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How to manage stress: An Ayurvedic perspective

In this article, Ayurvedic Practioner and Pukka's Head of Herbal Education, Jo Webber, explores how the ancient Indian concept Ayurveda can help you to bring yourself back to a more balanced state through simple diet and lifestyle choices.

Stress is now widely recognised as a direct cause of many illnesses today, such as hypertension, asthma, anxiety, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Just how deeply the mind and body are interconnected is also being explored by the new field of psychoneuroimmunology; scientists in this field study how our nervous system and immunity are interrelated.

Studies show when there is a surge of stress we release hormones which in turn suppress our immune system. This helps explains why people who suffer from chronic anxiety, depression and tension are found to have double the risk of certain diseases such as arthritis, severe headaches and heart disease. Stress has also been shown to compromise the immune function to the extent that it can both cause and accelerate cancer.

What triggers a stress response in each person varies widely and today’s busy lifestyle is all too conducive to stress.

Sensory overload is also a growing problem and a common cause of stress due to the steady assault of emails, use of smartphones, watching TV, noise and air pollution. It’s also clear some people are more sensitive than others.

An Ayurvedic approach to stress

Ayurveda (the ancient Indian system of medicine), offers deep insights into the nature of stress and what we can do about it. Vata, pitta and kapha are the mind-body types that help us to understand why our body functions in certain ways, but also how we can best help ourselves.

Ayurveda views stress as a disturbance of the nervous system, which is mainly regulated by vata dosha. This dosha has natural qualities such as being cold, light, subtle, and erratic and is easily disturbed by too much sensory stimulation, too much food, too much time pressure and too much to do.

An understanding of your dosha mind-body type can clarify what your stress triggers are, and how to bring yourself back to a more balanced state through diet and lifestyle suggestions.

You’ll probably be able to recognise which mind-body type you might be as you read the following, or take our dosha quiz if you’re still left wondering.

The vata response to stress

Vata types are quick thinking, enthusiastic, creative, and bursting with ideas. They are naturally more susceptible to stress due to an increase in this dosha, which will show itself through fear, anxiety, panic, insomnia, feelings of isolation and a loss of appetite.

If this is your dominant dosha, it's likely you are susceptible and sensitive to changes in life which can make you feel anxious or panicked. Other vata responses to stress include being easily startled, such as by a loud noise, being unable to relax and heart palpitations.

So how do we balance vata?

You can balance vata’s cold, light, subtle and erratic qualities by increasing the opposite qualities- so, more warmth, stillness and grounding.

A good daily routine is key in balancing vata dosha and helping avoid a build-up of stress. Try to manage your diary so you have some mindful or meditative time each day, sitting still and breathing deeply is ideal. It doesn’t need to be for half an hour, just one minute can have an effect.

Eating at regular times also helps this type feel calm and grounded. A soothing massage with warm oils is a key antidote to stress for vata types. Finally, going to bed at the same time can also help things on an even keel, preferably around 10pm.

Pukka teas and supplements to try:

The pitta response to stress

Pitta types are determined, sharp-witted and competitive with clear, confident speech. They often have strong opinions and are good decision makers.

This dosha type is dominated by the fire element, and when put under unexpected pressure may become too ‘hot under the collar’. This can show through increased irritability, frustration and anger. This type can also relish the challenge even though it may exhaust them leading to ‘burn out’.

Physical symptoms in response to stress triggers in this type include increased sweating, heartburn, acid indigestion, diarrhoea and hypertension.

So how do we balance pitta?

You can balance pitta’s hot and intense nature by seeking out the opposite qualities of calm, coolness and moderation. If you are feeling angry, try to think of a peaceful scene or situation.

Going for regular walks in nature will also help put perspectives on things, especially if you can look out over a horizon. In times of stress, it's best to avoid reaching for spicy, salty and sour foods (such as chillies, crisps and alcohol) which all increase pitta in the digestive system. Avoiding stimulants such as alcohol and caffeine will also help keep cool and calm.

Pukka teas and supplements to try:

The kapha response to stress

Kapha types are your steady, strong and grounded individuals that often hold everything together. They are reliable, full of love and compassion with a calm and steady nature.

This dosha is dominated by the earth element with stable and grounded qualities. They are the most resistant to getting stressed out by the many stress triggers in modern life. However, in the face of stressful situations, they can be very resistant to change becoming stubborn or reclusive when challenged.

When faced with stress, this mind-body type may also comfort eat, especially sweet foods, which leads to a feeling of heaviness and a lack of motivation. Emotionally, this type also has the tendency to become mentally possessive, perhaps holding on to unhelpful emotions.

So how do we balance kapha?

You can balance kapha’s cold, damp, heavy nature by not reaching for cold and heavy comfort foods in times of stress such as cheese, wheat and sweet foods. Try not to hibernate in the face of a stressful situation or bury your emotions. Instead, keep yourself energised and warm by getting outdoors and walking amongst nature.

Pukka teas and supplements to try:

There are many ways in which you can support the body through these times of change- through diet, lifestyle and the use of healing adaptogenic herbs. The key to managing stress is self-knowledge and awareness. We may not be able to change the pressures we face but if we know our dosha or mind-body type we can use it to identify weak spots:

  • Vata types need to stay grounded and take time for self-care.
  • Pitta types can aim for moderation and to try and be more understanding of others.
  • Kapha types do well to keep active and to practice the art of letting go.

Whatever you dosha, we all need to take time out to consciously relax. We can use this time to quietly observe our feelings and access a deeper awareness of the source of stress. From here, we can then choose between reacting to a stress trigger or instead responding using the guidance of Ayurveda.

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