So Stress, what is its definition, well in essence it is the fight & flight response!
‘Stress is a biological and psychological response experienced on encountering a threat we feel we do not have the resources to deal with’Www.simplypsychology.org/stress-biology.html
The brain floods our body with a cocktail of chemicals which initiate the ‘Fight or Flight response’ also known as ‘hyperarousal’ or ‘acute stress response’ This response was originally meant for life threatening situations.
‘It would be dangerous to be indecisive about a threat to our survival so the brain runs information from our senses through the most primitive, reactive parts of the brain first. These areas of the brain control instinctive responses and they don’t do much thinking. This more primitive part of our brain communicates with the rest of our brain and body to create signals we cant ignore easily: Powerful emotions and symptoms’Www.nottinghamshireac.uk/counselling/documents/podcast-fight-or-flight-response.pdf
In years gone by gut reactions were instinctive and bypassed the rational mind for self preservation, the powerful symptoms are; an increase in heart rate & blood pressure. Muscles tense readying the body for immediate action. Our senses heighten and non essential systems like the digestive system are shut down to allow more energy to be available for essential systems. The immune system temporarily increases. Adrenaline is released to fuel our response. Liver releases extra sugar for energy.
Too understand the effects of stress we first need to understand how it can effect us even when there is no life threatening situation! These days the fight or flight response is more likely to be initiated by internal chatter: worries which can the give rise to anxiety.
‘There is clear and present object of fear. Although the response is different (real vs. Imagined danger) fear and anxiety are interrelated. When faced with fear most people will experience the physical reactions that described as anxiety. Fear causes anxiety and anxiety can cause fear’Www.verywell.com/fear-and-anxiety-differences-and-similarities-2584399
Fear and anxiety are closely related, so an anxious situation can also initiate the fight or flight response. Examples of everyday stress would be a presentation, job interview, exam or a traffic jam, these are but a few. Sometimes stressing about a presentation or exam can have a positive effect as brain function is increased as stated by Dr Shelton
Low level stressors stimulate the production of brain chemicals called neurotrophins and strengthen the connections between neurons in the brain’
‘Good stress can help you enter a state of “flow” a heightened sense of awareness and complete absorption into an activity’Www.health.com/stress/5-weird-ways-stress-can-actually-be-good-for-you
‘Stress can help you meet daily challenges and motivates you to reach your goals. In fact stress can help you accomplish tasks more efficiently’Www.ulifeline.org/articles/450-good-stress-bad-stress
So on a day to day basis good stress is beneficial. But on the flip side, Stress can also be negative, if we perceive the task at hand is too hard and our internal chatter is nothing but negative e.g ‘I cant do this’ you can feel overwhelmed and become unfocused and unable to concentrate.
Prolonged stress can lead too many health issues, the effects of the fight or flight on the body are intense, originating from gut instinct and the unthinking primal mind which was geared up to originally to save our lives, nowadays this response is activated many times a day by situations that we ‘perceive’ as dangerous, our primal brain recognises the fear/anxiety our rational brain is perceiving as a threat, even though the perceived threat might actually only be that ‘Perceived’. It responds appropriately and our rational mind primed by the fight or flight effects fills in the blanks and so a vicious circle ensues and we remain in fight or flight mode. So if the causes of the stress never go away our body will stay in a state of constant fight is flight. Hypertension can develop and also problems with the blood vessels or the heart. This is because the heart will be worked too hard for too long. Type 2 Diabetes can develop due to continued high levels of glucose in the blood. When stress is prolonged the Immune system lowers and you become more susceptible to illness. It can also effect the time it takes to recover from an injury. Muscles remain primed for action never getting the chance to relax. Over time tight muscles can cause body aches, pains and headaches. Depression can take hold as our normal stress coping strategies are likely to change e.g we stop doing what makes us feel good e.g going to our weekly yoga practice, going running, reading a good book before bed. We become consumed by the stress and experience low moods which become more frequent as we unknowingly take away from ourselves what we need to cope. Irritability and Anxiety are also symptoms.
So what can we do about this, well for every action there is an equal or opposite reaction. In this case it is the……
’The response is defined as your personal ability to encourage your body to release chemicals and brain signals that make your muscles and organs slow down and increase blood flow to the brain’Www.psychologytoday.com/blog/heart-and-soul-healing/201303/dr-Herbert-s-Relaxation-response
Dr Herbert Benson did studies in the 1960’s and 1970’s which showed that meditation promotes better health and that people who meditated regularly had lower stress levels. He defined that the Relaxation response could be elicited by
’visualisation, progressive muscle relaxation, energy healing, acupuncture, massage, breathing techniques, prayer, meditation, tai chi, qui gong and Yoga’Www.psychologytoday.com/blog/heart-and-soul-healing/201303/dr-Herbert-s-relaxation-response
I strongly agree with Dr Herbert that meditation promotes better health because Meditation stimulates the Parasympathetic Nervous System otherwise known as the rest and digest system, the PNS system slows down our body, Consider how you feel after a large meal, satisfied and tired. This is the parasympathetic nervous system in action.
Meditation brings you into the here and now. Have you heard the saying when are depressed we are living in the past, when we are anxious we are living in the future. More than likely you are switching between the two. But do you ever actually come into the moment. See it for what it really is?
Have you ever drove/walked somewhere and wondered how you got there? Its likely your mind was thinking of something in the future or past.~Leigh Mason~
So when we meditate, all of sudden you become aware of everything around you ‘The Moment’ and of you in the moment. It takes you to a place of inner calm that nothing in this material world can change. I could talk for pages and pages about how wonderful meditation is, so maybe that is another article i need to write. But it is a large part of the key in managing stress and anxiety.
Meditation increases your fuse rating to life!Chris Barrington – DRU yoga
Practicing Yoga asana (Physical Poses) also stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system; forward bending poses are the best for this as they soothe the nervous system. The effect is created as the spine lengthens it creates space between the vertebra. Which in turn increases circulation to the nerves in the spine, soothing them. Also internal organs are stimulated, massaged and palpitated when you are in the fold due to blood flow increasing
’By folding forward, you increase circulation to the abdominal organs like the spleen, pancreas, liver, intestines and kidneys. This then improves digestion and stimulates metabolism’Www.doyouyoga.com/top-5-benefits-if-forward-folds-90857
Also for example a Standing forward fold, having the head below the heart sends blood rushing to the head and helps to calm the mind. On top of the Relaxation response benefits, asana helps improve flexibility, lengthening muscles that have become tight due to the constant stimulation of the Fight or flight response.
And then we come to Pranayama (Breathing Practices), i actually believe that out of everything Pranayama is the most important. By working with the breath, slowing the breath. We effect the mind, thus as the breath slows, the mind slows/calms.
“When you learn the breathing techniques, it will positively affect your actions and thoughts. Every thought we have changes the rhythm of our breath. When we are happy, breathing is rhythmic and when we are stressed breathing is irregular and interrupted. Mastering the art of breathing is a crucial step towards self-healing and survival”Naheed Ameen
When we perform pranayama we access a breathing practice which directly affects our nervous system, scientifically it stimulates the vagus nerve which is in charge of turning on the parasympathetic system.
’Just as the nervous system dictates the breath, when we dictate the breath we dictate the nervous system’Www.Twistedtrunkyoga.com/news/the-neurophysilogy-of-yoga-breathing-and-its-effects
So by means of breathing, we are able to access the ‘Relaxation response’. We can control our feelings, stress, anxiety by just focusing on the breath and breathing! Most of us just take our breaths for granted and don’t actually know how to breath properly, you just assume you are. But years of stress, anxiety, bad breathing technique, will change your breathing pattern. Stress creates a shallow breath where we breath into the upper part of the chest only. Over time the muscles between the ribs will become tight and restrictive. The Diaphragm (A key breathing muscle) will become weaker and tighter. Meaning that our bodies will become restricted in how deep a breath we can take and thus we fall into the regular pattern of breathing shallowly within the upper part of the chest. Just do it now, breath just at the top of the chest. Its tight, restrictive and fast…which stimulates the fight flight response as shallow breath is a sign of fear and anxiety. But we can retrain our bodies to breath deeper, the mechanical part of the breath is muscles and we know we can stretch and strengthen muscles. We can do this with the muscles we use to breath. A really good technique to promote a deeper breath is Abdominal breathing (Deep Breathing), where you focus the breath to the tummy. It really helps to switch on the main breathing muscle the Diaphragm. This technique is recommended and endorsed by the NHS.
I have a case study where the Ujjayi breath was used with Veterans with PTSD,
’Ujjayi breathing alone has been documented numerous times to produce this parasympathetic response In studies of veterans with PTSD, they performed asana for depression as described by Iyengar in Light on Yoga. This practice did indeed reduce their subjective levels of depression and anxiety, but did not decrease their physiological symptoms of hyperarousal. Only once the pranayama was added did the studies observe significant reductions in markers of stress.’Www.Twistedtrunkyoga.com/news/the-neurophysilogy-of-yoga-breathing-and-its-effects
Ujjayi Breath, includes a gentle constriction in the throat which creates the sound of the ocean in your head. It extremely calming and good for meditation as it creates a focus for the mind. There are so many Pranayama techniques, but when thinking of stress, the best i have found by far is the very simple ‘Rhythmic Breath’ This breath equalises the inhale and exhale and has an immediate sedative effect on the mind. You can do it any time, any where.
So as you have read, when we find a balance stress is constructive. it can motivate us to do things we never thought we could do. In a dangerous situation it protects us! Thinking about our current situation, without stress we would leave ourselves vulnerable. Prolonged stress can be detrimental so we have to find a balance. We can find can find that balance with yoga, pranayama and meditation.
Let me show you how 🙏
“Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu“ ~ May all beings be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and freedom for all.