Yoga can help you create a foundation for stress management. This foundation is a settled nervous system--a calm, alert mind and body that can experience difficult thoughts and emotions and respond in healthy and appropriate ways. A settled nervous system can move fluidly through states of high energy and exertion as well as full rest and relaxation.
When stress pours on, your body doesn't care about the source of the stress. Your chest tightens, your skin might flush, and you feel your heart pound. You experience intense emotions that pull you away from your focus and your thought process. Maybe this turns into an angry outburst. Maybe it turns into frozen avoidance.
Regardless of the outward behavior, stress that interferes with your life is an outcry for your awareness and support. Processing your stress and anxiety in healthy ways means being aware of when you are in a stress response. It means having knowledge of how to re-settle your mind and body. Too often, we try to avoid our stress by minimizing it. "It's not that bad." "That isn't a good reason to be this upset." "I feel this bad because I am weak." "I will not feel this way when I force myself to be stronger."
Although you might be able to suppress some of your surface responses to stress, that only causes the problem to emerge in some other way. Angry outbursts can become patterns of self-harm or excessive risk-taking. Frozen avoidance can become patterns of intense depression with excessive sleep or disconnection from life. If you or a loved one is experiencing any of these issues, you should seek professional counseling with a licensed counselor or psychologist. Yoga cannot replace that level of expertise, but it can help you get the most out of your deep self-work. Here's why: The most fundamental work yoga students do in every single class is regulating their breath.
In one breath, the human body engages both the sympathetic nervous system ("fight, flee, freeze") and the parasympathetic nervous system ("rest" and "digest"). Your whole body prepares for movement and exertion when you inhale. Your whole body releases tension if you are exhaling properly.
The breathing practices in yoga are methods to consciously engage each of these vital survival systems. A person with a regular yoga practice will feel the same flush and chest-tightening under stress as anyone else. The yoga student will be better able to recognize the "fight or flight" response in their body and to choose the behaviors that follow. If it feels like an angry outburst, they might spend five minutes on a brisk walk, singing, or doing calming breathing exercises. If it feels like frozen avoidance, they might spend five minutes meditating or doing energizing breathing exercises. In both examples, the key to a healthier response is experience with breathing practice and awareness of when your nervous system is in a stress response.