Our body’s stress response is an amazing evolutionary tool to get us out of danger. Faced with a threat, all our resources go towards keeping us safe: our heart rate and breathing rate increase, blood surges to our extremities so we can run away from, or combat, the threat. Throughout most of human history, these responses have served us well in combatting the immediate, often life-threatening dangers that we faced. I can only say it so many times: our bodies are amazing.
Unfortunately these amazing bodies now live in an environment drastically different to the one we evolved in. Rather than stress resulting from short-term, life-threatening danger, the stress most of us face now is more insidious. The threats we encounter – demanding bosses, traffic jams, concerns about money, the multisensory overload of living in a busy city – are longer term. The amazing physiological responses designed to get us out of danger fast end up being switched on for far longer than they are useful.
In the context of an environment it didn’t evolve for, it can be easy to begin to see our stress response as an enemy. As the blood and energy rush towards getting us out of trouble fast, they no longer properly serve many other functions - less vital in an emergency, but fundamental to our long term health. The immune system, digestion, sleep, fertility; they just can’t function well in a chronically-stressed body.
We’re unlikely to return to hunter-gathering any time soon. So as busy parents, office workers, city-dwellers, what can we do to combat the effects of chronic stress? As a born worrier and long-term sufferer of anxiety, I have found yoga to be a fundamental tool in helping me understand and respond to my own stress response.
How can mindful yoga help with stress? Yoga can help us to befriend our bodies, and learn its signals. Turning our attention inwards, rather than taking it out into the world, gives us a chance to slow down and start to notice how our bodies really feel and what is going on inside. Mindfulness of the body helps us to learn and understand some of the signals that our body is giving us, and offers us a chance to respond compassionately.
And yoga allows us to REST! We are all so busy; even when we rest we often engage in activities that stimulate rather than calm our nervous system. Even activities that we tend to think of as ‘relaxing’ (for example, sitting still and watching TV) can be quite stimulating for the nervous system, and so do not allow us to fully enter the resting phase of the nervous system. If we are consciously trying to bring the nervous system back into balance, we need to make time every day for deep relaxation. I always include a period of relaxation and often include restorative yoga poses in my classes.
In my next few posts, I'll explore some of these ideas in more detail and offer some easy tools that you can bring from your yoga practice out into your life to help you understand and manage stress.