In the following article, we’ll unpack stress using bits of modern science and pieces of yogic wisdom. By the end of it, you’ll have tools to reduce stress on-demand without any prior experience in science or yoga. Interestingly, all these tools are super simple. Like many things in life, the most elegant solutions are simple, and we tend to ignore them.
What is Stress?
One of my favorite scientists is Ph.D. Andrew Huberman. He is a professor of Neurobiology and Ophthalmology at Stanford University School of Medicine. Andrew Huberman’s lecture on stress was unbelievable. Dr. Huberman’s lab focuses on neural regeneration, neuroplasticity, and brain states such as stress, focus, fear, and more (1). I was so inspired by it as I sat for quite a few days drooling over the content, taking notes, reflecting on my own experiences.
Stress is An Emotion.
The heart of stress lies at the heart of whether our internal experience matches our external experience, i.e., the universe doesn’t rotate around our wishes. Stress isn’t always bad for us. In some instances, stress enhances our immune system and makes it better. According to Dr. Andrew Huberman, happiness, stress, depression are qualified as emotions grounded in biology, physiology, and behavior. So, all these emotions are not only in our heads but also in our bodies. Our nervous system includes the brain, eyes, spinal cord, and other bodily organs in constant communication with the brain.
The definition of stress (as per Dr. Andrew Huberman) is that stress is a generic system to mobilize other systems in the brain and body. It means that each of us has the tools that are genetically built into our systems to control emotions like stress. Ancient yogis knew that for centuries, but now we have some cool modern tools to see it in action. There are some hard-wired biological mechanics (cells, chemicals, and tissues) in our bodies to put us in charge of our reactions to stress. Of course, we won’t convert ourselves into super logical Vulcans; but perhaps, it will give us some tools to be in the position of power not to rush with that nasty text, yell at our children, puppies, and stuff a box of cookies into our mouths.
Dr. Andrew Huberman further explains stressors and stress. I think of stressors as things that could be outside of our control, and stress is our reaction. Similarly, in the yoga sutra (1.12), Patanjali (a yogi who composed the text to understand the science of yoga) talks about effort and results. We are entitled to actions only, but the fruits (results).
The first thing to battle anxiety is to focus on things that are in our control.
Stressors + Stress or Actions and Reactions
- Stressors are psychological (difficulty balancing work and social life) or physical (out in the cold without a jacket) things that stress us out.
- Stress is the psychological and physiological response to stressors.
Interestingly, in yoga and modern science, our focus is on our response.
What happens in the human system when short-term or immediate stress hits us?
The sympathetic chain ganglia neurons run from the about our neck to our naval or a tit lower. So, when some external psychological (“you are fired” email) or physical (fear of spiders), the chain of neurons in the middle of our body becomes activated. This process happens super fast. As a chain of neurons activates, it releases a neuromodulator called acetylcholine. Typically, acetylcholine is used to move muscles. And other neurons release epinephrine which is equivalent to adrenaline. So, the core of our body releases chemicals. Epinephrine acts in two different ways; things like muscles in your leg need to be active and have certain beta-receptors. Consequently, beta-receptors respond to epinephrine, blood vessels dilate, and heart rates speed up. But, at the same time, epinephrine activates other receptors on things that we don’t need, like digestion, reproduction. So, the stress response is generic and acts as a “YES/NO Flag.” It turns on what we need and turns off what we don’t need.
So, next time you are stressed and notice that your heart speeds up, and you feel your throat goes dry (the salivary glands Flag is off), you’ll know exactly why. The stress response gets us going, whether physically (move) or psychologically (saying things that we should not). If, however, we try to suppress the movement, we might feel tremors.
So, at this point, we have enough understanding about stress. Next, let’s move on to the most exciting part of reducing or eliminating stress on-demand.
How To Reduce Or Eliminate Stress?
Yoga and other practices are the easiest places to start because we can train in a specific technique to help us to cultivate courage and reduce stress on-demand. However, in the face of stress, telling myself to come down or take ten deep breaths will not work when I was facing an off-leash dog running towards as I am walking my reactive pup; or when I was facing my fear of heights that put my system in the tremendous stress level. Likewise, telling someone else to calm down will only exasperate their anger. So, please don’t!
Use Biology (Direct Line To the Autonomic Nervous System).
Dr. Andrew Huberman tells explains that the best real-time tools to reduce stress are tools that are directly in line with the autonomic nervous system (the system responsible for alertness or calmness). The autonomic nervous system is typically called automatic, but we do have certain control over it. So, what we ought to do instead is to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic (para means near) neurons run from the neck and lower brain stem and pelvic areas. The parasympathetic is fascinating! Especially the cranial nerve and neck (located in the brain stem) – those have a direct line to some features of your face. So, the parasympathetic nervous system controls the eye’s movement (like pupil dilation), tongue, facial muscles, to some extent, the trachea. So, as we can see, the parasympathetic nervous system has certain levers we can use to push back on the nervous system.
It’s hard to control the mind using the mind. If we’re stressed or tired, it’s difficult to channel gratitude, peace, other important mind mechanisms, using our bodies instead of the brain so we can free the mind to experience more clarity – speak clearly, control facial muscles, and generally relax.
Dr. Andrew Huberman explains that the fastest method to conquer stress on-demand is a physiological sigh. However, the physiological sigh is not the same as yogic breathing (pranayama).
How Does Breath Works (Neuroscience + Yoga science)
The breath directly controls your heart rate through the interaction between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. When we inhale, the diaphragm (skeletal muscle inside your body) moves down, and our heart gets bigger (the physical heart); as a result, the blood moves slower. A small group of neurons called the sinoatrial node in the heart pays attention to the rate of blood flow through the heart and sends a signal to the brain that blood is moving more slowly through the heart. And the brain, next, sends the signal back to the heart to speed up. So, here is a science to explain why we should be inhaling longer than exhaling if we want our hearts to beat faster. The opposite is also true. If we want to slow our heart rate down when the stress response hits, we need to exhale longer. What happens when we exhale longer is a diaphragm moves up and makes the heart a bit more compact, blood flows more quickly through that compact space; the sinoatrial node registers that blood is flowing more quickly and sends a signal to the brain, and the parasympathetic nervous system (the neurons in the brain) send a signal back to the heart to slow the heart down. So, if we need to calm down quickly, we need to make our exhales longer than exhales.
Inherently, in yoga, the word pranayama (4) consists of two parts: Prana – refers to that which is infinitely everywhere and Ayama means to extend; in reference to our human system, prana refers as something that flows continuously inside us, keeping us alive; we can say prana is vitality. When we are disturbed, the prana isn’t flowing as it is supposed to. Consequently, our state of mind is linked to the quality of prana within. And, the best part is that we can influence the flow of that prana. In other words, the quality of our breath influences our state of mind and vice versa. In yoga, our practice lets the prana freely flow within us. This is done through daily practice. In yoga, when we practice pranayama, we attain clarity of mind. There are numerous techniques in yoga that incorporate different rates of inhalations, exhalations, holds, ratios, etc. These techniques can directly influence the mind and make a shift in our well-being. Yoga is a science, and it takes some time to master and find a good practice that we need. Yogic breathing (pranayama) is something that we can learn from a qualified teacher. Typically, in a private session, we are given instructions to focus our minds and use a specific technique for a certain number of breaths or minutes. And yogic breathwork (pranayama) is a great place to train ourselves. It can be very helpful in shifting our physiological states. There are many documented experiments where yogis could stop their hearts, change the body temperature, even fight infections (2). So, the skilled yoga teacher can craft such a practice tailored for you. This is how yoga was taught traditionally.
So, if you have dedicated daily practice, you are 100x ahead of the game. No worries, if you are not, we can use something super simple as we learn.
Three Super Easy Hacks on How To Reduce Or Eliminate Stress On-Demand
1) Physiological Sigh
So, let’s get to our on-demand stress response and Dr. Andrew Huberman’s physiological sigh. First, I have to mention that I first learned it from my pup, Rocky. It is a pattern of breathing in which two inhales through the nose is followed by an extended exhale through the mouth.
So, here you got it.
2) Yawn Go Ahead
A yawn is a coordinated movement of the thoracic muscles in the chest, diaphragm, larynx in the throat, and palate in the mouth. By yawning (3), we help distribute surfactant (wetting agent) to coat the alveoli (tiny air sacs to help us breathe) in the lungs. My second favorite neuroscientist is Andrew Newberg in one of his books (How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Neuroscientist) Mark wrote that yawing is one of the best-kept secrets in neuroscience. Yawing has been used for many decades in voice therapy to reduce performance anxiety and hypertension in the throat. In addition, several recent brain-scan studies have shown that yawning evokes aneural activity in the brain that generates social awareness and creates a feeling of empathy. So, next time you are stressed – yawn.
Additionally, you can incorporate yawing into your practice. Contrary to popular belief, yawing not just relaxes you but brings you into a weighted state of cognitive awareness. So, students yawn not because the teacher is boring (may well be the case) but also to stay alert. Dr. Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman tell us that yawning can “physiologically relax you in less than a minute. This is because yawning creates a unique type of neural activity in the human brain that plays a fundamental role in consciousness and self-reflection. What’s more, this neural activity has been linked to increasing social awareness and creating feelings of empathy.”
Newberg and Waldman offer these 12 reasons why we should yawn every day (in addition to reducing stress on-demand).
1. Stimulates alertness and concentration
2. Optimizes brain activity and metabolism
3. Improves cognitive function
4. Increases memory recall
5. Enhances consciousness and introspection
6. Lowers stress
7. Relaxes every part of your body
8. Improves voluntary muscle control
9. Enhances athletic skills
10. Fine-tunes your sense of time
11. Increases empathy and social awareness
12. Enhances pleasure and sensuality
So, here is another unconventional practice for you to reduce stress on-demand that I learned from my dog…on how to reduce stress on-demand.
When we perceive something as stressful or threatening, our autonomic nervous system releases adrenaline and cortisol as part of the fight-flight-freeze response. Consequently, it speeds up the heart rate and gives the body a burst of energy and strength to respond to the threat (physiological, physical, real, or perceived). Similar to physiological sigh and yawning, the shaking mechanism is built into our biology. Shaking eases an overstimulated nervous system and calms the mind/body down. Shaking is sometimes referred to as a neurogenic tremor. Tremors help us to reduce over-activity in the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis. In one of his books (Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers), the neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky wrote that zebras and other animals don’t get ulcers because they know how to dissipate stress. I learned the shaking by observing my pup Rocky; after he got overly excited and barked, Rocky shook it off and got back to smelling trees and enjoying the present moment. I also observed foxes, moose, and coyotes shaking it off.
Again, our yoga and other disciplines come in handy, but to release stress on-demand, we can just shake it off! I often incorporate shaking into my practice. I shake in the shower, jump on the trampoline, and whenever my dog shakes!
Here you have it, three simple hacks on reducing stress on-demand.
(1) Dr. Andrew Huberman (@hubermanlab ==> “Master Stress: Tools For Managing Stress & Anxiety (Episode 10) | Huberman Lab”).
(2) Fight infections like Wim Hoff
(4) Dr. Andrew Newberg is a neuroscientist who studies the relationship between brain function and various mental states.
(5) Based on the Heart Of Yoga book