Stress fatigue

Today I feel tired, bone tired. As some of you already know, we've been undertaking some major works at Chez Taylor that have consumed us for almost two months. All the while, we're working full time, teaching part time, (trying) to maintain our personal practice(s), and look after our family near and far. This week one of the messiest phases, involving insidious plaster dust, finally reached conclusion and we're beginning to restore cleanliness and order at home. Now 'safe', my body has decided to acknowledge the exhaustion. I could barely drag myself to work this morning, let alone practice.

On the neurophysiological level, this is about the endocrine system and the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis. Under stress, the Hypothalamus in the old-school limbic system of the brain, secretes corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH). This triggers the Pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). This in turn triggers the Adrenal cortex to secrete glucocorticoids. One of the main glucocorticoids is cortisol, who ups the metabolic ante to make sure we get the resources we need during times of stress.

And it’s not just hormonal, these processes impact our immune and nervous systems, such as the Sympathetic-Adrenal-Medullary (SAM) axis, as well as affective and cognitive processes. This adds up to quite the allostatic load as the bodymind works to restore homeostatic balance. When stress continues for protracted periods of time, you can have higher resting levels of these hormones, the energy stores empty, and you are at increased risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and psychiatric disorders.

Back at home, it is trite, but order and cleanliness affect me strongly. I feel tense and anxious when the house is untidy as a result of normal family life, let alone the chaos of construction. It's hard for me to function optimally without some sense of stability and harmony in the home. It's not OCD. It is partly to do with my developmental conditioning, but it's far more than that. It taps into a greater need for sanctuary and protection to quell fear and the stem the defence cascade.

My husband and children don't always feel it, at least consciously, in the same way that I do. There are gender differences in the processing of stress hormones, but other than eventually manifesting in different disorders, there is no winning formula for either sex other than the development of tools for stress management and emotion regulation. I know their lives, as well as my own, improve when our home environment is stable, so creation of a sanctuary at home is a priority for me, as well as, of course, the yoga.

As a result, this also got me thinking about those I see in my work with unsettled domestic situations. Whether due to illness, abuse, neglect, or violence, this suffering is very real and often, or at least originating, in circumstances beyond the control of the individual. Learned helplessness aside, the persistent state of high arousal and deep distress is almost impossible to manage without a safe place to rebuild. Part of the work of yoga is to create that safe space within, constructing a sense of security with the tools of the mind and body. But this is extremely difficult work under such circumstances.

Part of yogic philosophy is also that suffering is caused by the five obstacles (klesha), one of which is attachment (raga). This is where I urge compassion and prefer to leave judgement at the door. It is not for me to judge the attachment, or otherwise, of myself or another. This itself is ignorance (avidya) at best, or ego (asmita) at worst. It is the work of gradual self-discovery, rather than ideological finger-pointing.

So today I will try to practice some self-kindness and introspection. I will achieve what I can at work, lay off the sugar, practice lightly with a focus on breathing (pranayama) and mindfulness (dharana). Strong practice and full meditation (dhyana) may not happen today. That's ok.

On the diffuser: Lavender; Bergamot; and Rosewood.

Further reading:

KUDIELKA, B. M. & KIRSCHBAUM, C. 2005. Sex differences in HPA axis responses to stress: a review. Biol Psychol, 69, 113-32.
SAPOLSKY, R. M. 2004. Why zebras don't get ulcers: a guide to stress, stress-related diseases, and coping, New York, Henry Holt and Company LLC.

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