When you’re stressed and overwhelmed in life, it can be hard to know where to turn. You can’t sleep, you can eat, or you eat too much, you can’t think straight, you’re snappy with everyone around you and liable to burst into tears at any moment, for no obvious reason.
This is the flight or fight response in action, and too many of us live there all the time.
Run away or put em up!
The flight or fight response is a survival essential that has meant that humanity has survived and evolved for millions of years. It is a response of the nervous system to a threat to life. In ancient times, and in some parts of the world today, that threat to life is real. But in the modern western world, most of us aren’t facing life threatening situations most of the time. And yet stress is a massive problem that is rapidly becoming a worldwide health epidemic. Stress is a contributory factor in the ‘big 6’ of cause of death conditions, including heart disease, stroke, suicide and cirrhosis of the liver.
The flight or fight response is intended to be a short lived response – you see a threat, you run away or fight it, and the threat ends (or, in the case of the sabre toothed tiger that may have threatened our ancestors, you might become dinner, in which case you are no longer stressed anyway!) Unfortunately, because of the never ceasing demands of our modern lives, most of us live in a state of low to mid level stress that we have become so used to, we don’t even know we’re stressed. Conditions such as insomnia, IBS, migraine, asthma, neck, back and shoulder pain to name but a few can be stress related, and the solution we are presented with it to take a pain killer or an anti anxiety pill, and carry on. While medication has it’s place, and can enable people to live better lives (I have has asthma since childhood and am only alive now because of pharmaceutical medication), often this merely masks the symptoms, and does nothing to relieve the underlying cause of stress.
Within You, Without You
The flight or fight response is the same whether the threat is real, remembered or imagined. I still have a physical response when I think if stressful moments that happened when I was a child, and I am 45 years old now! I still cringe when I remember things I regret saying or doing, and feel old emotions rising when I think about things that happened in the past. I have worked myself into states of actual grief imagining terrible things happening to my children and other people I love, and I have got myself hugely excited dreaming about things that have not materialised. The stress and emotional responses bypass the logical part of the brain completely, so there is no quality control on the response, we react as if the situation is real whether it is or not.
Some tension and stress is vital in life. We couldn’t stand up or walk without stress in the body, and stress can create impetus to act in daily life. The scientist Hans Selye, a pioneer in stress research, identified ‘eustress’ as a positive stress that motivates and excites us, that creates laser focus, energy and drive. Eustress is short lived, giving us the energy we need for as long as we need it, then it disperses. The opposite to this is distress, which is demotivating, depressing and causes worry and anxiety. This type of stress can last for a long time, and can lead to ill health as described above.
The important thing we need to do it to learn to recognise the symptoms of distress, to use the stress in life when we need it, and to learn to let go of that stress when it no longer helps and serves us.
Relax and release through Yoga
Yoga is one of the most powerful vehicles for stress busting I have come across. From my own personal experience I can absolutely vouch for this. At the start of my teacher training journey, I was trying to emerge from a breakdown the previous year, and was living in the depths of a 20 year alcohol addiction I could barely even acknowledge, and was a heavy smoker (both the legal and illegal variety!)
Through the practices I learned in teacher training, I was able to release years of tension and unhappiness from my mind and body, and to develop powerful new coping strategies to get me thought the times when life can be extremely challenging.
There are many ways that Yoga can help you to reduce, manage and balance the stress in your body. Here are my top 5!
The space between
Learning to breathe well is, in my professional and personal opinion, the most powerful gift you can give to yourself. Good breathing has a host of benefits to mental and physical health, and was the biggest factor in my recovery from addiction (I believe). When you take a deep breath in a moment of stress, you give yourself the space to bring the logical mind into action, allowing you to make a reasoned response rather than an emotion based reaction you will possibly regret once you calm down. Regularly practicing slow, deep, rhythmic breathing will help to balance the nervous system to that you spend less time in the flight or fight response in general.
Yo Gaba Gaba!
GABA is a neurotransmitter that created a relaxed, feelgood feeling in the brain. The reason alcohol seems to provide relaxation is because it mimics the effects of GABA in the brain. It is a real wolf in sheep’s clothing in this, as it actually increases levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, while fooling the drinker into thinking they are relaxed. GABA is increased naturally during a yoga practice. The relaxed, happy feeling you get after Yoga is the result of very real and powerful changes in the brain as well as the release of tension in the body. When we feel relaxed and happy, we are better able to deal with difficult situations.
Awareness means improvement
Through Yoga you develop a greater connection to, and awareness of, your body, breath and emotions. When we start to become aware of something, we can make changes to improve that situation if need be. As you deepen your yoga practice, you will start to notice things like how your body responds to stress, so that you notice the signs and can take action to rectify the situation before is escalates.
Let it go
Yoga teaches us to let go of the things that don’t serve us and help us to improve our lot in life. From promoting better care of the body, to encouraging us to shed habits that hold us back, and releasing physical and mental tension, there are a vast range of tools that Yoga offers to help us to let go. In fact , this is the ultimate goal of Yoga, to guide us to let go of the things that block our growth as humans. It is impossible to grow as a person when you are holding on to the stress, tensions, resentments and habits of the past, so you need to drop the baggage and move lightly through life.
Sleep like a cat
I know the phrase is ‘sleep like a baby’ but babies have very unpredictable sleeping patterns, I like my sleep to be catlike! I suffered with insomnia for years from childhood, which contributed to my alcohol issues, and was remedied through Yoga. Through the relaxation and breathing practices, there are many ways that Yoga can help you to sleep longer, and better, giving you more energy and allowing you to wake feeling refreshed in the morning.
Want to give it a try?
If you are based in the Rhondda or surrounding area, you can come to any of my ever increasing suite of classes in the local area. I now run the following classes
Monday – Cwmclydach Community Centre – 5-6.30pm, and 7 – 8.30pm
Wednesday – Oaktree Hall, Treorchy – 10-11.30am
Thursday – Oaktree Hall, Treorchy – 7-8.30pm
Can’t get to a class?
I also offer one to one sessions, both in person and online through Skype or Zoom. Drop me a message if you think this might be a better option for you.