what most appeals to you. And remember, it is usually best to choose just one or two new practices to start with. You can always add more as and when you feel inspired to do so.
Take a Bath
A bath relaxes the nervous system, releases tension, and helps to quiet the mind. If you like, you can add ⅓ cup Ginger powder and ⅓ cup baking soda to the water or even Epsom salt bath for increased relaxation and healing. This combination encourages circulation, sweating, and detoxification, but it is also quite soothing, making it very supportive when stress is elevated.
Practice Oil Pulling
Swishing and gargling with warm, untoasted sesame oil or coconut oil helps to remove tension from the jaw, improves the sense of taste, and removes natural toxins from the mouth, teeth, and gums. Begin by sipping a tablespoon of organic oil Swish the oil from side to side, front to back, and through the teeth for up to twenty minutes. Spit out the oil and rinse with warm water.
Do Abhyanga (Ayurvedic Oil Massage)
This ancient practice of self-massage with oil calms the nervous system, lubricates and rejuvenates the tissues, and promotes healthy circulation throughout the body. It is no coincidence that the abhyanga is a profound practice of rejuvenation and loving self-care that benefits both the physical body and the more subtle realms of consciousness. In addition, the oil itself forms a protective sheath around the body that can help to buffer the nervous system against stress. Each morning, before a shower or bath, massage about ¼–½ cup warm organic oil into the skin..
Nasya is the practice of applying medicated oil to the nasal passages. It soothes these delicate tissues, promotes unobstructed breathing, relieves accumulated stress, and supports mental clarity. Nasya should not be performed by pregnant or menstruating women. Each morning, apply three to five drops of oil into each nostril. If you are new to the practice of nasya, please see a practising yoga therapist .
Massage Your Feet Before Bed
Before bed, apply some warm shudh desi ghee or coconut oil to your feet. Or if you prefer, use plain Sesame Oil, Brahmi Oil, or Bhringaraj Oil. This practice grounds the energy, soothes the nervous system, reduces stress, quiets the mind, and promotes sound sleep. Remember that sleep is one of the body’s most essential avenues of rejuvenation. Be sure to wear some old socks to bed to protect your sheets.
Sit in Nature or by the sea
Often, simply exposing our nervous systems to the natural world—to its sights, sounds, smells, textures, and rhythms—is enough to activate the “rest and digest” capacity within the parasympathetic nervous system, which governs periods of relaxation. Consider a gentle walk, sitting by a stream or sea , taking in a gorgeous view, or simply surrendering your body to the surface of earth for a while. If the idea of taking time to connect with nature speaks to you, this practice is probably worth pursuing.
Read an Uplifting or Inspiring Book
A good, inspirational read can go a long way toward signaling the entire system to relax and rejuvenate a bit.
Lie on the Couch for a While
As a culture, we tend to expect productivity, and many of us experience tremendous guilt around being “unproductive.” But when we’re exhausted, stressed out, and tending toward hyper-vigilance, there is nothing more soothing than simply taking a good long break—maybe even a rejuvenating afternoon nap.
Foster Supportive, Loving Relationships
Our systems often also find great refuge in a good laugh, a loving connection, a reassuring hug, a sympathetic ear, and other encouraging relational signs that we are, indeed, supported. If you have terrific friends, close family members, or beloved pets who can nurture you in this way, consider carving out some time for a meaningful connection with your tribe.
Get Balanced and Adequate Rest
Sleep is an important antidote to excess stress. It has considerable restorative functions and plays a critical role in the repair and rejuvenation of tissues (both in the brain and throughout the body), but it also allows for the more efficient removal of metabolic wastes and natural toxins. If sleep is an area that you struggle with—whether you get too much sleep or too little—try following the routine. Try to go to bed and get up at about the same times each day, and aim to sleep for at least six – eight hours each night. When we’re recovering from excess stress, our bodies often need significantly more rest. In other words, at least for a while, it might be completely appropriate to indulge in more than eight hours of sleep each night.
3. Commit to a Daily Routine
Ancient texts and Ayurveda recommends a daily routine for everyone, but it is particularly essential when we are trying to balance excess stress. Our physiology is very much adapted to—and supported by—some sense of regularity. Actually, it is amazing how impactful a few adjustments to our routines can be. Think about the natural world and how prevalent routines are; most plants and animals are profoundly attuned to the cycles of day and night, the seasons, and other patterns that direct the broader community of life. By contrast, the human experience seems increasingly disconnected from these natural rhythms. Adopting even a modest sense of routine gives our nervous systems a number of comforting and reassuring reference points throughout each day. These touchstones send a resounding message to the deep tissues of the body that all is well, that we can be at ease. Over time, a context of predictability and safety allows the nervous system to relax, and a profound rejuvenation process can begin.
There are some very simple first steps to establishing a daily routine—things like waking, eating meals, going to bed at about the same times each day, and if possible, maintaining a consistent work or activity schedule. These steps alone can have a profound effect on the nervous system. Including self-care or mindfulness practices in your daily routine will provide an even deeper level of support.
Exercise and its benefits
When engaged appropriately, exercise can be a panacea for improved health. While exercise itself may not be terribly building or nourishing, it supports the body’s natural mechanisms of rejuvenation—things like sound sleep, the ability to relax, and a balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Proper exercise helps to release accumulated tension, move stagnant mental and emotional energy, and improve circulation. It also kindles agni (the metabolic fire, which is essential to optimal health), improves digestion, bolsters the body’s detoxification mechanisms, and encourages proper elimination, relaxation, and sound sleep—all of which help to counter the effects of excess stress.
If you are not currently exercising regularly, keep in mind that a supportive exercise program does not have to be complex or time-intensive. A daily twenty-minute walk can do wonders for the entire system—body, mind, and spirit.
4. Quiet the Mind-Body Organism
Chronic stress tends to ramp up the sympathetic nervous system so that our bodies react to even benign situations as if they were profoundly threatening. Ayurveda recommends a number of subtle therapies like pranayama, yoga, and meditation as an effective means of breaking this cycle, resetting the nervous system, and cultivating a healthier physiological response to stress. A number of Ayurvedic herbs also foster health in the mind and the nervous system and can be incredibly supportive. While we cannot live a life completely free of potentially stressful situations, we can certainly change our capacity to cope with them. This step is about calming the nervous system while celebrating and activating the human capacity to re-pattern the mind and re-organize the physiology. The following therapeutic strategies do both—each in their own unique way. They help us to digest and release accumulated tension and stagnant mental, emotional, and physical ama (toxins), but simultaneously encourage fluidity and ease throughout our bodies—both physically and energetically. Follow your inspiration in terms of where to start.
Prana, the vital breath, is the subtle essence of the life-force that animates each of us. It infuses every cell and tissue throughout our bodies and is carried on and stimulated by the breath. Imbibing prana helps to restore fluidity and vitality to the subtle energy channels of the body while digesting and eliminating stagnation and ama (toxins). One of the best ways to bathe our tissues in fresh prana is to practice pranayama (yogic breathing exercises). The practice of Nadi Shodhana is especially effective at clearing accumulated tension, relieving stress, and supporting an improved mental disposition in the face of everyday stressors.
Yoga moves prana in the body, helps to dissipate tension, clears stagnation, and encourages fluidity, both in the tissues as well as in the mental and emotional spheres. Ayurveda offers a nuanced approach to yoga that specifically helps to balance whichever doshas need the most attention in your system.
Imagine if we could consistently witness the stressors in our lives with detachment and clarity, focusing on purposefully responding to them rather than blindly reacting to them. Meditation helps us to develop this capacity through the cultivation of passive awareness, and can inform a far healthier response to stressful situations. Over time, a daily meditation practice can truly re-pattern the brain, helping to re-wire our response to challenging circumstances. If you do not have an established practice, Empty Bowl Meditation is a wonderful place to start.
Changing Your Relationship with Stress
Studies have shown that how we feel about the stress in our lives affects its impact on our physiology. If we view stress as a harmful influence, it generally is. If however, we view stress as an adaptive response to a difficult situation, its negative impacts are dramatically reduced. The stress response is an age-old mechanism for ensuring that we’re up to the task at hand. If we can simply acknowledge the intelligence behind it, and learn to relate to the hormonal cascade with a sense of gratitude and awe, we can actually minimize the harmful impacts of stress before they begin. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t also be working to reduce our exposure to stress in more general terms, but there is something to be said for befriending the utter intelligence and wonder of our instinct for self-preservation.
5. Eat a Supportive Diet
Committing to eating a balanced diet does not have to be an overwhelming or taxing endeavor. In fact, when we’re dealing with chronic stress, our lives are often rather complicated, and our systems generally respond better to solutions that are comparatively simple. The diet needs to be a wholesome source of nourishment and grounding. It is probably best to focus on emphasizing healthy, whole foods, and minimizing processed foods, stimulants, and refined sugars (which we often reach for when time is short and our bodies are craving nourishment). If you don’t have a lot of time to cook your own meals, soups, other simple, grounding foods are usually good choices. Or, choose prepared foods that are aligned with the healthy, whole food model.
Trust Your Own Process
We recognize that there is a lot to work with in the preceding paragraphs. As you prepare to ground, nourish, and rejuvenate, please keep in mind that listening to yourself as you engage in this process is as important as each of the steps above. A slow, simple, gradual approach to change is far more likely to be supportive than an overly effortful attempt at perfection. Remember, the stress response floods our bodies with activating, energizing qualities that are light, sharp, hot, dry, mobile, and subtle by nature. Balance is therefore supported by quieter, more nurturing qualities that are naturally heavy (or grounding), slow, cool, oily, and stabilizing. Your process of embracing change should also feel nourishing and stabilizing—delicious, even. Go slowly. Be intentional. And more than anything else, listen to your deepest inner knowing, honoring where you are at each moment along the way. We hope that we can continue to support you on your journey toward a life of balance and vibrant health.