While running from meeting to meeting during my old corporate days, I would often fantasize about stress magically disappearing from my life. It was easy to blame the hustle & bustle of New York City and the competitive fashion retail environment. But four years later, I must admit that even after moving to a small, rural town and shifting careers from retail to wellness, I still encounter plenty of stressful situations in my work and personal life. And I have come to realize that the goal isn’t to eradicate stress completely but to change our response to it when it arises.
Our bodies & minds respond to stress in a myriad of ways. When we feel a threat coming on, whether it be emotional or physical, our sympathetic nervous system kicks in, commonly known as "fight or flight" mode. During that time, our bodies release hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to help us respond to the threat at hand. Our blood sugar levels rise and our breathing speeds up to provide our muscles the oxygen and glucose they need to react quickly. And our heart rate increases to help support the efficacy of these responses. But the body is only able to respond so quickly to stress by slowing down other functions, like digestion, salivation, and our immune response. And once the perceived threat passes, our cortisol levels fall and our parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, bringing us back to normal in “rest and digest” mode. The problem is that we seem to be living too often in "fight or flight" mode due to today’s modern stressors, and it is wreaking havoc on our psychophysical, mind-body system.
From an Ayurvedic perspective, stress directly impacts the regular movement of Vata dosha, the energy that represents the elements of air and space in our bodies. When Vata is in balance, everything moves in our system according to plan - we sleep soundly, we get our periods on time, our food moves properly down our alimentary tracts, we have regular bowel movements, our blood circulation is normal, our thoughts are clear, and our skin is healthy. But in the presence of stress, the proper movement of Vata dosha in the body turns erratic, and things start to get really out of whack. We may begin to experience irregular sleep patterns, constipation (or the complete opposite!), infrequent menstruation, dry skin, hair fallout, muscle tension, excessive thoughts, improper circulation, and the list goes on.
Do any of these symptoms sound familiar to you? If so, here are a few key Ayurveda + self-care tips to help calm the body and mind, repair Vata’s movement, and keep stress at bay. This isn’t about adding more time-consuming activities to your already busy schedule - It’s about tuning in and carving out a few minutes each day to find ways to “rest & digest” when “fight or flight” mode is getting way too much face-time.
The quick and short breathing patterns that coincide with stress disrupt Vata dosha and our pranic energy from moving freely throughout the body. To access rest + digest mode, try a breathing pattern that allows your exhales to be longer than your inhales, such as counting in for 4, holding at the top, and exhaling for a count of 8. You can also try the pranayama breathing technique called Nadi Shodana, or alternate nostril breathing.
Eat nourishing & dense foods
In Ayurveda, foods are divided into categories based on taste, energetics, and impact on the three doshas, Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. The basic rule of Ayurvedic eating is like begets like and opposing forces balance. For example, if you feel hot, eat something cooling. Or, if you feel heaviness, eat something light to balance out. Because stress and Vata imbalance causes dryness, coldness, and erratic movement throughout the body, favor heavier, warm, oily, and nourishing foods like pureed soups, nourishing grains, sautéed greens + root veggies, and warm calming teas. Minimize your intake of cold, dry, and airy foods like carbonated beverages, raw veggies, dried fruit, beans, and cold drinks.
Stress tends to dry out the body, so along with eating nourishing and dense foods, applying oil externally to the body can greatly help combat symptoms of stress. For maximum benefit, try using an oil warm in potency like sesame or castor. If you are on-the-go and don’t have time for a full oil application, focus on the more porous areas of the body like the face, hands, ears, and soles of the feet. For those of you experiencing tension or stiffness in the neck, shoulders, or lower back, make sure you apply oil and give love to those areas as well!
Go for slow flow
So many of the popular exercise options today are based on high-intensity workouts like spin, crossfit, or vinyasa flow. And while all these workouts serve as great energizers and pressure relievers, they aren’t always the best form of exercise to combat Vata imbalances related to stress and erratic movement. As a former competitive athlete, it took me a long time to accept that slow flow exercise could still be beneficial. But lemme tell you - it makes a world of difference! If you are feeling stressed, sometimes the last thing you need is to push yourself more. Try doing something more calming like a hatha yoga or meditation class, a grounding hike, or even just a walk around the neighborhood. Slower, more grounding activities can really help correct the mobile, erratic patterns of Vata and keep you more balanced in the presence of stress.
Create a nourishing daily routine
Since stress can cause a lot of irregularity to the body systems, regulating your sleep cycle and eating patterns can really help to correct the improper movement of Vata dosha and de-bunk stress. To improve sleep, Ayurveda recommends eating your last meal around sundown to give enough time for proper digestion before bed. Give yourself at least 30 minutes off your devices to wind down, and aim to fall asleep by 10pm while Kapha dosha is still predominant- the heavy, earth + water qualities associated with this energy will help you get to bed. Avoiding bright screens before bed also allows that melatonin to kick in naturally and help you fall asleep. And if you are still having trouble, try Yoga Nidra, a form of guided meditation that helps calm down the mind and body. For those of you who think this sounds impossible, start with small increments and do the best you can. Try eating and going to bed just a half-hour earlier than normal, see how you feel, and if it works, keep increasing that time, bit by bit. Ayurveda is all about balance and creating those small steps that lead toward lasting change.