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
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 thrivacious.com.