Work stress is hardly a new phenomenon. But today we know more about it than ever before, thanks to science and our culture’s ever-increasing fascination with all things wellness. This knowledge includes the micro (like what stress is on a biological level) and the macro (like how it cascades into our professional and personal relationships).
While there’s still much more to learn, this wealth of knowledge makes us better equipped to withstand the stressors we inevitably face. There are, of course, measures that all employers could and should take to support workers’ mental and emotional health. But for the purpose of this blog post, we’re going to explore what an individual can do for themselves — in the form of the 5,000-year-old tradition known as yoga.
- What stress is on a biological level
- How chronic stress can impact your performance at work and, more urgently, your health
- Why a yoga practice may be your most effective tool for stress management
- 2 ways to jump-start your yoga practice and instantly feel calmer
Understanding stress: a brief science lesson
Dealing with stress can be intimidating. That feeling of overwhelm (and maybe some anxiety) isn’t something you can see or touch. Oftentimes, you may not even sense it coming. Because stress can seem so hard to pin down, the idea of managing it might seem like an impossible task.
But we have good news: Stress isn’t as shadowy as some might think. Let us explain how to handle stress and introduce some much-needed calm into your life.
So, what exactly is stress? One way to define it is as our body’s instinctual reaction to something we perceive as threatening. That ‘something’ can be a 600-pound bear making a surprise appearance during your forest jog. It can be the sound of a coworker coughing at the next desk over (never a welcome sound, especially during a global pandemic). Or it can be a deadline in the midst of a tightly-packed schedule.
When we’re in the presence of something threatening, the autonomic nervous system (the part of the nervous system in charge of involuntary actions like digestion and heart rate) kicks in. As psychologist Dr. Nicole Lepera writes in How to Do the Work, “The autonomic nervous system is all about properly allocating our body’s resources.” So, when there’s a potential danger that you may need to “fend off,” the autonomic nervous system makes sure you have the resources to do so. It instructs the liver to release extra blood sugar to increase your energy, your muscles to tighten in preparation to fight, and your heart rate to quicken in order to pump more blood and nutrients to said muscles. And that’s only a tiny glimpse into the many things that happen internally as stress levels rise.
How does the autonomic nervous system do all of these things? The answer is the vagus nerve, which runs from the brainstem all the way down to the digestive tract, carrying signals to nearly every major organ. (We’ll touch more on this later when we discuss some stress management strategies.)
The impact of workplace stress
Stress isn’t inherently bad. It’s a mechanism for keeping us safe. The problem is that most stressors we encounter in our modern lives don’t necessitate such a visceral reaction. Our stressors may have evolved, but our stress response hasn’t. While our ancestors may have needed increased blood pressure to fend off a wild animal, we don’t need the same stress response in the face of a deadline.
According to the American Psychological Association’s 2021 Work and Well-being Survey, “Nearly three in five employees (59%) have experienced negative impacts of work-related stress in the past month, including a lack of interest, motivation or energy (26%), difficulty focusing (21%), and a lack of effort at work (19%).”
Chronic stress — the repeated, consistent activation of the stress response — can lead to many health problems, including digestive issues, weakened immune system, cardiovascular problems, insomnia, and burnout syndrome.
We’re living in stressful times. But thankfully, there are steps that each of us can take to improve our mental health and make ourselves more resilient to life’s stressors. Enter: yoga.
An intro to yoga for stress management
At its core, yoga is all about the unification of the mind and body. Yoga is a rich tradition, one that involves more than yoga poses. But for the purpose of this blog post, we’re going to focus on the ways that modern forms of yoga as a complementary practice can help us, especially when it comes to stress we all encounter in the workspace.
Take a look at four core benefits of yoga below:
1. Yoga may make us more resilient to stress.
Could intentional stress be the key to relaxation? Though it sounds paradoxical, there’s research on yoga to support this idea. “As we advance in the practice,” Dr. LePera says in How to Do the Work, “increasingly challenging poses begin to test our body’s physical limits, further stressing our system, and offering an opportunity to reconnect with the calming power of our breath.” In other words, yoga strengthens your ability to endure challenges. This is an essential component to stress management — because truthfully, we can’t banish stress from our lives completely. But we can learn how to respond to and recover from it.
2. Yoga may lower cortisol levels.
The benefits of practicing yoga on a consistent basis are widely known, but could a single session bring about noticeable improvement? One study found that participants showed lower cortisol levels immediately following a 90-minute Hatha yoga session, compared to a control group. This suggests that yoga may reduce perceived stress in the short-term as well!
3. Yoga may help us see stressors in a new light.
According to this study in the journal Frontiers in human neuroscience, yoga may improve something called cognitive reappraisal, which is “a form of emotion regulation that involves an ability to change the trajectory of an emotional response by reinterpreting the meaning of the stimuli.” To put it in another way, yoga helps us shift our perspective. By way of cognitive reappraisal, you might reinterpret something in your work environment that’s normally really stressful (like being late for a deadline) as something productive (insight into your ideal pace).
4. Yoga may help with body awareness.
Yoga helps tremendously with mindfulness. It teaches us to breathe and move intentionally and deliberately. To be more aware of each and every muscle, each and every breathe. With practice, many people are able to take that same level of awareness off the mat, which helps them to manage stressful situations they may encounter in their workday. When a trigger arises, it’s easier to recognize that trigger before the stress escalates and throws their day off course.
Two simple ways to begin your yoga practice
Are you ready to begin your yoga journey, but you don’t know where to start? It basically boils down to two paths:
- Take a yoga class at a physical studio. Find a yoga studio in your local area, and check out the types of classes they offer. You’ll likely come across a range of classes that vary by yoga style and/or skill level. In the West, most classes fall under the umbrella of hatha yoga, which is a style of yoga that combines physical postures (asana) and breathing exercises (pranayama). Choose whatever class aligns with your skill level. Hint: If you’re looking for something less flow-y and more restful, you can’t go wrong with restorative yoga. A typical restorative yoga class consists of only a handful of poses, each held for 5-20 minutes. It also incorporates the use of props (like bolsters and blankets) to support the body in the postures.
- Practice at home. Thanks to pre-recorded yoga videos, as well as live classes hosted online, it’s easier than ever to nurture your yoga practice in the comfort of your own home. You can also search for yoga sequences online (like this one by renowned yoga teacher Colleen Saidman Yee) to try at your own pace.
As we’ve seen from research, yoga is an incredibly effective tool for stress management, within and outside of work. It can help lower cortisol levels, make us more resilient to stress, and help us to reinterpret stressful situations in ways that better serve us. To begin your yoga practice, you don’t need a fancy mat or even a studio membership! You can take a virtually-hosted class, or just as easily, find a video on YouTube. Any type of yoga will do, but we recommend searching for a slow-paced hatha sequence or a restorative sequence.
It’s also important to note that yoga isn’t the only stress-reduction strategy out there, and, at the end of the day, a cookie-cutter approach to stress management won’t suit everyone. We also acknowledge that work-related stress shouldn’t be a problem left to the individual. Employee well-being lies on the personal level, but there should also be organization-level efforts to support it.