A Functional Ayurveda Doctor on Understanding and Managing Stress
It's a sobering fact: Stress pervades our modern lives. And we know, all too well, of its impact. Depending on the scale, timing, and type of the stimulus causing it, stress can effect our health and wellbeing in various ways. But how often do we really unpack what it is? The culprit, the actual stress, is often an enigma.
Ayurveda looks at stress and its impacts holistically. According to the ancient science, stress is an aggravation of Vata, the dosha comprising air and ether that governs movement in the body. To help us visualize this, Nisha Khanna, MD says to think of a leaf blowing in the wind. "It moves from place to place without much direction," Khanna says. "This is what Vata aggravation looks like in the body."
Khanna, an Austin-based board-certified internist and functional Ayurvedic doctor, says that a Vata aggravation can present in various ways. She visualizes the physical impacts stress has on us as a wearing away of the body, "almost like the decay of something that is in existence," she says. In the mind, it can look like anxiety, such as racing or incomplete thoughts, she says. In the colon it can present as irritable bowel syndrome. And on our exteriors, it can be dry, flaky, parched skin. "These are all the qualities of air and space," says Khanna. "Light, dry, airy, subtle."
What is so profound about Vata is its power. As the mobility dosha, it's the ingredient needed to make things run or flow—and this can be good and bad. When the other doshas get aggravated, says Khanna, it’s up to the Vata to fully express the negative effects. For instance, Vata pushes Kapha around "and takes something like a benign tumor and makes it metastatic," says Khanna. Or if there is pitta accumulation in the gut (Pitta governs our digestion and its seat is in the small intestine), it will accumulate but it won't move until Vata pushes it into circulation throughout the body. This means that stress, a Vata imbalance, is ultimately "an inherent mover of disease."
There is also the mental and emotional component. "When I think about stress and Vata, I think about how that impacts our heart," says Khanna, explaining that the thymus gland (which plays a vital role in the lymphatic system) is at our higher heart chakra center, which governs our immune system. When someone is stressed, they are not in their high heart showing compassion and love. Rather, "they are coming from their survival center, from their root chakra" and putting protection and survival first. This lack of being in a high heart center, and being in a stressful space, leads to further immune suppression," says Khanna.
It's no great surprise, then, that managing our stress is essential for maintaining our health and preventing illness. "When you pacify Vata and pacify stress, you get to improve or prevent about 70 percent of disease from manifesting," says Khanna. It also improves our overall wellbeing. Living free from stress creates a way of being that is "the happiest, healthiest, most peaceful one," writes Ayurvedic practitioner and professor Dr. Vasant Lad, whom Khanna studied under, in his book Ayurveda: The Science of Healing. "Such a life creates natural longevity," writes Lad.
To help ease or reduce the stress in our lives, it is key to understand that we are in control of many things. As Khanna spells out, we have a need "to acknowledge that we are responsible for our reactions." There will always be events that are out of our control. Life is filled with them. What we can control is how we react to them. "Stress is more how you perceive a situation and how you respond to it rather than the event itself," says Khanna. "That brings autonomy and authority back to the individual." She offers a general example. The world could look like it's crumbling to many (an apt scenario right now), but you can find there are some individuals who are unphased, she says. "They are self-modulating and recognizing that they can still control their response." Khanna continues: "A lot of times stress comes from powerlessness. in essence. We are not powerless for how we respond to things."
This emphasis on owning our response connects to the Ayurvedic pillar of having rituals. A daily routine, known as dinacharya, is essential for mitigating stress, honoring our biological clock, and maintaining balance of our constitution. These habits, or rituals, should be second nature. "We create these rituals so they are things we don't think about," says Khanna. "They become part of our routine. They keep us in a state of balance—if we follow them."
These rituals are both universal and personal. Khanna's suggestions extend on several Ayurvedic pillars. The first: follow your circadian rhythm. "The biggest way to ground Vata is to create routine," she says. This means creating scheduled, consistent times for waking, eating, and sleeping. "It sounds simple but that is a powerful way to ground your life and stress." Give yourself a nightly self-massage— Abhyanga—with warm oil. (Khanna does not recommend this if you have a build-up of toxins, ama, in your body.) For dosha specificity, Khanna suggests sesame oil for Vata constitutions, a sunflower and coconut oil combination for Pittas, and a sesame and sunflower combination for Kapha.
Adaptogens are really important for stress. Many of Vata-pacifying herbs, such as Ashwagandha and Holy Basil help to support adrenal health. "Holy basil is very gentle and a great immune booster." And cannot be enough said for meditation and breathwork, which stem from the Vedas, yoga, and Ayurveda. Given the wide range of applications these days, from apps to online resources, these practices are accessible, making "it really easy to dedicate a few moments of consciousness," says Khanna.
Of course, given we are in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic, the idea of mitigating stress may seem unattainable. Impossible, even. To that, Khanna offers generous counsel: look deep within. "I invite people to really dig deep and question: What am I going to do differently with my life? The people who are living with a sense of deep purpose—and that doesn't have to mean some grand thing to try and change the world—but who are feeling valuable in their roles, as a mother, sister, friend, parent, they get a lot of purpose out of that. And they're not scared." Khanna believes this current state lends even more credence to the need for all of us to follow our rituals and lean into our self-care. When we make our health and wellness paramount, It is not just for us individually, she argues. But for the benefit of us all. "Some people can perceive these things as selfish, and I think it's the exact opposite," she says. "Because you're anchoring yourself as an energetic beacon of positivity. Staying anchored and doing what it takes to stay grounded—herbs, breathwork, whatever it is. We owe that ourselves and others as a social responsibility right now."
"This is an amazing time to explore your sense of purpose," she continues. "There is still freedom within restriction." Find ways create in your home. Ponder ideas. Read. Connect with friends over FaceTime. "We can take this frenetic energy," says Khanna, "this Vata, and channel it through the Pitta and Kapha and create something so nourishing."