Let’s talk about STRESS, baby. Let's talk about you and me. Let’s talk about all the good stress, and the bad stress. Yea Baby, let’s Talk about STRESS!
What is stress? Stress is simply a reaction to a change that requires an adjustment to our physical, mental or emotional response. There’s positive stress, like a surprise party or even a job promotion. Then, there's ongoing or chronic stress, such as a toxic relationship or caring for a chronically ill family member. There’s also acute stress from a sudden event, such as a car accident or say - a global pandemic.
I have been practicing yoga for about 14 years and began my yoga teacher training nearly 4 years ago. During my training, while learning about the physiological effects that yoga can have on the mind and body, I felt like I could finally understand why yoga had always been so beneficial for me. We don’t have enough time for me to go into all my issues haha! But put simply, yoga helped me manage high levels of stress during a time when there was a lot of NOISE from a high demand job in a highly competitive industry in a highly over-stimulating environment. Yoga, of course did not turn down the volume on all of that noise, but it did give me back the remote control. This is why I choose to spend so much of my time sharing this practice with others.
Let’s not demonize stress. Stress is a necessary part of you, and we don’t have to divorce or numb it or distract from anything that is an essential piece of who we are and how we operate. Stress indicates attention or care is needed. It helps to enact essential change. It doesn’t need to be squashed, it needs to be attended to. It’s a completely natural response when an adjustment is needed.
It’s arguably the way in which we manage and cope with stress that is unnatural. Most of us were taught to squash or ignore all negative emotions. I remember very clearly from childhood being told, "Don't you dare cry!". What was the messaging around hard emotions when you were growing up? Maybe you were punished for yelling when angry (throwing tantrums). Maybe you were told "children should be seen, not heard" if you complained about some injustice or distress. Our parents and caregivers may not have intended to create the pattern of emotional suppression that so many of us still succumb to today. But, then add to that society's messaging of a stressed-out person being a "hot mess", or the "hormonal, over-reacting woman", or the male who expresses sadness being a "wuss". Add to that the marketing encouraging us to "take the edge off" with alcohol, or promoting "retail therapy" as self care. The messaging is clear - we don't like stress. Stress is bad. Let's get rid of it ASAP.
However, as grown adults in full control of our own wellness, we can choose to reframe our approach to stress. How we approach stress is key to how it plays out within the body. Can we approach our stressors as growth opportunities vs insurmountable challenges?
Without adversity or challenge, we would never grow. Earthly pressure forms diamonds. I love this quote from Carl Jung: “The greater the contrast, the greater the potential. Great energy only comes from a correspondingly great tension of opposites.”
Can we invite contrast into our lives with the knowledge that even if it’s causing negative stress, it’s also guiding us toward adjustment or necessary change, which can look like prioritizing your health, setting boundaries or asking for help?
Okay, so now that we have made up with our stress, we’re going to shake hands with it. Take Ganesha Mudrah.
Palms face each other horizontally. The right palm should be facing towards the body, the left palm facing away. Fingers lock together and grasp each other. The thumbs simply rest on top of the little finger of the opposite hand. The hands stay at the level of the heart as they are energetically pulled apart without releasing the grip. (https://www.yogapedia.com/definition/6873/ganesha-mudra)
Ganesha mudrah is said to be a remover of obstacles. Similarly, this mudra is great for relieving yourself of all types of obstructions in your life; it can help you regain positivity and courage when dealing with hard times. Interlock fingers, take 6 slow, full breaths in and out through the nose, switch sides, and repeat.
Let’s embrace both the dark and the light, the yin and the yang, the ebb and the flow, the movement alongside the stillness. When we practice accepting and even embracing the dark and light, the expansion and contraction, peaks and valleys, over time we become more emotionally flexible.
So let's shift our story. Instead of "I am so stressed out!", we can say "This is challenging" or "I am experiencing some adversity right now." Then we can get curious. What is the stress telling us? What new information is this leading me toward? What change or adjustment would be most beneficial to you?
Shift your mindset over time by using these three Mantras:
Stress, I forgive you.
We can do hard things.
I can embrace adversity and allow for learning.
In the past, I wasn't always as confident in mindset work and mantra. So if this seems like a bunch of bull for you right now, I will remind you of the science. We are all born with the same amount of brain neurons and we cannot grow more, but it is possible to build new neural pathways. If we start telling ourselves a different story, the old neuropathways slowly related to a previous belief begin to weaken and the new neural pathways associated with the new belief can begin to strengthen. Over time, your natural mindset or pattern CAN change. This means you can in fact change your reality. You have more control than you may know.
We often look at stress as something that happens solely in the brain - a bunch of anxious thoughts, stories, mind chatter. But the mind and body are closely connected - in fact it’s our nervous system that quite literally connects everything. Via the nervous system, our bodies have a very intelligent way of managing stress. If we can help our nervous system work more optimally, we can make stress more manageable.
The reason that stress can cause all sorts of other bodily symptoms like stomach aches, high blood pressure, aches and pains, anxiety, overeating, or lack of appetite is because the nervous system not only connects but INFORMS many other systems of the body, including the adrenal system (which controls the release of cortisol among other hormones), the immune system, and the gut. For this reason, managing and minimizing external stressors is very important, but what about what’s happening inside?
Our peripheral nervous system has one purpose: to keep us safe and maintain stasis (balance). It does this with two functions, the sympathetic nervous system, which initiates the fight or flight response when the body senses danger, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which initiates the rest and digest response when it’s safe to relax and recover. Your sympathetic nervous system function is meant to speed up your heart rate, deliver more blood to areas of your body that need more oxygen or other responses to help you get out of danger. The parasympathetic nervous system function is to relax and slow down the body systems after periods of stress, so it’s quite literally like the automatic brakes. This parasympathetic response will slow our heart and breathing rates, lower blood pressure and promote digestion so the body can enter a state of relaxation, the goal being recovery and restoring energy.
The question is - what information is being sent to these systems when we are under acute or chronic stress? The body cannot necessarily differentiate between a bear attack and the continuous pressure of an overbearing and unsupportive boss, for example. It can all potentially translate as life-threatening danger, leading to things like increased heart rate and deprioritized immune function, especially if you’ve been conditioned to believe that your life depends on your success at work or pleasing others for example. So it’s up to us to find ways to regulate the nervous system so that following a stressful event or emotional experience, the body can more automatically hit the brakes, or naturally come into relaxation and recovery - rest and digest.
Luckily, there are many practices for nervous system regulation that you can use whenever you feel your mind or body in dysregulation. It’s just a matter of slowing down to notice that dysregulation and being intentional about what happens next.
Ever wonder why we tell people who are under distress to take deep breaths? Breathing deeply, with a slow and steady inhalation to exhalation ratio, signals our parasympathetic nervous system to calm the body down. This is part of why pranayama (which translates to “breath control”) as part of a consistent yoga practice is so beneficial to help us regulate and destress. Practicing diaphragmatic breath, or belly breath, “encourages full oxygen exchange — that is, the beneficial trade of incoming oxygen for outgoing carbon dioxide. Not surprisingly, this type of breathing slows the heartbeat and can lower or stabilize blood pressure.” (https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/learning-diaphragmatic-breathing)
This mode of breathing is actually your most natural breath. You may have noticed the belly of a sleeping newborn very noticeable rising and falling as they breathe. Due to unnatural patterns like holding breath from stress or trauma and holding in abdominals for a smaller waistline, most of us eventually end up with altered, shallow breathing. But, we can choose consciously to practice breathing in a way that is more beneficial to our overall health.
To practice diaphragmatic breath, while seated or lying down, you can place one hand on your belly below the navel. Inhale deeply through the nose, allowing your breath to fill your belly, as opposed to your chest. Exhale slowly and let the belly draw inward for a complete release of carbon dioxide. Let your belly expand and contract as you continue to breathe deeply.
We can also practice different styles of yoga in order to bring on that state of rest and digest, such as restorative yoga, yin yoga, or yoga nidra. The poses included in these styles tend to incorporate stillness or gentle movement, seated or reclined positions and deep breathing in order to promote recovery and restoration of energy. This allows the body to retreat, to call back the troops, to come home, to just be. These practices can help to establish a sense of safety in the body and send that message of security inward, which can confirm for the body that it’s safe to rest.
When I guide students in practicing any style of breathwork, I almost always emphasize the concept of expansion with the inhale and contraction with the exhale. Dr Peter Levine, the founder of Somatic Experiencing (SE) which is a healing modality for treating PTSD, talks about how we are always in a state of expanding or contracting. So this method of trauma release is in many ways an embodiment of pendulation, moving in and out. Leaning into discomfort or stress, enough to elicit the body’s knowledge, and then moving out and into recovery, following the natural response of our very intelligent body.
Wouldn’t you agree? Isn’t that why so many of us often feel like we’re on a roller coaster? The ups and downs, and twists and turns, can certainly feel like a lack of security and can even be dysregulating. But again, if we were to embrace that winding road, both the expansion and the contraction, the yin and the yang, the ebb and the flow- how would that change things?
Settle into your seat or on your feet for a moment here, take one deep belly breath and release through the mouth. Now, ask your body: how would it feel we could approach all of this contrast with openness and receptiveness, instead of fear and resistance? How would it feel to Know that our bodies’ are intelligent and capable of navigating stress? How would it feel to believe that we are in control of our own wellness through self care practices that can support both the mind and body?
If I could offer you one major take away it would be this: Slow Down. Only by practicing pause and presence can we become more connected to the body and conscious of when stress is throwing us into dysregulation. And only then can we take back control when the inevitable, external stress threatens to disrupt balance and disturb our peace. This is not to say that slowing down is easy; it most certainly is not easy in a world that only rewards us for productivity and achievement. But, that is why we practice.
One of many goals for students and clients is to teach nervous system regulation, which will lead to benefits like improved mental state, lowered heart rate, optimal gut brain communication, improved immune function, better focus and decision making. Yoga is the perfect container for this healing medicine that we all need today.
I look forward to seeing you in yoga class or supporting you in a virtual or in person yoga and self care session. Please feel free to reach out to learn more at email@example.com. Or book a free discovery session so we can get to know each other and discuss your wellness goals.