The Psycho-Physiology of Stress

The Psycho-Physiology of Stress

In This Article

Eliminating Stress

In the West, stress has been identified as a major contributing factor in the cause of disease. According to Ayurveda, the cause of disease is attributed to the mistake of the intellect or prajnaparadha. (1) This is when the mind begins to see itself as separate from the field of intelligence or consciousness from which it came. I like to call this “primordial stress” – the one stressor that all imbalance can be traced back to.

The origins of Ayurveda date back to an auspicious assembly of holy great sages, (2) where the disease was deemed to be the impediment to both spiritual progress and to one’s non-perishable longevity. (2) Ayurveda, with its mission to eradicate diseases of the past, present, and future, (1) had its sights on a nobler goal – the purification of the body and mind, and the achievement of full human potential: moksha, (1) or liberation.

To accomplish this, stress would have to be eliminated from one’s day-to-day lifestyle and energetically removed from the subtle body system and the cells of the physical body.

The Koshas

kosha chart

According to the Taittiriya Upanishad, the human body is a container for the Supreme Self which is made up of koshas or sheaths. These koshas (or sheaths) offer the Supreme Self a vehicle for its earthly journey. At the center of this container is the seat of pure consciousness, (3) waiting to expand through the outer and progressively more dense sheaths. It is here that we find the true, non-changing Self.

Around the non-changing Self is the first sheath called the Anandamaya Kosha, or bliss sheath, where we first experience the Self as bliss. Surrounding the bliss sheath is the Vijnanamaya Kosha (intellectual sheath) with the Manomaya Kosha (mental sheath) around it. It is the intellectual sheath that connects the mind and all of its distractions with the heart or the Supreme Self. The Manomaya Kosha is surrounded by the Pranamaya Kosha, or energy sheath. The energy sheath is between the mind on the inside and Annamaya Kosha, the body sheath, on the outside, making it the link between the mind and body.

The Role of the Mind

The intellectual sheath performs like the petals of a flower, acting as a discernment filter by sifting out negative thoughts and harmful energy while still allowing full access to the source – the Supreme Self. The mental sheath, which is sometimes called the great barrier sheath, is an iron-clad wall of protection enabling the Supreme Self to maintain a witnessing role. It is the mental sheath’s function to experience the full range of the senses and the emotions, and in this role has the freedom to choose. It has free will. This is the site of the original sin or primordial stress.

When we are born, the mental sheath matures first. The mind, employed by the Self, creates this separation in the name of protection. This usually happens at a very young age – two or three years old. At this very delicate age, the intellect, discernment, and protective aspects of the mind have not been developed yet. The mind at this young age is forced to develop the first draft of a personality. A projection on a screen, an illusion designed to make one feel accepted, protected, loved and secure. This often happens in pre-school when a mean kid makes fun of a backpack or lunch box. Quickly, the mind is employed to enforce safety and to ensure that this hurt will never happen again. While this process is essential in pre-school, protective layers of the personality continue to build and, by age 10, 20, and 30, this projection on the screen of life filled with our childhood protective patterns of behavior becomes our adult personality – one that is vastly different and separate from the true Self.

The mind uses mathematical equations to maintain control and keep everything in balance. Each and every situation must add up and be fair. “If I get straight A’s, they will love me. If I act sweet, they will give me ice cream. If I give a present, I better get one back of equal value or I will be hurt.” When hurt, the mind will react and become mad, angry, hurtful and distant. The mind will employ the senses to feel balanced and begin to eat, drink, shop or do any number of things to distract the mind and emotions from the pain. Soon, the mind attaches itself to the senses, and both happiness and misery are attributed to this attachment to instant gratification, which attempts to fill the unfillable gap of our childhood need for approval we tend to hang on to. (1)

The Role of the Heart

The heart, or bliss sheath, on the other hand, uses physics and doesn’t balance equations. Its nature is to expand, rather than contract as the mind does. It acts more like the flower in the garden that is always fragrant – the flower doesn’t just offer its fragrance when someone walks into the garden. The flower is not counting how many bees come or how many humans smell it. Its nature is to give; to be fragrant; to be fully itself. This is the nature of the true Self, but the mind is programmed to be protective, analytical, and cautious. It is way too risky to love fully without being sure it will be reciprocal. Most people spend a whole lifetime waiting to be loved, cared for and appreciated by others. It is natural to want to be loved, but this is a mindset – an illusion of security – and thus, from the perspective of the mind alone, we will always be seeking more and never satisfied.

The only non-changing experience of life, the only experience of life that will offer fulfillment, is when one functions from the purity of the Supreme Self – Anandamaya Kosha. Contentment is the nature of pure consciousness, or the Supreme Self, and it does not seek the love and approval of others. The flower doesn’t need someone to smell it for it to be satisfied. From the true Self, the experience of life is embodied by the words, “I love you, but it is no concern of yours.” This means that loving fully without the need to be being loved back is more fulfilling than the experience of being loved. The experience of true love occurs when permission is granted to take a leap of faith to love someone fully, not knowing or caring if they will return that love. To do this, one has to become fearless and be willing to experience the vulnerability of true love. The mind’s most powerful emotion is fear, and the fear of not being loved is the most fundamental or primordial stress. This stress is what separates one from the Self. It is the first mistake of the intellect, this original blemish or sin that separates the eternal and non-eternal. It is the first covering of the Sattvic (harmonious) Self with Rajasic and Tamasic (less harmonious) influences. (1)

The Role of the Senses

The Manomaya Kosha houses the emotions and the senses. Emotions like fear, desire, anger, greed and jealousy imprison the mind, attaching it more intimately to the personality, taking it further away from the Self. These emotions are the cause of repetitive patterns of behavior, and Caraka tells us that desire is the greatest cause of misery in the human body. (1) When we experience stress, the mind instantly creates an energetic molecule of emotion. (4-7) The body is chemically steered to store fat in times of stress, and the emotional charge is stored in the fat cells. These emotions lay dormant deep in the body’s fat cells, and when triggered by old familiar stress, the same emotional tape is played. To break this pattern, the mind and body require an experience of peace and calm, and the stored fat must be given a reason to be burned and detoxed.

The mind uses the senses throughout life to distract one from the reality of the Self. While Caraka says that the major cause of unhappiness and misery is the attraction and allurement to the senses, it also states that the cause of happiness and health comes only from the balanced, sattvic use of the senses, which is very rare. (1) Gaining control of the senses is a constant theme in Ayurveda for both the healing of the physical body and the attainment of higher states of consciousness. Behavioral, or Acharya rasayanas, (8), as well as the Yamas and Niyamas, dictate how to live with sensory control as a prerequisite to having good health, a long life, and spiritual success.

The Role of the Breath

The Pranamaya Kosha is the home of the breath, the life force that connects the mind with the body. If the mind has stressed the body, the prana will be redirected to handle that stress. Commonly, when the body is under stress, the downward-moving vata called apana vata is redirected in an upwards direction. This is called udavarta, or upward-moving vata. (8) When the prana is not able to move along its normal path and direction, the function of the Pranamaya Kosha is affected. The balanced movement of the prana activates 72,000 subtle energy channels called nadis. These nadis concentrate on the chakra system and promote spiritual growth. If the prana is blocked because of mental or emotional stress or attachment, the nadis cannot activate, and the chakras do not spin correctly. Therefore, the subtle energy system – which is in charge of spiritual growth – is stalled.

The Role of the Physical Body

The Annamaya Kosha, or the physical body, is also dependent on the free-flowing movement of the prana in the Pranamaya Kosha. In the process of udavarta, the intestines congest and enlarge the lymphatic ducts (mesenteric glands) around the intestines. (8) The belly will swell and the doshas begin to accumulate and aggravate because the body’s two major waste removal channels are compromised. Draining the intestinal track are lymphatic glands, where the rasa dhatu is separated from the food and absorbed into the lymphatic system along with fat-soluble nutrients and fat-soluble toxic wastes. The toxic waste products are processed through 500 lymph nodes, where they are attacked by neutralizing white blood cells and shipped to the heart to be processed as waste. The rasa is taken back to the spleen where it is converted into rakta (blood), then to muscle, fat, bone, nerve and reproductive tissue. 80% of the body’s activated B cells are located in the Gut Associated Lymphatic Tissue (GALT), where fat-soluble toxins such as heavy metals, parasites, environmental pollutants, and toxic chemicals are absorbed and neutralized. (9) If the lymph around the intestines becomes congested, as in the case of stress-related udavarta, these aggressive toxins accumulate in the intestines and become absorbed into the liver. From the liver, these toxic chemicals are stored in the body’s fat cells along with any pre-existing toxic emotions stored there. As long as the body is stressed, the fat cells will stay in storage, and the toxic chemicals, as well as the toxic emotions, slowly accumulate and aggravate initiating a disease process.

How Our Modern World Affects Our Lymph Health

Stress triggers a series of chemical changes that also compromise the body’s downward-moving vata and lymphatic drains. The body responds to stress by manufacturing stress-fighting hormones (cortisol and adrenaline), which are both degenerative and extremely acidic in nature. The waste products of these hormones are called free radicals – damaging and destabilizing particles that are also extremely acidic. (10-17) The lymphatic system can only drain in an alkaline environment. When overly acidic, the lymphatic system will congest the rasa dhatu and compromise the sequential production of the remaining six dhatus. The list of potential issues related to this imbalance is long, but the early and easily treatable stages of lymphatic congestion usually start with feeling tired, brain fog, hypersensitivity, weak immunity, itching skin or mild rashes, acute fatigue, swelling of breasts during menstruation, mild headaches, soreness or stiffness in the morning, weight gain and bloating. (18-20)

Nature’s Prescription

Nature clearly has a prescription for reducing stress and ensuring adequate fat metabolism. Ayurveda suggests seasonal (ritucharya) and daily (dinacharya) routines to maintain the tenets of good health, long life and spiritual growth. Each season offers the human body an opportunity for rejuvenation, detoxification and spiritual growth.

The spring, which is the beginning of nature’s annual cycle, is a wet and rainy season with accumulating qualities of kapha, or moist, damp, congestive qualities. During this season, nature harvests the antidote to these kapha qualities with leafy greens, sprouts, berries, and grapefruits, all of which are fat-emulsifying. This is the season when the body is naturally letting go of its toxic fat stores. If the diet stays seasonal and alkaline and the stressors are minimal, the body will enter into a naturally-occurring fat-burning detoxification process.

During the summer months, the days are long and the nights are short. Nature provides high-energy fruits and vegetables to help the body maintain the level of activity needed to perform during these longer days. Summer foods are naturally cooling, and thus prevent the body from accumulating pitta (heat), which can begin to dry out and inflame the tissues towards the end of the summer when heat is accumulating.

During the transition into winter, bitter roots and cooling fruits that have a natural purging effect are harvested and are an attempt to detox any accumulated pitta, toxins, or waste out of the body. The winter’s cold and dry qualities are mitigated again by nature’s harvest of heavy, warm, oily and sweet foods. These are the rebuilding and rejuvenating foods harvested to insulate the body during the cold winter months which nourish the mind and body mentally, emotionally and spiritually as the shorter days provide a time of deep rest and rejuvenation. (2)

The daily routine, or dinacharya, as suggested by Ayurveda is a comprehensive approach to de-stressing the body and maintaining the balance of the doshas, koshas and dhatus. Critically important is the timing of meals as the daily kalas or times of day – with respect to the qualities of vata, pitta, and kapha – will dictate the physiological stress incurred and fat metabolism ensued. The most critical time of day, with regards to fat metabolism and detoxifying chemical waste and the fat-soluble molecules of emotion, is the time period between 2-6 PM. This is the vata time of day when the nervous system is demanding a significant amount of blood sugar to satisfy the needs of the mind. If the lunch meal was not adequate or not taken during the pitta (digestive) time of day (between 10-2 PM), there will not be enough energy to make it through the afternoon. The blood sugar will drop and the body will crave sweets and respond to that as physiological stress and begin to store all the available fat possible. Snacking will destabilize the blood sugar, creating a need to be fed frequently and thus provide no reason for the body to metabolize its stored and toxic fat. Remember, fat is the body’s non-emergency, slow-burning fuel and is most efficiently burned between meals. This blood sugar-related stress will also trigger a degenerative and acidic hormone response that will chemically compromise the lymphatic drainage and digestive assimilation of the nutrient-rich rasa.

Relieving Stress: An Ayurvedic Perspective

The first goal of an Ayurvedic approach to stress relief is to convince the body that life does not have to trigger a survival and emergency response with each passing day. Slowly, over years of accumulation, emotions and toxins have been stored deeply in the body’s fatty tissues. While lifestyle is a powerful tool, Ayurveda employs powerful detoxification techniques using ghee and kitchari which, when performed correctly, can free the body of disease and transform the mind and emotions. Ayurvedic cleansing can pass the reigns of control back to the Supreme Self. Research on seven days of a ghee cleanse has reported that 14 of the major fat-soluble environmental chemicals that have been stored in the fat cells were detoxified during the Ayurvedic cleanse. The most amazing result was that this detox process continued for long after the treatments were over. For 2.9 months after the cleanse, these fat-soluble chemicals continued to detox. (21) While a ghee-kitchari cleanse is a proven technique for the release of fat-soluble chemical toxicity, it is because each of the koshas are specifically affected as well, and this yields the most transformational results.

From an Ayurvedic perspective, in the body’s Annamaya Kosha, the tissues are detoxified through the mechanical effects of Ayurvedic cleansing. The Pranamaya Kosha is best treated through a specific series of yoga and pranayama (breathing exercises) and the stroke dynamics of the Ayurvedic massage. These techniques are tailored to the individual’s needs and help to move the subtle energy through mental and emotional blocks in the body.

The Manomaya Kosha is treated with a specific meditation practice and certain panchakarma therapies such as nasya and shirodhara along with a combination of daily yoga, breathing and meditation practice.

The Vijnanamaya Kosha is the discernment sheath, where a process of self-inquiry is employed. Caraka points out that a process of critical analysis or self-inquiry, detachment from worldly pleasures, and realization of fears will restore the memory of reality – the Supreme Self. (1) In the transformational process of cleansing, one disassociates from the illusion. Sensory stimulation and the emotions and attachments of the mind are dissolved. The authentic Self residing in the Anandamaya Kosha becomes the observer (the Rishi value, or the knower of the Self). (1) During the process of self-inquiry from the intellectual or discernment sheath, the observer engages in critical analysis in the process of observing the false self (Devata value, or the process of knowing). The focus of this observation is called the observed (Chandas value, or the known). What is now known by the observer is the process in which the mind separated itself from consciousness. The fat-soluble molecules of emotion that remotely trigger unwholesome and repetitive patterns of behavior are released from the fat cells during the process of a gheekitchari cleanse.

During this process of transformation, the observer engages in the process of seeing itself as the illusion that it is. This three-in-one structure of observation (the Knower engaging in the process of knowing itself) makes the realization of these mindsets and emotional patterns a holographic, or 3-dimensional illusion. It becomes real. This process of self-realization takes what has been hidden in the mind and body and reveals it to the Self. (1) Once the knower becomes aware of its Self at every level, in every kosha, the healing and restoration process of truth begins. The mistake of the intellect is realized, the original sin is transcended, and the power of a pure mind, union with the Self (moksha) and the supernatural powers of the yogi are revealed. (1)

How have you used Ayurveda to cope with stress?

Suggested Reading:

  1. Learn more about Ayurvedic Cleansing here
  2. Harrigan, Joahn Shivarpita. Kundalini Vidya, The Science of Spiritual Transformation. Patanjali Kundalini Yoga Care; 6th edition: 2005.


  1. Caraka,Caraka Samhita, Chaukhambha Orientalia, Varanasi, India. 1981, Sarirasthanam ChI, vs. 102-108, 140-142, 129, 130-139, 99-101, 94-97,143-146, 83, 80-81. 136-141.
  2. Caraka,Caraka Samhita, Chaukhambha Orientalia, Varanasi, India. 1981, Sutrasthana Ch-I, vs. 6-7. 29. Ch VI. All.
  3. Caraka,Caraka Samhita, Chaukhambha Orientalia, Varanasi, India. 1981, Sarirasthanam, Ch VII, vs. 7-8
  5. Pert, Candace. Molecules of Emotion. Simon and Schuster, 1997. P. 144, 187, 208, 293, 297.
  8. Caraka,Caraka Samhita, Chaukhambha Orientalia, Varanasi, India. 1981, Chikitisasthanam, Ch 1. vs.30-35. Ch XXVI, vs. 5-6, 7-10.
  21. Herron, Robert; Fagan, John. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, Sept/Oct 2002.  Maharish Ayurveda Panchakarma Detoxifies Lipophilic and Carcinogenic Chemicals.

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Dr. John

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