Fight stress to better manage chronic illness symptoms
Updated: Mar 10
Celebrating Social Prescribing Day, March 9th 2023
Rates of chronic illness are rising rapidly and estimates suggest that around 15 million people in the UK are living with at least one chronic health condition. Asthma, heart problems and hypertension, mental health challenges like anxiety, depression, insomnia, diabetes, digestive problems like IBS, arthritis, back problems….the list goes on. They are debilitating to live with and expensive to treat.
Many of these conditions are incurable. The person with them needs to find a way to manage severity of their symptoms, reduce the frequency of episodes experienced where possible and to navigate the inevitable changes to lifestyle they bring. Often, sufferers are on prescription medication indefinitely and no one likes taking pills constantly, especially if they bring unwanted side effects.
Psychosocial impact of chronic illness
I am not suggesting that people should adopt yoga instead of following medical advice and taking prescribed medications, but that the two can co-exist very nicely. In a lot of cases, the impact of a person’s chronic health issues can improve when the patient is able to exercise safely, increase their frequency of social interactions with others and learn relaxation techniques. All of these benefits can be experienced through yoga and now, some forward-thinking GPs are starting to recommend yoga as an intervention. It is very encouraging to see how the rise in awareness of social prescribing is being celebrated with its own special day, March 9th.
Beyond stretching and flexing!
Awareness of the benefits of yoga beyond stretching and becoming more flexible is slowly growing. This is evident even among the community of people I am teaching in my local area. A survey I conducted across the different people that attend my yoga classes highlights how many students have common chronic conditions. They are coming to yoga classes, yoga therapy or one to one yoga as a way to manage their symptoms.
My survey showed that almost 15% have asthma or another respiratory condition, 11% have arthritis, 25% have mental health challenges, 24% have spinal problems, 24% have a cardiovascular condition. With the exception of arthritis and musculoskeletal conditions, all these conditions share something in common - they are exacerbated by stress.
Stress, the nervous system and yoga
Heart and respiratory conditions can worsen when someone becomes stressed, because the body goes into fight or flight mode, starts producing cortisol and adrenaline, the heart and breathing rate accelerates. Although this is a simplistic description, it serves to illustrate the ongoing effect of being stressed, which contributes to increasing blood pressure, breathing becomes shallower, the stress gets worse, the problems get worse. Stress makes the person’s sympathetic nervous system become activated, they go into ‘high alert’ mode. Mental health challenges are also exacerbated by stress, the breathing rate quickens, person becomes more anxious, leading to difficulties sleeping, working, socialising, this may lead to depression. These are very common problems.
Through social prescribing, more people are becoming aware of the therapeutic benefits of yoga. Our general appreciation of yoga as offering a lot more than a chance to stretching and become more flexible and instead, a route to improving all round wellness is increasing. Numerous research studies have shown that when patients were offered yoga as an intervention for managing anxiety, low mood, poor sleep, IBS, chronic pain and many other conditions, they saw statistically significant improvements. In many instances, it is because the co-existence of stress within the person’s life was having a negative effect on their other problems.
Benefits of yoga for IBS sufferers
IBS is a good example of how stress causes the symptoms to worsen as a vicious cycle. IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) affects millions of people in the UK and symptoms range from indigestion and heartburn to tummy gurgling, wind, constipation, diarrhoea. There are clearly food intolerances to consider here and GPs can prescribe medication but long term, it is far better to understand why IBS occurs more in some people than others and how it can be managed. Stress is a big trigger.
Medical studies have shown a clear correlation between stress, anxiety and the presence of IBS. Sufferers scored highly for stress when profiled and their symptoms typically worsened the more stressed they became. In turn this mades them feel worse, more anxious, low, the IBS gets more intense and this makes them feel more stressed and potentially, lead to social isolation. The vicious cycle. By learning how to relax and manage their stress levels using yoga, they can observe the effect this has on reducing their IBS symptoms, leaving them feel more confident and in control of their condition. A study referenced by the BMJ Online highlights how yoga and meditation was used as an intervention to control the symptoms of IBS, there are many more published studies with similar findings.
Yoga improves vagal tone
In medical terms, what yoga is giving people who practice regularly is increased heart rate variability (HRV) or put another way, improving vagal tone. The vagus nerve is the largest nerve in the body. It controls the autonomic nervous system, triggers our own individual stress and relaxation responses. It governs how we react to stimuli like pain, challenging experiences, uncertainty, emotional situations. Increasing vagal tone (through practicing yoga) basically makes a person more emotionally resilient. Their ability to bounce back from stressful experiences improves, they are less likely to become derailed when things get tough. There are many other benefits too.
By signposting patients to yoga, GPs may not only helping their patients to relieve some immediate symptoms of their chronic illnesses, but helping them much more longer term. A regular yoga practice gives people a practical toolkit to develop increased self-awareness, to become more empowered and self-sufficient, and with very low entry costs. This couldn’t have come at a more critical time. The NHS is creaking at the seams, resources are more stretched than ever before and its long term viability is being questioned due to such extreme service demand. Social prescribing is an excellent way forwards and we need more options like this, so that people can become aware of how alternative methods like yoga could be of real value to them.
Follow up....I am very interested in your own stories about how coming to yoga helps you. Especially if you have a chronic condition. Please share them with me when we meet in class, or you can message me directly, via firstname.lastname@example.org.