Stress plays a huge role in physical and mental health and therefore understanding it and being proactive about managing it is crucial to overall health and wellness. Much of this discussion can be found in my book, Empowered Body: Yoga and Mindfulness practices to transform the way you show up in your body and life. In addition, I will be leading a weekend course in March called, Mind-Body-Energy: The Brain and Beyond, alongside some colleagues where we will explore the science of stress, neurobiology, emotional intelligence and discuss how pranayama (breathing) mantra (chanting/affirmations) meditation and yoga can be used to manage stress, build emotional intelligence and transform the way we show up in our lives.
As many of you may know I decided to go back to grad school this year to explore counseling psychology. As you can imagine being back in school, alongside everything else comes with its share of stress. While I expected it to be a bit of an adjustment, what I did not imagine was the amount of anxiety I would be feeling as a result of being a student again. I speak openly about my “inner-critic” and fears surrounding public speaking, inadequacy, and “imposter phenomena” and how we can use mindfulness practices such as breathing, meditation and yoga as tools to transform the way we experience these situations. However these last few months have definitely put my insecurities under the microscope resulting in additional stress. Having been through adrenal fatigue before I have tried to stay much more on top of my self-care when I feel like I am in the “red”. This requires both a sensitivity (listening to your bodies messengers, despite your agenda) and discipline (actually taking your own advice; healer heal thyself). With the help of others (family, friends and therapists) as well as through school I have learned some great coping techniques to add to my yoga/mindfulness tool kit that have helped me work with some of my beliefs that are contributing to the stress in my life. I hope you find this information valuable.
Becoming Empowered-Breakthough versus Breakdown
My intention for sharing this blog is to empower you with both education and self-care tools to better manage the stress and corresponding emotions in your life, because let’s face it shit happens and life is crazy sometimes. Despite what the new age tagline suggests “it’s not all good”. While we cannot control all of our circumstances, we can work to reframe the way we relate to some of our experiences. The tips and self-care practices suggested in this blog develop self-awareness, emotional regulation, stimulate the relaxation effect, allow us to re-connect with the body and extract more pleasure from our moment-to-moment experiences. When we move into the “being-state” (mindfulness) we can experience a different perspective of our lives and corresponding stress, one that allows us to not identify so strongly or take everything so personally, like zooming out and getting a wider perspective on your life. It’s not that we are trying to eliminate all the stress in our lives rather our intention is to develop a new relationship to it, one that breeds resilience and compassion—Breaking through versus breaking down. We have shifted as a species from human beings to human doings. In the sympathetic state, we become hyper- vigilant and protective, which further strengthens our illusion of separation, leading to less empathy and depression. In the fight, flight or freeze response, it instantly becomes all about me and my needs and safety, making it almost impossible to widen my aperture and see the bigger picture. This obviously has its benefits in life or death situations, however frequent bouts can lead to even more distress, isolation and disconnection. Understanding the stress response in the body and learning to recognize the feelings associated with this physiological adaptation allows us to be more empowered in our bodies and lives. We can learn to manage our perception and reaction to stress instead of letting it manage us.
The S word
In speaking with several clients and students it is clear many of us are suffering from extreme amounts of stress. While it would be nice to just simply suggest we all relax, get rid of stress and do yoga all day, many of us do not have this luxury. For many people life is extremely challenging and stress in unavoidable no mater how hard we try. According to the American Psychological Association, 25% of adults are reporting extreme amounts of stress and up to half claim to have moderate daily stress levels. High amounts of stress move us beyond adaptation into inflammation, deterioration and eventually breakdown. The world health organization has seven out of the top ten contributors to mortality rates listed as lifestyle diseases, and the main contributor to lifestyle diseases is chronic stress.
Stress—whether environmental, physical, psychological, emotional, or spiritual—triggers a cascade of stress hormones that produce a series of uncomfortable changes that were designed to keep us alive at all costs. It’s important to remember that the stress response is primarily focused on survival and not necessarily our well-being or happiness. The fact that these uncomfortable surges may leave us feeling anxious, out of control and irrational, is not of primary importance in the evolutionary plan. Like Milli Vanilli we are a by-product of our environments, and yes you can blame it on the brain. To make matters worse biologically we are designed to seek pleasure and avoid pain at all costs, which is why sometimes when we are experiencing high degrees of stress we are more susceptible to addictive behaviors, emotional outbursts, avoidance, and destructive behaviour. Personally, when I am binge watching TV, shopping, overeating, snappy at those around me, and overworking it is usually because I am avoiding some underlying stress and resulting discomfort in my life. These uncomfortable and often distressing feelings, called emotions are designed to motivate us towards behavior that will help us survive, and avoid pain these behaviours can be referred to as the 5 F’s (fight, flight, freeze, forage and fornicate)
What is stress?
Around 80 years ago an endocrinologist named Hans Selye made a serendipitous discovery while studying lab rats he called this discovery “general adaptation syndrome” or GAS and later the term “stress” was adopted. According to his research he found that the rats developed adaptations in stages that did not necessarily have to do with the exposures they were subjected to. This adaptation occurred in stages following the initial injury or incident these adaptations included:
- An initial increase in immune response (enlarged spleen and thymus) followed by a decrease in response through stage 2 and 3 (prolonged stress)
- Increased adrenal and thyroid response followed by decreases in the exhaustion phase
- Decreases in sex hormones as stress was prolonged-Yes stress destroys labido when it is prolonged leading to erectile dysfunction (now do I have you attention? I thought about calling this blog stress and boners just to generate more interest)
- Inflammation and eventually ulcers in the digestive system
- Elevated blood sugar
The stress response is orchestrated by the sympathetic nervous system and is referred to as fight, flight or freeze, because this sequence of hormonal changes, chemical adaptations and physiological responses help us to fight an attack, freeze; possibly increasing the chance of escaping by playing dead, or run away to safety. The sympathetic nervous system triggers the HPA axis, which sends a surge of adrenalin and cortisol amongst other things through the body to save our life. Unfortunately, the body can also overreact to stressors that are not life threatening leading to the adaptation syndrome Seyle discovered. (If you scrolled through that part as a result of your inability to focus, go back a few paragraphs) When we multi-task, micro-manage, worry and stress over every small detail of our lives, our body’s perception is that we are actually in danger of being attacked by a Tiger.
Why am I so stressed?
This is a complex question with many factors, including genetics, early life experiences, (ptsd and early attachment issues lead to hyper-vigilence and a sensitized HPA response), environment and lifestyle. I will attempt to provide a simplified answer according to my current understanding. (this is my way of saying in a year I will explain things differently as I learn more)
Biochemically, we are said to be about the same as our caveman ancestors, however our lifestyles have drastically transformed from those of the hunters and gatherers before us.
Multitasking, FOMO and Pleasure Anxiety
Many of us take our smart phones to the bathroom with us to catch up on social media or send text messages while waiting at red lights. We multi-task and micromanage our day so that we can fit it all in. Every day we are being bombarded with radio noise, billboard ads, and artificial environments that insult our senses. We run a constant triage of small emergencies (imagined and real) and this creates additional and prolonged stress. Multi-tasking is slowly destroying our brains, bodies and environments through preventing us from being in the moment and relaxing more often. Recently I read a study published by Microsoft, which reported that since the popularity of cellphones, our attention span has dropped from twelve seconds to eight seconds. This decrease in our ability to concentrate in addition to our fast-paced lives and “multi-tasking” has been shown to increase anxiety, accidents and stress, while decreasing productivity, creativity and mood.
We have developed a new form of anxiety around “fitting it all in” or “getting it all done” called FOMO which stands for “fear of missing out”. Because we are pack animals, our social survival is wired to the same fight or flight response as if were were in real physical danger and so while we may just be concerned if people will like our blog post, this fear is wired to the same fight or flight response as if you were about to be mauled by a giant cat.
In addition, many people have developed a low pleasure tolerance, or what is sometimes referred to as “pleasure anxiety”: we actually become anxious, or feel guilty about relaxing and feeling pleasure, making it “stressful” to relax and enjoy life. This inability to relax and enjoy the moment leaves us at the mercy of the “dopamine trap” and like a rat on a wheel we end up constantly chasing external forms of pleasure through food, shopping and other compulsive activities that never seem to leave us satisfied. This compulsive behaviour often results in more stress when we get our credit card statement, can’t do up our jeans or have some serious explaining to do.I recently read a study that talked about how people under financial stress, go shopping to manage their stress. Case in point. Rat in a wheel.
What if anything can I do about it?
Okay you finally made it through the science stuff now onto the top 10 list that everybody is really interested in anyway (according to several expert’s advice about my long winded posts………)
Mindfulness is our ability to be present with our moment-to-moment experiences outside of expectations or our need to judge, label, criticize or change. This allows us to calmly allow and observe our emotions, thoughts and sensations without over identifying with them or being hijacked by them. Simply put mindfulness is just being present in the moment. Mediation is a formal mindfulness practice where our intention is to notice when we are no longer paying attention to our moment-to moment-experience and the mind has wandered into thought (default mode) and then bring it back to whatever the focal point may be. The breath is the most commonly used focal point as it often has a calming effect on the body and it often becomes subtler the longer you watch it. The intention in meditation is not to not think. The intention is to notice when you are thinking and come back to your breath. This can be referred to as a “rep” and just like doing reps in the gym, the more we practice the stronger our focus and concentration get. You really can’t be bad at it either, in fact the more your mind wanders the better, the goal is to just keep coming back. The idea is that the more we practice mediation the easier mindfulness (that’s paying attention in real time) is available throughout your life. This means you are actually awake and engaged in your life (I call this living like you give a f&*%K) When our mind-wanders it goes on auto pilot and the default-mode network (DMN) is activated. The DMN is not all bad but located in this network is the ruminating, worrying, self critic and time traveling part of your mind. This often leads to increased stress, anxiety and has even been linked with depression and alzheimers. Download free guided meditation
Create space is actually our first “universal law” at Empowered Yoga. This law refers to our instantaneous (habitual and unconscious) way of reacting in most situations based on a belief we have. Why is this important? There are basically two motivating factors, love and fear (okay maybe three if we include our eat and reproduce drives). When we act out of love we are acting in alignment with our intentions or deep core values. Fear originates in the brain, in a system that senses danger and produces a variety of responses in the body and mind, that will increase our chances of survival. In other words, it triggers a sequence of chemical reactions (hormones and neurotransmitters) and behaviors that allow us to defend ourselves (fight) play dead (freeze) or get the hell out of the way (flight). In humans, however, fear can also arise at the mere thought of a potential danger such as, a fear of what others will think, having to speak in public, worrying about finances, or not having enough time.
When the brain receives, a sensory stimulus indicating a danger, it is routed over two parallel pathways: the short fast route or the long the long slow route. The short rout causes us to panic and act like a lizard. While the long route has been processed in the more superficial brain centers of the cortex that have the ability to reference, rationalize and reflect, eventually telling the amygdala (panic button in the brain) whether the situation is life or death. The sage advice to stop and count to five in intense situations is actually really useful as it allows us to leverage the long route when we are not in immediate danger. When we “create space” between stimulus and response the long route may be accessed. We become empowered allowing us to react in ways that are more appropriate or in alignment with our intentions in non-life or death situations.
While breathing is something we do unconsciously all day long, when we manipulate our breathing this requires our attention. If we are paying attention to the breath, we can’t be ruminating or worrying about all the other stuff going on in our life, which creates the majority of stress. This allows us to “create the space” required for noticing, reflecting and rationalizing.
In addition to dropping us into our bodies in real time (most stress happens as a result of our thoughts about what’s happening and not what is really happening) deep deliberate breathing also allows us to hijack the nervous system by stimulating the vagus nerve. What happens in vagus does not stay in vagus, rather the vagus nerve controls the parasympathetic nervous system and therefore creates a relaxation effect in the whole body. Give it a try. Check in and notice your tension levels, heart rate, emotions, thoughts right now. Then take 5 deep breaths inhaling for a count of 4 and exhaling for a count of 4-8. Check back in. Do you notice a difference? I have created a guided breathing video that you may download here. Try incorporating these exercises into your days.
Change your Mind
While we can do things like better planning, diet, sleep and exercises there are also many behavior techniques we can apply as well. Current research on mind-set has shown that not only does the amount of stress you experience affect your chances of developing a disease and mortality, but your perception about how much the stress is affecting your health and mortality is just as, if not more important. At Empowered Yoga two of our eight universal laws are: Challenge makes you stronger and the harder you are on anything the faster it will break down. I believe it is in learning to navigate this edge where we build resilience. Learning to reframe how you view the stress in your life has been shown to have a critical effect on whether you “rise to the occasion” and grow as a result or whether you “crumble under pressure”. For me personally I have found it helpful to write down the thoughts I have surrounding current stress I am experiencing. Once I have written them down I can then test these thoughts, basically investigating which are true, where I may be catastrophizing and also how I may be able to see the situation in a positive light (not saying that this is always possible) Because even the adult brain is highly plastic as we work to reframe our thoughts, this new way of thinking, may create a new way of seeing the situation altogether. For those interested in working one on one with me or integrating this work into your organization I offer one on one wellness coaching and group seminars. Check out my personal page for more info.
Blow off steam
Its okay to be angry, in fact anger motivates us to take action and repression of anger has been shown to be correlated with many diseases. Going back the the rats and stress, there was another cool study that showed that rats who received shocks had less of a stress adaptation response if they had an outlet for frustration. Humans also handle stress much more efficiently, when we have a healthy outlet for our frustration. Part of the fight and flight response is the surge of energy to the bodies working muscles in addition to the tensing of the myo-fascial net. If we don’t “vent” this tension can build up in our bodies. The venting also distracts us from the original stressor. Go for a run, burn off some steam in the gym or try a martial arts class. In addition to venting exercise has been shown to release endorphins in the body, which are your body’s natural opiates, increasing mood and decreasing pain.
In addition to aerobic exercise yoga has also been shown to reduce the effects of stress, by getting out of our heads and into our bodies. The deep deliberate breathing combined with mindful movement creates a moving meditation that not only strengthens the body and calms the mind but also improves proprioception and self-efficacy, which are both correlated with increases in mood and confidence. download full-length yoga classes here.
Find a Shoulder to Cry on.
Lean on me when you’re not strong I will be your friend, I will help you carry on………….It’s not just a beautiful song its true. The stress response in addition to triggering the adrenals to release cortisol and adrenalin also releases serotonin, which is theorized to motivate us to reach out for help (remember we are social pack animals by nature) Realizing that you are not alone and that you have support stimulates the soothing affect system (which is kind of like the opposite of fight and flight) A hug is a great way to boost oxytocin when you are feeling overwhelmed and down in the dumps. After bouts of stress oxytocin inhibits sympathetic response and has shown to be good for heart and women health.In addition to finding social support there is lots of research on compassion and stress. Next month I will be sharing some compassion research and exercises to get us more connected with our heart and core values and out of our shame and self-criticism.
R and R
Because our nervous system has not adapted to keep up with the pace of the modern world and the multi-tasking demands placed on it, we therefore have to choose to support the PNS (this is the rest and digest cycle of the nervous system that works opposite to fight and flight) through interventions that dissolve tension, increase feelings of connectedness, support and safety. Implementing these types of practices frequently and consistently throughout the day allows us to stay aware of how we are feeling and the amount of pressure we are experiencing in our lives, so that when the heat turns up we can pro- actively address it instead of becoming cooked, sick, addicted, exhausted, and depressed. I recommend yoga nidra and or guided relaxation techniques. You can find a couple here. In addition, restorative yoga uses various props and blankets in order to create the feeling of support, and safety in gentle yoga postures, this allows us to relax deeply, experience and release emotions gently and unravel tension from the body. Download the restorative yoga class here. and a free guided Yoga Nidra exercise here.
Stop and Smell the roses
Our ability to extract pleasure through being in the moment, allows us to feel more satisfied, supported and connected, which automatically shifts us out of fight or flight and into rest and digest. We don’t take time to stop and smell the roses, look at the sky, feel the breeze, and extract the essence of life from our moment-to-moment experiences that both the ancient sages and modern science are pointing to as the secret to health, happiness, and vitality. Because our brains are wired with a negativity bias that has kept us alive through evolution we are actually more sensitive to negative experiences. Our drive to survive dumps adrenalin, cortisol and dopamine into our bodies (this is not inherently bad however in excess can be a problem) Purposely pausing and enhancing positive experience helps us strengthen our soothing and contentment systems in the brain, which increases inner peace and satisfaction allowing us to shift from “doing” into “being”
while my research was suprizingly inconclusive on the amount of sleep we actually need, sleep deprivation was shown to reduce our ability to manage stress. This may be due to the fact that the “executive” functioning areas of our brain are expensive to run (they are executives after all) Because effective stress management, motivation and will power requires the use of these executive areas in the brain, low sleep means no money in the bank so these areas shut down and auto pilot kicks in (sort of)
Eat your vegetables
Research on omega 3s, vitamins, minerals and polyphenols (found in fruits and vegetables) has shown that a healthy diet can affect brain neurogenesis (fancy word for brain growth) and is also correlated with increased mood and well-being. When we feel healthy and happy we are better able to handle stress.
Strengthen your guts
One of the most fascinating areas of research for me right now (okay next to fascia, and neuroplasticity) is the brain-gut relationship. While there is still much research that needs to be done in this area, correlations have been shown between stress, inflammation, the health of our gut bacteria (for more info on this check out this blog on digestion) and mood. Maintain a healthy gut environment through a healthy diet low in processed foods and in addition try supplementing with probiotics.
Boundaries…….Don’t leave home without them
In closing I just want to re-emphasize that stress is not all bad, and often if we change how we relate and manage it, stress may help us get stronger and motivate us to achieve our goals. However, it is important to also understand that there is a point when stress can be damaging, and sometimes life happens to throw too much at us at once. In these situations, its okay to ask for help, take a step back or even take a break. If you feel overwhelmed, resentful and exhausted ask what is behind your current drive to take on so much at once? (this is of course only if it your choice and not circumstantial) Is it fear or love? Create healthy boundaries for yourself. Remember it’s not all good. Say yes only when you mean it and no when it’s a no. You have enough time. You got this. I believe in you, but do you?
Have a beautiful day,