Stress is not a modern invention. What is modern is chronic stress. Think about it. How many times a day do you feel ”stressed out?” And that’s just the stress you’re aware of. These days, stress is layered upon stress. While your stress levels ebb and flow, sadly, a constant low level of stress has become the norm. Once upon a time, stress tended to resolve itself quickly. Saber tooth tiger chasing you? Run! Guy in the cave next door tick you off? Fight! If you survive, everything returns to normal.
This is the type of stress our bodies were designed to manage. When we are being chased or in a fight, our adrenal glands secrete adrenaline and noradrenaline hormones, which act on the autonomic nervous system, preparing the body for fight or flight. Judith Hanson Lasater, in her book Relax and Renew, describes the body’s physical reaction to these hormones in detail. “Heart rate, blood pressure, mental alertness and muscle tension are increased. The adrenal hormones cause metabolic changes that make energy stores available to each cell, and the body begins to sweat. The body also shuts down systems that are not a priority in the immediacy of the moment, including digestion, elimination, growth, repair and reproduction.”
She goes on to explain that these adaptive responses have been positive to the survival of mankind for thousands of years. But in today’s chronically stressed world, this is no longer the case. People today are less able to resolve their stress so directly. We worry and we hurry. We are bombarded by stimuli – information, advertisements, and news – all day long. To hammer home the level of intensity of this bombardment, a quick scan of one morning’s iPhone activity revealed that my friend’s daughter had sent 400 (!!) text messages all while she was scanning Instagram, Visco and responding to SnapChats. While my hours of high school homework might have been interrupted by the phone ringing (or daydreams about the phone ringing), my daughters’ phones only stop buzzing when turned off. For the record, this is not limited to the younger generations. My husband’s Blackberry interrupts family dinners almost as often as the girls’ phones do.
This cultural chronic stress is our baseline. Stresses like those faced by our ancestors are still real today. We still have flight or fight moments, in other words. According to Lasater, this chronic stress places our quality of life, and perhaps life itself, at risk. “The body’s capacity to heal itself is compromised, either inhibiting recovery from an existing illness or injury, or creating a new one, including high blood pressure, ulcers, back pain, immune dysfunction, reproductive problems and depression. These conditions add stress of their own, and the cycle continues.”
We simply must do something to manage our stress. If we don’t, we’re going to live life tired, sick, impatient and tense. We’re also going to live less – as in fewer days, months and even years. We need to figure out how to unplug, how to slow down and how to relax. “Therapy 101” teaches that we can’t change the world around us, we can only change the way we respond to the world around us. To return to our buzzing phone example, we can’t stop the phones from buzzing, but we can manage ourselves – whether the phone is on silent, when we look at it, when (or if) we choose to respond to the messages we find there.
If the world has us “practicing” being stressed all the time, we can choose to spend some time each day practicing being relaxed. After all, we get better at anything we practice, right? And the more we practice, the more second nature something becomes. In his book, The Wellness Book, Hebert Benson, MD coined the phrase “relaxation response.” This is a physiological state characterized by slower breathing, a slower heart rate, lower blood pressure and slower brain wave patterns. Sound familiar?
Yoga and meditation rely on mindful breathing – deep, full, slow breaths to which we give our full attention. As you breathe this way, you can actually feel yourself settle. You can feel your heart beat become regular and even. You can feel the sharp edges of your emotions smooth out. You can feel your state of mind become calmer and more centered. Scientists have done studies of the brain wave patterns of yogis and meditating monks. You guessed it. They slow significantly and consistently as the person practices.
The choice to create some space from chronic stress is ours to make. Just as we can choose to unplug regularly from our buzzing phones, we can also choose to make the time to practice yoga or to meditate. Consistently practicing being in a relaxed state is absolutely good for us – body, mind and spirit. Even better is that this practice will help us notice when our stress levels begin to creep up. With this awareness, as we feel our stress rising, we can slip into “yoga breath” as we navigate the stressful moment and gently ease ourselves back to normal.