Stress and Situational Awareness

School of Yoga explains anatomy of stress

Stress has been defined in many ways

# Dr. Hans Selye: (Father of modern Stress theory) “the non-specific response of the body to any demand made upon it”

# Lazarus: “The response of the body when pressure exceeds one’s perceived ability to cope”.

  • In any situation, the primary impulse/stimulus is received by the amygdala, a small pea sized organ behind the eyes and between the ears for evaluation of threat.
  • When the amygdala perceives threat, it triggers the hypothalamus which, transmits the threat to the adrenal glands through the pituitary gland.
  • As a result of this input, the body releases adrenaline and cortisol into the blood stream, activating the sympathetic nervous system, allowing the body to react to meet the threat.

School of Yoga explains the mechanics of response to stimulus

First, all stimuli enter the body through the sensory system or “jñānendriya, comprising of,

  • Cakṣu – eye / sight.
  • Śrotra – ear / hearing.
  • Ghrāṇa – nose / smell.
  • Rasana – tongue / taste.
  • Spārśana – skin / touch.

Secondly, the stimuli are collated at the center of cognition or manas. This is the somatosensory cortex of the brain. The information also goes to the amygdala for evaluation of threat.

Third, since all stimuli are potential sources of stress, each stimulus gets evaluated by the amygdala which is a repository of experience or anubhava. Both good and bad experiences are stored here as well as the somatosensory cortex and this is our conditioning or dharma.

Lastly, the incoming information is processed in the brain and compared with dharma (natural state or conditioning) using logic stored in the memory which is called buddhi (intelligence).

After this, the person processes a reaction through the motor organs (karmendriya).

  • Vac – speech / tongue
  • Pāṇi – hands
  • Pāda – feet
  • Pāyu – anus
  • Upastha – genitals

School of Yoga explains stress and the Self

  • All stimuli initiate change. The first reaction to change is “fear” on account of a perceived danger to the existence of the Self or asmitā (self-worth) by the change.
  • Consequently, change causes confusion/ anxiety/ resistance which is known as tamas.
  • Subsequently, the stimulus enters the amygdala and is compared with the resident conditioning (dharma). Depending on the impact of the change on the sense of Self (asmitā), the response is either withdrawal (tamas) or passion (rajas). This is also known as “fight” or “flight” response. 
  • Subsequently, a response and feedback loop is initiated and this leads to better understanding of the stimulus. This results in homeostasis or sattva.
  • This balance is ever changing and the process is called attribute or guṇa.

The body responds by:

  • Increased Heart rate & blood pressure: To get more blood to muscles & brain.
  • Faster breathing: To increase oxygen inflow into the body.
  • Dilation of blood vessels in muscles: Preparing for action.
  • Dilation of the eyes and sensitivity of the sense organs: To assess the situation and act quickly.
  • Auditory exclusion & tunnel vision.
  • Inhibition of erection.
  • Decreased blood flow to skin/ digestive tract/ kidneys & liver to divert blood to musculo-skeletal system.
  • Increased level of blood sugar, fats and cholesterol: For extra energy
  • Increased level of platelets and blood clotting elements: to prevent haemorrhage in case of injury

School of Yoga – Indicators of Stress

  • Physical: fatigue, headache, insomnia, muscle aches/stiffness (especially neck, shoulders and low back), heart palpitations, chest pains, abdominal cramps, nausea, trembling, cold extremities, flushing or sweating and frequent colds.
  • Intellectual: Decreased concentration and memory, indecisiveness, mind racing or going blank, confusion, loss of sense of humour.
  • Emotional: anxiety, nervousness, depression, anger, frustration, worry, fear, irritability, impatience, short temper, nervousness (nail-biting, foot-tapping), increased eating, yelling, swearing, blaming.

What happens after the threat passes?

  • Lessons are stored in the amygdala for future use; the experience changes personal values (svadharma) on account of awareness of the situation (vijñāna) and its impact on the awareness of our identity (jñāna) and this consequently reflects as changes to our behaviour.
  • Often, we are able to manage some parts of the situation, but not all elements. Also, there may not be enough time, or our conditioning may lack the capability to find a solution. This leads to sustained perception of threat and we begin to experience physical, intellectual or emotional discomfort.
  • Finally, the body which has gone into a state of alert now needs to come back to normal. This may be possible if there is enough time for the system to assimilate the learning and work out the adrenaline. But we often find ourselves confronting multiple situations with different coping requirements in each situation which results in prolonged states of arousal that, over time, damages the body.
  • The chemicals released by the pituitary, the adrenals, the hypothalamus, the thyroid etc., are life-saving chemicals that inhibit routine functions to provide the drive to face danger. Prolonged exposure to these chemicals damages vital organs, leading to reduced resistance of the immune system, hypertension, psychiatric illnesses, and stomach ailments, etc., which over time result in other psychosomatic problems that affect different parts of our body.

Factors that affect solutions to stress:

This struggle to come back to normalcy is driven by a reflex built into the body called homeostasis. Homeostasis, may be defined as the tendency of the body to move towards a relatively stable equilibrium between interdependent elements, especially as maintained by physiological processes. This means that the body works with a certain set of parameters for proper functioning, like body temperature etc. Consequently, when this parameter is disturbed, as in any stress situation, the body takes compensatory action to bring it back to equilibrium.

Factors inhibiting solutions to stress.

  • Will: The drive to affect the outcome in our favour.
  • Genetic: Inherent situation handling tools that we are born with.
  • Conditioning – Environmental, culture, school background, home, etc., determines our ability to handle various situations in the right manner.
  • Classification: By nature, some situations are more difficult to manage than others.

Example: The death of a close relative is more difficult to handle than an argument at a traffic signal. A natural calamity like war is more difficult to handle than temporary discomfort like missing a meal or not eating your favourite dish.

  • Health: The current state of Physical, Intellectual and Emotional being determines our reactions in any situation.
  • Risk taking: The ability to start an activity without a clear idea of the possible outcome determines the level of stress experienced.
  • Self Esteem: This is a very strong source of stress and is driven by factors such as fear of failure, lack of confidence, lack of domain knowledge, lack of environmental support and previous negative experience.

School of Yoga – management of stress and situational awareness:

Stress is experiential and very personal. Obviously, only the person experiencing it knows the high and discomfort of anxiety. Time, place, situation and capability, all could trigger a stress reaction. Consequently, a situation that stresses one person need not stress another, even though the people may be related or in the situation together. Also, that which stresses one at any point in time need not affect the same person in the same manner at other times.

Finally, as propounded by Abraham Maslow, when, in any situation where safety and security are endangered, stress in these issues would take precedence over other issues.

In conclusion, there are two parts in the management of stress. The first is intervention which is to deal with anxiety as the experience unfolds and the second is to readjust the physical and psychological aspects of our self-worth (asmitā).

All solutions require testing the response against one’s conditioning before actualising the response. It is important to keep an open mind to learning and be sensitive to impact of one’s actions on others.

Both intervention and readjustment aspects of the solution can be found in the practice of Yoga.

Anecdotes, experiences and situations to help understand stress…

Given below are a series of situations. Some are motivational situations, others distressing while some boring. Decide what you would experience in these situation and weigh between 0 and 5 on the impact; for example – on the day of marriage, most would experience a mix of motivation and anxiety. Let us assume that the stress experienced = 2.

Similarly, assess the stress you would experience in the following situations;

  • Anxiety on the day of exams.
  • Apprehension on the day of the results of the exams.
  • Fear of not getting good marks.
  • Anxiety of having got poor marks.
  • Fear of not getting admission into a college.
  • Stress of losing a job.
  • Anxiety of argument with one’s best friend.
  • Impact of hunger.
  • Do animals experience stress? 
  • Anxiety that a pet experiences when master returns from work.
  • Is earthquake a result of stress between two plates?

Points to ponder about stress;

Internal Tags: Conditioning or Dharma, Self Awareness or Asmita,  Guna in Bhagawat Gita chapter 14

External Tags: Hypothalalmic-Pituitary-Adrenal activity)

Share your opinion and experiences regarding stress;

  • How do we recognise a stress situation? 
  • Is anxiety hard to manage? Why? Are all forms of stress hard to manage? 
  • How do we recognise elements of our behaviour? 
  • Is giving up bad? What happens when we give up? 
  • What is fear of failure? 
  • Does prayer help when we are afraid? 
  • Can we really control events or are we mostly reacting to them? 
  • Is fear of death a stressor or a motivator? 
  • Can one get stressed when feeling motivated? 
  • Is environmental degradation a source of stress? 
  • Can lack of education become a stressor? 
  • Is anxiety impulsive or pre-meditated? 
  • When is it hard to admit that you are stressed? 
  • How do you recognise that you are stressed?
  • How do you recognise that your coping actions are not adequate?
  • Is it possible to recognise an anxious person?
  • How do you recognise your value system orconditioning (svadharma)?
  • What would svatantra mean for your team, your company, your state or country.
Editor at School Of Yoga
School Of Yoga is a single point resource for all aspects of Classical Yoga practise. We try to achieve this by placing Yoga's traditional methodology in front of the reader and eliciting his or her experience. We value everyone's Yoga experience and would like you to share and enrich other practitioners so that everyone benefits.
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