Yoga and the Stress Response

neuro

It’s pretty common to be stressed out in our society these days. I’m not talking about the presidential election or any specific event in society.  I’m talking about the way we live.  The way we rush from one thing to the next while our mind is going in many more directions that we can physically go.  I’m talking about the ways we abuse our bodies, hold tension and don’t sleep well.  This constant state of stress has serious effects on your body and how our body operates.  The good news is that you can consciously do something about it.

Our nervous system is an amazing, complex system that ultimately connects so much of our body and our mind. It’s the part of our body that transmits signals to and from the different parts of our body.  The autonomic nervous system is a part of the nervous system that unconsciously controls and regulates bodily functions like heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, pupillary response, urination, and sexual arousal.  The system has two branches:  the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems.

When we are stressed our body triggers the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is commonly called the “fight or flight” system.  It is responsible for quick mobilizing responses.  Adrenaline excites the body, the heart rate increases, respiration increases, blood sugar rises to increase fuel, blood flow moves away from the skin and core of the body and moves into the brain and limbs so you are prepared to run or fight.  This response is great when you are in danger or in need, but it’s not meant to operate all the time.  When it operates all the time, other systems lack or fail.

The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is commonly called the “rest and digest” system. It is responsible for more slowly activated responses.  These sympathetic and parasympathetic systems work as opposites so while one activates the other inhibits.  If one is working, the other can’t be doing its primary functions at the same time, instead its inhibiting.  When the sympathetic system is running all the time, our parasympathetic system remains at bay.  That means hormones rush through our body almost constantly that cause elevated blood pressure, rapid shallow breathing, high blood sugar, indigestion, diabetes, heart disease, immunosuppression, and more.  It makes us more prone to diseases:  cancer, Lyme, hepatitis, and more.

Both of these systems work well and have purposes that support us, but commonly we are living in a state of over activation of the sympathetic nervous system.   The constant state of stress we live in causes the “fight or flight” system to be on more than it is off.  This creates an imbalance in our systems.  This causes changes in our body that affect our heart, our organs, our brain, and more.  This imbalance can lead to many forms of suffering:  anxiety, colitis, arteriosclerosis, sexual dysfunction, and neurological damage for example.   Living in a constant state of sympathetic activation changes our brain and changes the way our body functions.  Instead of functioning in a normal homeostasis, it functions as if we are being chased and only need survival functions.  Chronic stress leads to symptoms like headaches, indigestion, ulcers, tight muscles, high blood pressure and more.  Digestion slows and other systems stop because your body is acting like it is being chased and switches to survival mode.

The good news is we can affect the balance of our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.  Limiting your stress and changing how you react to stress is important for your health.  Relaxation, deep breathing and gaining control of your relationship to your mind can help.  All of these things are done in yoga which is one of the many benefits of doing yoga.  Yoga practices have been proven to relax the sympathetic nervous system and activate the parasympathetic.  They’ve been proven to increase your health and neurologically change what’s happening in your body.  We can use tools from yoga to bring a state of “rest and digest” back to our system.

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In yoga, we focus on the breath. Our movements follow and our breath leads.  Our mind focuses on our breath and pays attention to what arises in our mind and what arises in our body.  The breath we deepen and slow down.  This diaphragmatic, deep breathing stimulates the vagus nerve and leads to many calming side effects.  As we stimulate the vagus nerve, we send a message system wide to activate the “rest and digest” system.   We start a yoga practice by turning our attention to our breath which already begins to send signals to your body to relax.  We then start to move mindfully, focusing our mind on our breath and paying attention to our body.  We move through postures to ultimately bring about a freedom of the mind and a relaxation of the body.  Deep breathing is the first step, but we then move to relax and free the body.  Systematic relaxation exercises are done in yoga to relax the whole body and mind and give you tools to take off of your mat and use in stressful situations to change your relationship to the experience.  Stress is defined by what you are considering stressful.  The more you can relax during potentially stressful situations, the more you can retrain your mind to not create stress surrounding the situation you may be in.  You can train your body and your mind to not go into fight mode.  The more we can relax and retrain our mind from creating habitual, harmful thought patterns, the more we can stop the stress response and break the cycle of living in a chronic state of stress.  Optimally, we can learn skills to take into our daily life that allow us to remain calm, breathe easily, and keep our stress response from activating.  Ultimately, we can use a yoga practice to free ourselves from the harmful effects of stress to lead a happy, healthy life.

We have the choice.  We hope to see you on your mat.

 

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