We often talk about stress and anxiety in terms of the waves of woes that trouble our minds on a day to day basis.
Regrets about the past and worries about the future are an inevitable facet of a stressed or anxious mind, but are these the cause or simply an effect?
Both stress and anxiety are physiological conditions, felt in the body as much as in the mind.
Evolution has made sure that our bodies are equipped with all kinds of weird and wonderful ways to survive, and the physical symptoms we experience when under pressure are an integral part of this clever mechanism. Many of the physiological reactions associated with stress and anxiety are in fact evolutionarily necessary as a means of survival.
Understanding and re-framing this process as adaptive and even useful, is the key in transforming stress and anxiety into resilience, and yoga provides a powerful catalyst.
The Physical Symptoms Caused by Stress
Have you ever been in a stressful or overwhelming situation and felt your heart begin to race? Perhaps your palms became sweaty, your breath shallow, your belly tight.
These sensations are no coincidence, and they are undoubtedly more common than you think. Despite the shame and isolation that often surround stress and anxiety, a study by The American Institute of Stress found that 77% of people surveyed regularly experience the physical symptoms caused by stress.
Being able to feel these conditions is quite simply a part of the human experience; a part of the richness of being alive. Thankfully, we can harness our innate capacity to turn things around, and getting to know these uncomfortable sensations is in fact the first step in treating them.
When our bodies perceive a stressful situation, a number of physiological changes take place in order to prepare us to deal with the threat.
Otherwise known as the ‘fight or flight’ or stress response, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) triggers a cascade of reactions via chemical messengers, such as adrenaline and cortisol.
Heart rate increases, whilst blood flow decreases to all bodily functions deemed unnecessary in an emergency. Digestion and reproduction are shut down in favour of the strong muscles of the arms and legs. In other words, the body mobilizes itself to either put up a fight or run like the wind.
We are adaptively wired for this. This process helped our ancestors to deal with bears back when we were living in caves – those who survived these stressful and life-threatening situations passed on their resiliency to us.
An Old System Versus a Modern World
The problem these days is that our ancient stress response system isn’t yet well adapted to non-physical modern world stressors, such as angry bosses, deadlines, screaming children or even abstract ideas about happiness and fulfilment.
When the day-to-day challenges we face get misinterpreted as life-threatening, our body does what it is wired to do, but we don’t release or discharge this energy and it gets stored in the body or pent up in the mind.
When we are unable to see out our natural fight or flight response, the SNS becomes overstimulated, causing those chronic symptoms of stress and anxiety that so many of us are all too familiar with.
A certain amount of SNS arousal is perfectly normal, but when we don’t have mechanisms in place to deal with the physiological sensations that accompany this process, it can turn into a chronic condition.
Unfortunately, modern living tends to facilitate this state of constant physiological arousal over perceived threats which are actually harmless.
Whilst we are conditioned to “keep calm and carry on,” our natural impulses remain, leaving many of us trying to hide or mask a perfectly normal evolutionary function.
Rather than pathologising stress and anxiety, perhaps it would be more useful to see them quite simply as the result of the body going into an unnecessary fight or flight response.
In this way, we can actually use these seemingly negative sensations as a kind of alarm bell, signalling the critical turning point at which we need to release rather than store this natural anxious energy.
How Do We Release Stress?
Thankfully, the body has its very own off-switch – the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), otherwise known as ‘rest and digest’ mode. When the PNS kicks in, our bodies naturally reverse everything that happens in the stress response, settling you down so that you can continue with your day.
Perhaps surprisingly, arousal of the SNS is an entirely appropriate reaction to most circumstances, and it is not necessarily something to be avoided.
It isn’t that we should all live in some perfect state of resting and digesting.
In a healthy, regulated system, the SNS and PNS are more or less balanced and equally active, one helping to counteract the actions of the other.
How Yoga Can Help
Have you ever noticed that a well-rounded yoga class weaves moments of rest and integration amidst those of fire and discomfort? Think of this as training for the nervous system.
We can use the practice to foster greater self-regulation, to know intimately how it feels when each system is in control, and how to switch gears when necessary.
Yoga reminds us that the body can influence the mind as much as the mind influences the body. Instead of succumbing to symptoms, we can explore them as a means of developing resilience.
Self-exploration is the cornerstone of any yoga practice.
Yoga creates space for us to track sensations without becoming overwhelmed by them, developing a greater internal sensitivity along the way.
It’s common to try to stop or control emotions and sensations as a means of coping, but in order to transform, we have to truly be able to feel what we’re feeling. Yoga sees individuals as a dynamic interplay of changing tendencies, in which there is no need to suppress any aspects of the self.
Through yoga, we can observe a spectrum of experiences, in which constant change is the norm.
Rather than trying to make unpleasant feelings go away, the practice encourages us to make them the focus of our awareness. When you allow yourself the luxury of feeling emotions and sensations, you notice that they are transient; they come and go.
You can allow them to teach you and move through you, before letting go. This is a vital step in building the mental strength and resilience to cope with life’s stresses in a manageable way.
When we understand resilience quite simply as the capacity to respond to stress adaptively, we can transform even the most anxious mind or stressed out body.
With resilience, we harness our ability to recover from and be transformed by adversity, rather than becoming defeated by it.
Life is inherently uncomfortable, but yoga gives us the tools to be deeply present with discomfort, to allow it to move through us so we can appropriately respond to the challenges of life.
When we understand our power to transform stress and anxiety into resilience, we can be in a relationship with our sensations without being overwhelmed.
Much like our bodies are constantly finding balance between the SNS and PNS, we must learn to find balance amidst the ups and downs of life.
After all, triggers will always arise, but with yoga we can develop the self-awareness to control the volume of stress and anxiety we experience.