The stress epidemic
This fall I have been digging deep into research on stress - the silent killer that affects millions of humans in their pursuit for health and happiness. What I discovered majorly shifted my relationship to and view on stress. A few years ago, if someone had asked me if I was stressed out, I would have said no. I didn't feel particularly stressed, I felt like I was living the "normal" lifestyle of an American young adult. A lifestyle dominated by a tornado of forward momentum, competition with my peers, and the thought that what I was in the present moment was not good enough - always moving forward and searching for joy and wholeness in the "next thing", whatever that was. This was my normal. Every day, my life simply was stress - my sympathetic nervous system (in control of the fight/flight/freeze response) was extremely overactive. I couldn't tell the difference between stress and relaxation, because relaxation in my life was almost non-existent, apart from sleeping at night.
Fast forward to today, December of 2016, and it is clear to me that stress is absolutely present in my life. It is present in the struggle I've had with health and medicine. In the way I choose to move my body each day. In my interpersonal relationships. My deadlines and expectations at work. The culture I live in. My country's political system. The environmental state of the world. My own weird subliminal (or obvious) expectations of who and what I am suppose to be. And more and more and more.
Sympathetic Dominance - what does it mean?
In healthy human function, the sympathetic (STRESS RESPONSE) and the parasympathetic (RELAXATION RESPONSE) systems work together to maintain homeostasis and equilibrium in the systems of the body. However, a majority of people in our society suffer from sympathetic dominance, where we feed too much energy into our survival and fear responses, and not enough into our relaxation and safety responses. The key to moving forward is to begin feeding energy into the parasympathetic system, so we may find a more balanced relationship between the active and passive sides of our system.
(Yogi's Note : the sympathetic and parasympathetic relationship can easily compare to the yogic energy theory concerning our ida (lunar/parasympathetic) and pingala (solar/sympathetic) channels. In yoga, the goal is always to balance these channels by feeding into the opposite's needs, which brings union to the entire system. If we feel a pingala (stress response) dominance, we do practices to stimulate the ida (relaxation response). When the two have equal energy, the sushumna (central channel that feeds wellness into our entire being) is able to turn on and restore optimal balance to the individual's energetic and nervous system.
Thanks to a wide array of alternative practices, I am now able to see when and where sympathetic overload exists in my life. I am able to change my lifestyle and patterns of thought to feed into the parasympathetic. I have learned techniques for initiating my relaxation response, which continue to build resiliency in my nervous system.
One of the most significant times I have felt my sympathetic/parasympathetic nervous system in full balance was, not surprisingly, at the end of a yoga class during final relaxation (savasana). It felt like some wild, mystical experience of absolute bliss. This experience is one of the things that really hooked me into yoga and meditation and is one of the reasons I love to teach to others. When we restore balance to the autonomic nervous system (which yoga definitely does), we are able to elevate our vibration and experience expansive brain states!
Recognizing our Triggers to Stress
One vital component to recovering from sympathetic overdrive is recognizing our personal triggers to stress. Notice first when you are feeling stressed. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated you may notice that your eyes focus in, your palms get sweaty, your heart rate rises, breathing shallows, muscle tenseness, or your blood pressure may raise. I personally experience my stress response as a tightening in my belly, like butterflies or nausea, tension in my shoulders, a pounding heart, and, when my system is sustained in the sympathetic state, I often find myself teary and dominated by my emotions. Each of our responses are individual and different (just like each of our nervous systems!) and can even depend on the stressor at hand.
Begin to notice not only your body's reaction to stressors, but also what stimuli activate the stress response. This can be tricky because we have SO many subconscious triggers stored in our nervous system, ranging from smells, to sights, to words, to feelings. When our systems turned on the stress response for survival in a previously threatening event, they also programmed a wide array of sensory signals that prepare the system for survival in the present, even if in reality we are very safe.
For example, if you were traveling in Europe and had a bag with all of your documents stolen, your system could store that event as a trauma. Perhaps during the event the nervous system took note of the smell of bread baking nearby, the sound of car horns, and the feeling of cool wind. These three sensory inputs now have become signals of stressors in the environment. From that point on, the SNS will kick on whenever it smells bread baking, hears a car horn, or feels cool wind. Regardless on if there is an actual threat or not. This can be considered a programming error. The cool thing is that our nervous systems are totally reprogrammable!
Here are a few of my personal favorite techniques to re-balance nervous system and reprogram the way our system's react to stressors.
- Kaki Pranayama/Crow's Breath : Breathing is one of the best gateways to the relaxation response! A favorite of mine is deep belly breathing while lying on your back with a sandbag on your belly. OR, a super quick and easy way to initiate the relaxation response is Kaki Pranayama, Crow's Breath. Practice by breathing in for a count of four, holding for a brief pause, and then exhaling softly our of the mouth in pursed lips for eight counts (as if you were gently flickering the light of a candle). Practice this for 1-3 minutes and notice what happens! (This is the least obvious and most socially comfortable option for me - I even sometimes excuse myself to the bathroom if I'm out and about to breath for a few minutes. And I do this practice as often as I think of it - especially if I'm in a reactive mood! At stoplights, before going into stores, when I first get into my car or on my bike, etc.)
- Foot Love : Our feet are magic gateways to relax the entire body! They have over 7,000 nerve endings, so they are very sensitive and reactive tools we can use. Try a foot massage with oil, while actually looking at your feet! Really feel every touch and the hand/foot connection. Another option is to gently clap your hands on your feet - the balls, arches, heels, top of feet, and ankles. I even make my way up my legs and through the entire body (maintaining eye contact with my body as I go). I love getting my cheeks and forehead (lots of nerve endings here too!). It may sound funky, but it honestly feels SO GOOD.
- Positive Thinking and Gratitude : When we are in states of hyper-reactivity, one of the best things we can do for ourselves is an attitude adjustment. Notice what thoughts are feeding into the experience of stress and change them! One thing we absolutely have power over is how we choose to consciously think. A good way to tap into the positive side of a situation is to think of three things you feel grateful for. This could be your body, family, friends, the magnificent earth, ANYTHING that brings a smile to your face and opens your heart! This is one of the hardest and easiest methods I can give you that can really, profoundly change your life.