The connection between stress and disease, and how yoga can help you to become your healthiest self

I work as a yoga teacher today, but I was a scientist first, which means I know how to read and interpret scientific literature. In this article, I’ve explained the science so you can understand how yoga can help you optimize your health and wellbeing.

How do our emotions affect our health?

The book “When the Body Says No - The Cost of Hidden Stress” by Gabor Maté, M.D., examines the link between chronic illness and our emotions. I couldn’t put the book down. My training in the biological sciences was traditional, so I learned that our genes and certain external factors, such as smoking or an unhealthy lifestyle, dictate our health outcomes. But that never really made sense to me. How do some people whose genes predispose them to illness never get sick, while others do?

I learned that while modern medical science reassures us that our minds and bodies are separate, according to groundbreaking studies in psychoneuroimmunology, they are actually deeply interconnected. A lifetime of emotional repression, lack of boundary-setting, and overall chronic stress could be the difference between life and death in some cases. In other words, our genetic makeup may predispose us to illness, but our emotional habits ultimately determine whether or not we get sick.

When we’re stressed, all the body’s resources shift from maintaining homeostasis (a place of well-being and balance) to protecting itself. So when we experience chronic stress in our day-to-day lives, it can harm many of the body’s systems.

It’s no coincidence that people who suffer from anxiety often have digestive issues like GERD or IBS: The constant influx of cortisol and adrenaline, the stress hormones, keeps us in a fight-or-flight state, which was designed to help our ancestors escape predators. While we’re in this state, the body’s main priority is to keep us safe from immediate danger, which means that all unnecessary body functions are put on hold, including digestion. Without a well-functioning digestive system, we become sicker in all areas of our body because we aren’t getting the nutrients we need to thrive.

Stress also instigates a hyper-vigilant immune system. If the immune system perceives us to be in a near-constant threat state, it will repeatedly send out chemicals that cause inflammation throughout the body. These chemicals, though originally designed to help fight illness and infection, will generate a wide array of symptoms of imbalance and dysfunction in the body when they are misdirected or present in large quantities in times of stress. This increases our risk of developing diseases such as autoimmune conditions, heart disease, cancer, and chronic pain. On top of that, when the inflammatory chemicals are misdirected, the body’s ability to respond to actual illness is compromised.

Break the cycle

Finally, how can we change this cycle of poor mental and physical health? Well, I suffered from chronic heartburn and digestive issues that didn’t respond to medical treatments and disrupted my life for years. I was anxious, emotionally reactive, and eventually suffered a burnout that kept me bedridden for weeks. It was my rock-bottom.

I used to think that people who saw rock-bottom in a positive way were crazy. Why would anyone want to experience such an unpleasant point in their lives? But to be honest, this experience finally forced me to put my life into perspective and make some lasting changes to my lifestyle. As Dr. Gabor Maté mentions in his book, our unhealthy emotional habits will often continue until the body finally says “no,” in the form of illness or burnout, even when our minds are still unwilling to do so.

In order to begin to heal my mind and body, I implemented a regular yoga practice to improve my mental, physical, and emotional health. Initially, I was drawn to yoga for the mental and emotional benefits. In the beginning, the practice would give me temporary relief from some of the anxiety and stress of daily life after my practice. But when I began practicing daily with consistency… that’s when the magic happened. My yoga practice helped me progress from an anxious, self-critical perfectionist with marginal emotional intelligence to someone who is more emotionally self-aware, confident, content, peaceful and calm in my day-to-day life. And physically, I feel better than I have in years. My anxiety-related symptoms have all but disappeared.

The explanation

These positive changes happened because yoga is what psychologists call a “top-down” practice, which means that the brain sets the intentions that the body follows. Top-down practices are a powerful way to help the mind settle into the present moment by focusing our attention as we practice channeling our breath and challenging our body. In this way, yoga helps us disrupt our default thought patterns, wakes us from our subconscious-driven autopilot and creates the ability to change bad habits with a sense of ease.

Top-down practices can literally help you change your brain at the physical level to dramatically improve your peace of mind and quality of life. This concept of “rewiring” your brain, called neuroplasticity, is powerful enough to allow you to change deeply ingrained habits and toxic mindsets at any stage in your life. Furthermore, the sense of calm that comes with your yoga practice will allow you to minimize your body’s inflammatory responses to stressful encounters, which decreases the burden of these stressors on your body.

Now, to heal…

Because of the many health benefits they provide, yoga and meditation are fast becoming viewed in the scientific world as concrete options to prevent non-communicable physical disease or to reestablish homeostasis within a body that is already unwell. For example, a yoga-based lifestyle has been shown to improve the symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis by decreasing pro-inflammatory compounds within the body. Furthermore, yoga-based lifestyle intervention is an excellent option for people suffering from cardiovascular disease, obesity, or stress-related symptoms such as digestive issues. Regular yoga practice has even been shown to improve symptoms of epilepsy in patients! This is just to name a few - the conditions that may be improved by incorporating yoga into your daily life are endless.

I challenge you to try establishing a regular yoga practice! You might be surprised at how much you begin to evolve. And I bet it helps you release stress and anxiety as it has me! Best of luck and many blessings. I’d love to hear how it goes for you, so keep in touch. x

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