Stress, Yoga and the Relaxation Response

It’s uncomfortable to admit it’s happening under our roof, but a recent study by Employee Benefits company, Perkbox, revealed that more than one in five UK workers experience moderate to high levels of work-related stress several times per week. The mental health charity, Mind, puts the figure even higher at one in three. When under stress, employees admit they struggle to be as productive at work as they normally would and many end up disengaging with work entirely.


For anyone who’s experienced stress at work (and that’s almost everyone I know), it makes sense that our passion for work would suffer in the face of ongoing stress. And while it sounds obvious, I’ve repeatedly seen top performers blamed and ostracised for becoming disengaged when the root of the problem was the organisational system and culture they were operating within. Employees generally want to work hard and make a difference.


Taking a moment to understand the natural, and highly sophisticated human response to stress, makes it easier to develop effective solutions that respect employees, protect your human assets and ensure you do better business in the long term.


What is The Stress Response?

The stress response, commonly known as ‘fight-or-flight’, is considered a throwback from pre-historic days. Given how much water has passed under the bridge since then, I’d suggest if we still have it, we still need it.


Although perhaps less practical in our predominantly predator-free lives, where most of us are unlikely to stare down a hungry lion, the psychosocial stressors that turn on the stress response create identical bodily reactions whether a threat is real or imagined. Feeling attacked emotionally creates the same physiological response as an approaching lion. While we’re unlikely to be mauled to death in the office, an aggressive boss with the power to fire us or an unrealistic workload threatening to prove us incapable does bring the threat of ‘professional death.’ The stress response is very much still required to allow us to mobilise our resources and deal with the situation at hand.


It goes like this. We perceive a threat. Our body automatically prepares to fight the threat or take us from it as quickly as possible. To do this, we release adrenalin and cortisol which increase lung capacity, boost blood sugar production and raise the heart rate (all pretty handy in a fleeing scenario). To fuel this, we experience a temporary suppression of our immune system, short-term memory, pain reception, and even digestion and waste production as resources are diverted from ‘non-essential’ functions. The beauty of the body is it’s innate drive for balance. These same hormones play a key role in restoring the body to balance when the perceived threat has passed. Often we come away from stressful situations with more knowledge, confidence and even new skills and appreciation.


Stress is Not Bad


Stress is not inherently bad and it can be the precursor to highly-prized positive momentum. Innovation is often the outcome of answering a pain-point with a better solution. When stress is caused by conflicting opinions, it can lead to new perspectives and higher quality products being shipped if handled well. Resilience, too, only surfaces if we’ve had to face, and overcome, some form of stress. What we need to break is persistent and chronic stress. What happens when that perceived stress never seems to pass? It’s this state that’s causing havoc in our bodies and in our organisations today.


The Importance of Balance


Every organism seeks balance and growth. That goes for our individual bodies and minds as much as our collective teams and organisations. Short lived stress can spark positive growth but we must settle back into balance to restore the functions that were temporarily shut down and relieve those that ramped up during the stress-induced surge.


The human body deftly illustrates this natural harmony. When we become ill, our body shuts down all but the most critical functions to deal with the intruder, or disease, and restore homeostasis. Upon recovery, it is common to find new gratitude for what had been taken for granted and move forward with a stronger, more knowledgeable immune system, ready to act if the same intruder returns. Illness, a form of stress, is not a solely negative event, but often leaves us more resilient, informed and appreciative of health. When illness becomes chronic, however, we see a spiral of decline.

Every system seeks to preserve inner harmony while achieving its growth potential and this is one of the most fundamental lessons yoga can offer us for managing stress and promoting growth in the workplace.


Yoga Interrupts the Stress Response


A notable study looked at the impact of a regular yoga programme among nurses and found a substantial reduction in stress and significant improvement in stress adaptation (how well we respond to stress) during the experiment. While less has been studied academically on work stress in the modern office environment, we know that mindful yoga training reduces emotional exhaustion and bolsters resilience. If we want to avoid burn out and stop chronic stress in its tracks, we must adopt a plan of prevention rather than cure.


If learning theories just by applying the brain created lasting change, none of us would overindulge in any of our vices. When it comes to skills like resilience, self-care and stress management we need experiential training that we can ‘feel’ in our bodies rather than academic theories that require rationalisation and invite over-analysis.


How Yoga Does It — Meet the Relaxation Response


The Stress Response’s lesser known twin is the Relaxation Response. The Father of the term, Dr. Herbert Benson, is founder of Harvard’s Mind Body Institute and first published his book ‘The Relaxation Response’ in 1975. It holds the key to yoga’s power in helping us transform stress into fuel for positive growth and providing the much-needed balance in our over-stimulated bodies, minds and organisations.


We learn to consciously induce the relaxation response through practices like yoga and meditation. Slowing down and expanding our breathing as well as bringing a more acute focus to physical sensations offers an always-accessible entrance to the present moment. Our body and breath are quite literally forever in the here and now.


Stress and relaxation are mutually exclusive. We simply can’t be stressed and relaxed at the same time. When we systematically relax the body, the mind quietens and we shift from being governed by the sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic — also known as ‘rest and digest.’ Understanding every organisms innate drive towards balance and growth, helps us see the profound benefits of offering space in the working week to slow down, step away from external achievements and invite a moment of reflection and relaxation. With the Perkbox study reporting almost half of UK workers saying their workplace has nothing in place to reduce employees’ stress levels and improve mental wellbeing, the potential, and need, for yoga and relaxation in the working week has never been clearer.

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