Graceful Warrior: The Stress Response Can Take Your Breath Away

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This Frank Netter picture (from The Atlas of Human Anatomy), used in a presentation in my Yoga Therapy class, cracks me up so I’m sharing it. First off, I love that is totally looks like Bruce Willis. Secondly, it makes me laugh and laughing reduces stress, so I know I don’t look like this. All kidding aside, this is an excellent demonstration of what physically happens when we are under stress. The term stress was coined in the 1930’s by endocrinologist Hans Selye, but has definitely become popularized in the last few decades.

When we encounter stress, we move into a state of alarm causing the body to produce adrenaline. If the stressor persists the body starts adapting in order to deal with the stress; however the body cannot keep its resistance up indefinitely. When the body’s coping resources are depleted, exhaustion sets in and the sympathetic nervous system gears back up. The exhaustion phase is when all the stress symptoms, including poor judgment, negative outlook, excess worrying, moodiness, loneliness, depression, chest pain, rapid heartbeat, eating too much or not enough, sleeping too much or not enough, diarrhea or constipation, and procrastination, manifest.

The Netter image shows the response of the sympathetic nervous system:

  • The pupils dilate so that we can better see & react to the situation
  • The heart and lungs accelerate (we breathe shorter, faster breaths and heart rate goes up)
  • Inhibition of the stomach causes digestion to slow
  • Blood vessels constrict so that surface wounds (we’re talking fight or flight) bleed less
  • Fat and glucose are released for quick muscular action
All of this happens with in seconds too. The sympathetic nervous system was meant to be engaged for 30 minutes or less. With the constant stress of modern society, our bodies are now having a hard time shifting back to the parasympathetic nervous system, which allows the body to relax, renew and heal. Reducing stress has been show to help reduce blood pressure and hypertension (thus reducing heart attacks and stokes) as well as lowering blood sugar levels, meaning stress is a major player in diabetes. Amazingly, reducing stress also reduces body weight. Note above that under stress your body liberates nutrients (fat/glucose) for muscular action. Since modern stress does not produce any muscular action, the body stores the fat instead of burning it as it was meant to.

So, how can we reduce stress? Well as a yoga therapist, I say try or do more yoga. Not fitness yoga that is focused only on moving, but any movement (or stillness) centered around your breath. The breath is what really relaxes the nervous system. If you slow down and breathe deeply for 5 minutes once or twice a day, after several months you will start to see drastic changes in your reaction to stress. Want to really relax? It takes 20 minutes of relaxing (eyes closed focusing on your breath) before your heart will start to slow down.

My favorite relaxation/meditation is to lie on the floor with knees bent and feet in a chair (you have to make sure the chair is the same height as your thigh bone). I bring my hands onto my belly and feel my belly rise with my inhale and sink down on my exhale. Big belly breaths quickly relax your whole body, plus it gets your diaphragm moving as it should with each and every breath you take.

Gina Shelton is a Yoga Alliance registered teacher and Loyola Marymount University certified yoga therapist. She lives in Venice, CA with her husband and weimeraner puppy Fleur. You can read more about creating a healthy lifestyle on her blog

About Gina Shelton

We live in a dualistic world, or really a multi-istic one. As a woman, you are expected to be smart, caring, creative, and dedicated at your job, with your significant other and your family, plus you are supposed to make time for yourself in order to stay healthy and sane. It’s easy to get overwhelmed when you start thinking of all the aspects of your life that you are constantly juggling.

For me, this is where yoga comes in. In the West, we mostly view yoga as a physical practice and that is definitely how I got into it. But what I’ve realized in my 10+ years of practicing yoga, is that it has become more than just something I do to stay in shape, it has changed the way I view myself and the world and consequently how I interact with others.

Over the years, yoga has helped me meal my crumbling marriage, my low back and hip pain deemed chronic by my insurance company, and is now supporting me through my next ventures: trying to start a business and a family.

My love of yoga (I knew it was for me in my very first class), led me to begin training to teach after a year. I took my time learning all I could and finally became a YOGA ALLIANCE registered teacher in 2005. Since then, I have become a certified yoga therapist through Loyola Marymount University’s Yoga Therapy program and will soon have my Yoga Alliance 500-hour teacher certification.

This blog will cover topics related to yoga poses and breath awareness that will help you to find the graceful warrior hidden inside you: Strength to manage the everyday stresses in your life as you gracefully create new habits and patterns that allow you to find comfort, health and hope in all areas of your life.

Gina Shelton is a Yoga Alliance registered teacher and Loyola Marymount University certified yoga therapist. She lives in Venice, CA with her husband and weimeraner puppy Fleur. You can read more about creating a healthy lifestyle on her blog