Back in the 1930s, endocrinologist Hans Selye first used the term stress as we know it today—basically to indicate the way the body-mind system responds to any challenge. Since then, the pressures most of us face every day have changed dramatically. Our understanding of their effects has evolved, too: We now know that stress can both cause illness and worsen existing problems.
Humans have always experienced stressors, both positive and negative, and ayurveda and other ancient health systems have long recognized the links between mental and emotional state and physical condition. According to yogic thought, dukkha, or suffering, is the common mental response to challenging circumstance; the psychological state we might refer to as dukkha typically results in the measurable physiological changes of a stress response. Although life challenges are inevitable, we can learn to change the way we react to them, easing both the mental/emotional AND physical effects of stress and bypassing the suffering of dukkha.
This fact sheet from the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health provides some basic info on stress and its management, which can include practices like yoga. (We’ve highlighted a few keys.)
Studies are beginning to show that yogic tools such as meditation directly affect the stress response in various ways, including by benefiting our immunity, gut microflora, brain chemistry, and overall nervous system functioning.* Rather than becoming caught up in an endlessly escalating cycle of dukkha, we can cultivate a yogic response to stressors, ultimately accessing the calm, peaceful state of sukkha—a place of ease where we can tap into the parasympathetic nervous system’s rest and digest functions for optimized health and well-being.
*Following are a few interesting studies on the effects of yogic practices on stress parameters (articles may require a subscription for full access).