Stress is the state of mental or emotional tension that each one of us encounters once in a while. The way we respond to stress is conditioned by instinct and also our thinking. The instinctual response is that part we can’t control, but there are parts we have power over.
There are two types of stress. Overthinking fuels the negative kind, and doing something exciting evokes the positive kind. Aside from controlling our thoughts, we have a powerful tool to impact our autonomic nervous system.
We can train ourselves for stress by training the response of our nervous system. Here’s how.
The modern disease called Stress
Stress is a feeling of emotional or physical tension and a widespread phenomenon in nowadays society. There’s hardly anyone who isn’t experiencing stress. Even little children understand the word stress.
The sources of stress are both external, the situations to which we react, but we also experience internal stressors. These seem more insidious because they come from our thinking and hence are not so easy to recognize.
What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word “stress”? Your job, bills, troubles with kids or in your relationship? These are quite common associations we have.
But here’s another perspective – have you ever realized that in order for your hand to move, your fingers to widen, stretch or curl into a fist, your hand is under stress? Stress is also what creates motion in life.
Instincts are necessary, overthinking is not
Imagine a zebra in a savanna, eating grass, frolicking around. It’s calm. The sudden appearance of a lion will create stress for this up until now calm creature. Zebra’s survival instinct kicks in, and the heart starts pumping more blood and thus oxygen and nutrients to the muscles so that the animal can run to save its life. When the danger passes, the zebra shakes it off and resumes the previous calm state.
In the case of a human, imagine a person that nearly stepped on a venomous snake in a forest. But they didn’t, nothing happened, and the snake is gone. What happens next is important. Do they try to hide somewhere, immediately run home, and think that they may never again go to a forest because of what could have just happened and what could happen if they come back in the future? Or, do they leave this experience behind and continue enjoying the hike? What matters is the choice, how would they consciously respond to the situation.
The zebra responds instinctively and at first, so does the human. They try to escape danger. The zebra won’t be ruminating about what could have gone wrong, the human often does.
Stress is not all just bad
When you’re looking forward to something very much, when you’re excited about doing something adventurous you love, for example taking a roller-coaster ride, your body is experiencing also a form of stress.
It was Hans Selye, an Austrian endocrinologist, who introduced the concept of two categories of stress, distress, and eustress. Distress is the kind of stress that negatively affects you, eustress is stress that has a positive effect. Eustress energizes and motivates you into positive action. Distress is what you feel in difficult situations or when facing problems.
Also, did you know that the stress hormone cortisol, is essential in the morning for you to wake up and become active?
What happens in the nervous system?
The human body has the intricate ability to self-regulate. One of the main systems of this innate regulation is our autonomic nervous system (ANS). This part of our nervous system is not under our conscious control.
Its role is to maintain a balanced state, and it does so by the means of the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. In the most basic sense, the sympathetic nervous system acts to speed up certain processes within the body. In his book, The Wisdom of the Body, the American physiologist Walter Canon termed this as a “fight-or-flight” response. The sympathetic system is responsible for raising our heart rate at the onset of a stressor, increasing blood pressure, and delivering glucose into the blood to fuel activity.
The parasympathetic nervous system, however, works in opposition, effectively slowing everything back down. The decrease in heart rate and storage of nutrients are two of the many “rest-and-digest” actions mediated by this system.
The see-saw of the autonomic nervous system
The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems work together in synergy. Every situation, emotion, or thought evokes a response from these two. Distress fires off the fight or flight response. In case of chronic, long-lasting stress, this can harm the balancing ability of ANS and our overall health.
Negative stress, in other words, can make our ANS get stuck in the sympathetic, fight-or-flight response. The health implications are easy to understand, as the heart and other organs are constantly stimulated. Also for proper digestion and nutrient absorption, for the body to rebuild its structures and cells, we need parasympathetic activation which governs the restoration.
Hack this knowledge on a yoga mat!
It is healthy to be able to move in between sympathetic and parasympathetic activations fluidly. We need both. What is not healthy is that in nowadays society, we are prevalently fixed on repetitive thoughts and worries, which makes the ANS naturally remain in the sympathetic response.
The good news is, that there are ways to train our ANS, the same as when we train muscles or stamina at the gym. This training happens on a yoga mat and involves 2 ingredients: postures held for a longer period of time and a particular breathing pattern.
Initiate relaxation in stressful events
Holding a physically demanding asana, or posture creates stress in the body. The sympathetic nervous system activates. Now, at the same time, in order to kick off the parasympathetic system, focus on your breathing and extend the exhalation. It is helpful to count, for example, inhale on count 4, exhale on count 6, or even 8, whichever you’re able to. Make sure to keep going.
The key is in hacking the breath. You would notice that when bad news comes, you would inhale sharply. On contrary, when receiving the great news you were waiting for, your body relaxes with exhalation. Deep, long exhalation is the key to unlocking the parasympathetic system.
Taking control over your breathing and counting will help you make the exhalation longer, hence supporting the relaxation response.
With this practice, there’s stress and there’s relaxation present at the same time. And that’s what allows your autonomic nervous system to reclaim its natural flexibility.
Stressors will always be part of life
Therefore, our response matters. Ultimately, it isn’t the stressor itself, but the way we respond to it, that determines whether we experience distress.
Train your new response to stress in the beautiful and serene environment at REVĪVŌ. Our team of professionals may challenge your stress response on a yoga mat and nourish your nervous system with healthy, brain-protective food. Book your stay with us.