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From daily commutes in work traffic, to your boss or family’s expectations of you, to financial pressures…. All of these have one thing in common – they can become overwhelming and start sending messages to your nervous system that you’re in danger. So what does stress do? Your body automatically begins preparing for fight or flight!
Our sympathetic nervous system reacts when we feel we aren’t safe. It activates the fight or flight response, which allows us to move quickly to get away from mortal danger. Moving quickly would be a good thing if you encounter a hungry carnivore….
Here’s what happens in your body when you see this guy out in nature without even having to think about it:
- Adrenaline begins coursing through your body
- Heart rate increases (pumps faster)
- Heart stroke volume increases (pumps harder)
- Heart vasoconstriction (like putting your thumb over the end of a hose)
- Increase of blood sugar for the body to use as fuel
- Increase of blood lipids like fats for the body to use as fuel
- Increase in platelet activity (clotting factors in case you are wounded)
The adrenaline starts to decrease your blood circulation to your digestive system (because you need all your energy to run from the danger). It also increases your breathing rate because it thinks you need oxygen to run! Your immune system actually goes on overdrive for +/- 1 hour to be able to kill any infections that you might get from being wounded by that animal.
So that’s pretty amazing that your body can see something and in the blink of an eye, adjust and coordinate all your systems to hopefully save your life!
And today (most of us) are very lucky because we don’t have tigers trying to eat us on a daily basis.
But instead, our stressors like traffic, relationships, and financial situations create the same response in our body as a glimpse of a hungry tiger.
Over time, this turns into chronic stress like a switch that’s stuck in the ON position. Chronic stress “contributes to high blood pressure, promotes the formation of artery-clogging deposits, and causes brain changes that may contribute to anxiety, depression, and addiction. More preliminary research suggests that chronic stress may also contribute to obesity, both through direct mechanisms (causing people to eat more) or indirectly (decreasing sleep and exercise).”
Turn it OFF!!!!
The parasympathetic nervous system is what flips that switch back to the OFF position. It’s also known as “rest and digest”. This system basically reverses everything that was amped up by the sympathetic nervous system and restarts everything that was shut down.
So what can you do when you realize you’re switch has been flipped to “on”?
Breathe – The 3 Part Yoga Breath
It’s easier to practice this breath if you’re laying down, but feel free to sit if need be.
- Place one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest.
- Inhale and fill your belly first with air.
- Then, breath into your rib cage feeling your lungs expand.
- Exhale by emptying your chest of air, followed by your belly squeezing your belly button towards your spine as you finish.
Practice this breath for 1-5 minutes depending on your level of stress.
Slowing down your breathing can lower your heart rate and your adrenaline response.
A Restorative Yoga Pose like Legs up the Wall
One of my favorite books, Restorative Yoga for Life, talks about how stress and anxiety create a “hypervigilance” in the muscles of the body. Restorative yoga poses use props that support your body completely.
Your muscles can relax and let go of their tension in these poses. The more relaxed your muscles are in your chest area, the easier it is to take slow deep breaths and flip that switch back to “off”.
While you relax in a restorative yoga pose, you can meditate to calm your mind as well. In this study, participants learned a mindfulness-based practice including meditation and yoga and the change in “perceived stress” after 8 weeks was significantly reduced from only 20 minutes of practice per day.
Try one of these types of meditations to quiet your mind:
- Guided meditation or body scan
- Listening to music or nature sounds
- Repeat a word or phrase (Peace, I am safe, etc.)
Check out this video of “The Butterfly Hug”. Basically, you are slowly tapping on the left side of your body, and then the right. This brings you in to the present moment and helps calm your fears.
If you are out in public and are starting to feel triggered by a “perceived fear”, you can start tapping your thumb and index finger together, alternating hands, and tuning in to the present. When I start feeling shaky and anxious (i.e. the adrenaline starting to rev up), it helps me a lot to go for a walk and do this.
Hopefully, you have found this article helpful for ideas to help you when you feel like that switch has been flipped to the “on” position.