Stress & the nervous system
Our autonomic nervous system controls the involuntary functions within our body. It has two branches: the sympathetic (SNS) and parasympathetic (PSNS).
The SNS is the stress response in the body and releases hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) to kick us into action – it is the ‘fight/flight’ response. These hormones (amongst other things) cause an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, glucose into our blood stream (to provide energy to our muscles) whilst reducing blood flow to our digestive system. This explains why so many people suffer gut problems and indigestion during times of stress. We need a certain amount of SNS activity to maintain balance (homeostasis) in our bodily functions and it’s also what allows us to act quickly when we are faced with a perceived threat (e.g. running out of the way of an oncoming bus in the road) or if we simply need to respond to the demand of meeting a deadline at work. Once the stressful event has passed or we are out of danger, the SNS activity should, in an ideal scenario, settle back into balance with the PSNS.
However, it is a fact for many that we have lost the ability to switch off the SNS and thus we live day in and day out with these hormones coursing through our bodies and this becomes our baseline for functioning.
The effect of chronic stress has been well researched – type the words ‘stress and disease’ into any search engine and the you’ll find evidence of studies that prove stress is a major contributing factor of illness and diseases such as heart problems, obesity, type 2 diabetes, depression and gastrointestinal problems, to name a few. If you are unfortunate enough to be living with any physical or mental illness, stress will exacerbate its effects.
The PSNS is our ‘rest and digest’ mode. It slows down our heart rate, relaxes our muscles, increases glandular activity, allows our digestive system to function well and conserves our energy. This is the internal environment in which our body has the ability to restore and heal itself. The body can absorb and utilise nutrients, our minds can think calmly and rationally.
So how do we switch off this stress response?
Whist the functions of the autonomic nervous system are involuntary, there are many things that we can do to promote PSNS activity. The emphasis on conscious, deep breathing alone can ease us into rest and digest mode. An indication that we are functioning on SNS is to observe our breath – is it shallow and high in the chest? Is the breath a little rapid or choppy? By simply pausing to take ten deep breaths down into our bellies can calm down that stress response and restore the rest & digest mode.
Yoga practices – including postures, conscious breathing techniques (pranayama) and mindfulness or meditation – are wonderful ways to release stress by increasing the activity of the PSNS. Do you know of anyone who regularly practices yoga or meditation tell you that it stresses them out? I doubt it!
Yoga certainly can be invigorating and energising; but not in a way that is stressful to the body or mind. This is due to the emphasis placed on self awareness and consistent, steady breathing, even if we are moving dynamically and building up a sweat in a vinyasa class. There are certain ‘styles’ or approaches in yoga that have a deeply calming and restorative effect on our nervous system. Either way, you can’t really go wrong. Yoga is medicine for our body and mind and reduces the harmful effects of stress – whether acute or chronic.
Delving a little deeper – the residue of stress, tension and trauma in the tissues of our body
The response of the human body to a perceived or very real stressful or traumatic event is to induce the involuntary contraction of certain muscles of the body that create flexion – visualise someone curled up in the foetal position – whereby the extremities of the body are drawn inwards to protect the front of the body and its vital organs. One of the key muscles involved is the psoas muscle: the primary hip flexor that, when contracted, flexes the thigh bones in towards the abdomen. Whether or not the event was life-threatening (at its most extreme, imagine how you would react if an explosion of any kind were to happen nearby) or simply an short term occurrence that activates the SNS (perhaps an unexpected clap of thunder that made you jump out of your skin or feeling overwhelmed when you check your never ending to-do list), the psoas muscle will tighten.
The psoas is so intimately connected to the stress response in the body and, even long after the stressful event has passed, the chemical residue of this physiological response remains stuck in the body. I like to refer to this as the issues in the tissues. Most yogi’s will have experienced, at some point in their practice, the unexpected arousal of unwelcome emotions – seemingly out of nowhwere – anger, sadness, irritability, frustration. This is yoga doing its work on one of many levels; the release of stagnant chemical residues in the body that may have been dormant for years.
TRE® & Yoga Workshop: Keep calm and shake it off!
Last year, through my friend Debbie Brown, I learned TRE® – Tension Releasing Exercises – a series of simple physical movements designed to induce the inherent ability within all mammals to tremor as a way to release stress, tension and trauma from the body. It is a purely body orientated approach to letting go of the ‘issues in the tissues.’ My personal experience of TRE® has been very positive and a great complement to my yoga practice in times of need. Yes, even us yoga teachers need to deal with stress and overwhelm like everyone else! I find it an enjoyable experience. I feel lighter afterwards and my hip flexors feel incredibly free!
Earlier this year, Debbie and I ran our first workshop together, a fusion of TRE® and Yoga. Feedback was really positive by those who joined us and Debbie is a gifted facilitator in this method. We are very happy to be joining forces again for our next offering on 18th March 2017.