Do you know that you are hardwired to respond to, react to, and process stress?
Yes, process stress.
It is entirely possible to not be stressed-out all the time.
Stress is not a competitive sport
Stress is an inevitable part of life. How we experience and mindfully work with stress impacts everything from our physical health to our relationships. We are living in a culture that seems to value being stressed - a glorification of busy, an overemphasis on effort. Those who are the busiest tend to be valued as those who are the most important - they must be important if there is so much to do! We are often overworked, overstimulated, and still thinking we need to do more.
The result of all of this? Our nervous systems are involuntarily working overtime to help us recover.
Addiction to stress is unhealthy and unsustainable
I know this intimately. I was addicted to stress for years, caught up in a whirl of constant busy-ness. I found validation in always having a million things to do and having two million things unfinished. I dealt with this stress in unhealthy ways. I would forget to eat and lose too much weight. I would drink too much coffee in the morning and too much alcohol at night. My sleep schedule was a disaster. There were times my hair fell out, my skin broke out in hives, my stomach cramped, and my head ached.
I did not know how to make the connection between the symptoms of constant stress and the simple fact that I was not healthily processing stress.
Then I found yoga. I cleaned up my act. I started saying no more often. I started sleeping through the night. I started finding a balance between stress and relaxation.
I am by no means always healthily processing my stress (I still wake up at 3 a.m. sometimes in an irrational panic), but yoga has given me a set of tools to help me set reset. I can now notice the times that I need a break. Instead of fighting the messengers of anxiety, anger, and discomfort, I can start to listen and respond.
I am better equipped to take care of myself and others.
Yoga is, afterall, a series of practices to help us embody a balance of ease and effort.
It’s all a balancing act
The human body is literally wired to respond to stress and recover in relaxation. It’s called the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and it is always on alert and working. Comprised primarily of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, the ANS connects the brain and body - heart, guts, muscles, etc. - to facilitate involuntary physical responses to stress.
The sympathetic nervous system responds to stress in a number of ways. It can trigger a complex release of hormones, can change your blood pressure, and can even change the dilation of your eyes. It is our primal survival response, often expressed as:
- Fight When you snap into action, like immediately calling 911 or using a fire extinguisher when there is a fire.
- Flight When you flee the scene, like running from an armed gunman or avoiding a conversation.
- Freeze Think of the deer in the headlights. In extreme situations, you may be literally immobilized by fear. Usually, at least in my world, it can be mindlessly stress-eating chips instead of doing something.
- Tend-and-Befriend Due to a big shot of oxytocin (the hormone), you gather and watch over those around you.
The parasympathetic nervous system is in place to assure body that the stress is over. When the parasympathetic nervous system is working, our body regulates (hormone levels normalize, heart rate drops, breath becomes fuller) and we feel safe. Deep breaths, sighs, and yawns are tell-tale signs of the parasympathetic nervous system trying to set us straight. In extreme cases, the whole body can start shaking uncontrollably to try to settle the nerves.
Unfortunately, unless we specifically make space for it, our parasympathetic nervous system is rarely given the opportunity to do its job. In addition to the glorification of busy, modern life is full of an unprecedented amount of stimuli - background music, news alerts on our smartphones, screens, artificial lighting, and more - that have our bodies involuntarily on alert. (Even some of the ways we often choose to "unwind" can contribute to stress - sitting in front of the television, checking in on social media, and drinking alcohol, to name a few!)
To process stress, we have to make conscious decisions to unplug and let ourselves rest.
It's a practice.....like a yoga practice.
When was the last time you let yourself be quiet?
One of the things I love most about teaching yoga is being able to hold space for the nervous system to reset. I truly feel that I am serving my community when I am teaching a class that is slow, intentional, with minimal(ist) music, and in natural light. It is why I often open the invitation to take rest for the duration of class and assure those attending Yoga Nidra that it is okay to fall asleep. If you fall asleep it just means your really needed to rest.
Yoga teaching Insight:
You know how great you feel after yoga class? We plan it before you even put down your mat. The right balance of conscious breath, movement, and rest in a safe space sends a message to your ANS that all is well, come out to rest and refresh.
Convinced that our modern life can be a bit imbalanced? What do we do about it?
We need more quiet, mindful spaces.
We need kid-friendly spaces that are not all about being loud and overstimulating.
We need a quiet revolution.
We need to ease up on ourselves.
We need to ease up on others....more on that in the next post.
For now, put away the computer, put the phone on “Do Not Disturb”, and have some deep breaths. Maybe try turning off the overhead lights more often and consider ways you can quiet the background noise of your environment.
Better yet, head to a yoga class.
Interested in this sort of thing? Here are some books you might enjoy:
Yoga Nidra for Complete Relaxation and Stress Relief by Julie Lusk
Relax and Renew by Judith Hanson Lasater