Shutting Off The Stress Response With Yoga & Mindfulness Practice
Fear is an emotional reaction to a perceived threat to our well-being. It lets us know when we’re in danger. It lets us know when we need to act appropriately to steer away from said danger. It is a powerful emotion indeed. So powerful that it can take over our psyches and start doing incredible damage in our lives.
So how does this work? This whole fear damaging our lives thingy? To gain a basic understanding, let’s talk about the nervous system. We all have two divisions of the nervous system — our voluntary system, and our autonomic system. The voluntary system is the one that can be controlled by conscious thought. We use the voluntary system when we control our breathing, when we decided to stand from a seated position, when we’re driving a vehicle for example. The autonomic system (I call it the “automatic” nervous system) is one that is not controlled by conscious thought. It’s the part of the nervous system that keeps our hearts beating, keeps our digestive systems working, and keeps us breathing when we’re not thinking about it (very important!)
The autonomic nervous system is further divided into two divisions — the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS.) Each division has it’s own set of functions, but for simplicity-sake, we’re just gonna focus on the body’s stress response as it relates to fear.
The sympathetic nervous system is the more well-known division of this nervous system. The SNS is responsible for the fight-0r-flight response. The system that puts you in an active state in the face of an emergency. Parents know this system well, especially when their kiddos are toddlers. Remember when you saw junior falling off a chair across the room and you teleported yourself over there to catch him in time? Fight-or-flight response! Great if you want to prevent an injury, not so great if you’re just going about your day.
Unfortunately, we live in an over-stimulated state of being these days. You see, your SNS doesn’t know the difference between an emergency situation, or the constant stream of information that pours out of your smartphone every day. This results in a generally anxious, stressed-out state of being. Stress, by the way, is the leading cause of workplace absences, doctor office visits, and chronic disease. It doesn’t discriminate, and it’s impact is one of the most costly in our society. Over time, stress perpetuates fear. And a human being living in a fearful state ends up weakened and ill over time. It’s no good. So what is a human to do?
So glad you asked! Fortunately for us humans, the SNS has a cousin who likes to work on calming the body down. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for the “rest and digest” response. And guess what? Integrating yoga and mindfulness practices into your life stimulates this PSNS! Folks — this means that we can effectively reduce stress and eliminate fear just by breathing deeply and quieting the mind. And being physically active helps your body release these great hormones called endorphins — basically therapeutic agents just waiting to be released into your blood stream, chomping at the bit to make you feel better! How cool is that?
So how can you start stimulating your PSNS today? You’ve got such great questions! How about a simple meditation for five minutes? Find a comfortable seat, sit up nice and tall, pull in your belly, relax your shoulders, and close your eyes. Scan your body from the top of your head to the tips of your toes, acknowledge any tension you come across in your scan. Perhaps send breath into those areas to create a bit more space and release the tension. Now tune inward to the breath as it flows in and out of your nose. No need to control the breath, just observe the sensations of breath as it flows in and out of your nose. The breath is cooled as it flows inward, warmed as it flows outward. Now you can bring some control to the breath with an accompanying count. Slow the breathing down. Inhale one, exhale two, inhale three, exhale four. Continue until you count to ten, and then start over at one. Your mind will wander off — that’s normal! When you realize it has, bring the focus back to the breath and the count.
In five minutes, you will have taken a mini-vacation by stimulating your PSNS. The stress response will be reduced, and you will have better control over your reaction to stress. Observe how you feel after the mini-vacation. Do you notice any changes? Maybe you’re breathing easier? Maybe you have less tension in your body? Whatever the case may be for you, I hope that this short and sweet meditation helped you in some way. If you are still sitting stressed out and inviting fear over for lunch, try implementing a practice like this every day. Over time, your nervous system will understand what you’re trying to do and eventually, you will feel better. Be empowered by the simple knowledge that you do have the ability to make yourself feel better, and that you can ultimately prevent fear from causing damage to your health and well being. It just takes a little effort. It sure beats a trip to the doctor if you ask me!
Wishing you a bright and beautiful day Lovely Souls! Peace, love, Namaste!