Yoga and Stress, Part 1
If you’re in the midst of a demanding situation, relax.
The best years of your life may be just beginning.
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
Part 2 Fight, Flight or Freeze
Part 3 Win Over Anger and Helplessness
In his book, “The Upside of the Downturn,” Geoff Colvin quotes Barak Obama’s campaign team: Never let a crisis go to waste.
To which Colvin adds, “Just remember that every crisis eventually ends, so there’s no time to lose.”
No time to lose? The sooner things get back to some semblance of normalcy, the better, right? According to Colvin, VS Ramachandran, and yoga, absolutely not.
The whole point of practicing postures is to deliberately create demands on the nervous system and upon our claims to identity in ways that challenge us to our limits without destroying us, for the sole purpose of disabusing us of our false sense of those limits and our tiny limiting ideas of who we are.
A crisis is practically a requirement for any progress with the project.
Without any real stake in the outcome, we give up far too easily and allow practice to reassure us rather than wake us up.
Physiology of stress
Stress causes well-described and familiar changes in our blood chemistry.
We’ve all heard of fight or flight, our common way of referring to the Sympathetic Adrenomedullary (or SAM) response. Epinephrine, a main ingredient of the chemistry that occurs in the blood stream, is part of a rapid response system able to support locomotion or action we might need to take immediately.
There’s also a less well understood second level of response to stress in which the chemistry of stress crosses what’s known as the brain/ blood barrier. In the 2nd level the hypothalamus/ pituitary/ adrenal or HPA axis glucocortinoids such as cortisol target the brain and neurological responses.
What happens in the brain happens more slowly, is more complex, and lasts longer.
Over prolonged periods of chronic activation, the suppressive effects of the elevated GCs and the wear and tear of the frequent SAM responses can have deleterious effects on physical and mental health. However, in the short term, robust well orchestrated activations of these systems tend to support adaptive functioning.*
Translation: the key thing to understand about the physiology of stress is that if it’s chronically invoked, it’s damaging in the ways we frequently read about: high blood pressure, depression, heart disease.
The good news is research shows that “well orchestrated” experiences of stress actually help us to manage stress more and more effectively. That’s right: yoga.
It’s not what happens that does us in, it’s what we believe
Stress causes us to change what we’re doing, and it comes in two flavors: eustress and distress.
Things that cause positive changes to what we’re doing, that make us stronger or healthier, fall into the category of eustress, while things that break us down due to our inability to cope or change are called distress.*
Much of what determines which stress we experience is our perception of the stressful event or situation. What we think is true may influence our stress level far more than what is actually going on.
Early in my marriage we sometimes argued when one of us did something that caught the other off guard. We’d allow a certain number of these moments to accumulate with the intention of being tolerant or loving, and then one too many unanticipated differences would show up and we’d melt down.
The sort of thing that startled one or the other of us might relate to personal space or expectations about how to spend time or money. The startling would set off a little cascade of fear. Are you who I think you are? Are you taking advantage of me? What’s going on?
The fear would inevitably lead to both of us being tense and defensive.
At one point after a series of having spats and making up, my spouse cried in exasperation, “It just feels like this will never end! We settle one thing and another comes up. There’s always going to be something, isn’t there?”
We were silent with horror. Then we both burst out laughing.
Let crisis wake you up
What traps us may not always be accessible to us when things are going along “normally” the way that it is when crisis changes things.
According to neuroscientist VS Ramachandran, we’re always in a bit of disagreement with ourselves about what’s worth paying attention to and what isn’t. A crisis can create the gap needed by the right side of the brain to throw off “the way things have always been” – the status quo created and reinforced by the left side of the brain.
That’s exactly Colvin’s point, too. The fact is, things aren’t the way they’ve always been.
Often a leader will insist that the organization urgently needs to change for the future. But it’s typically getting along okay at the moment and organizations resist change so strongly that mere exhortations can’t get them to things truly differently. Thus, the leader’s challenge has generally been to manufacture a feeling of crisis.
Our biggest challenge may be choosing to commit our decisions, to ourselves as the leader we’ve decided to follow through challenge and change.
Because yes, there is always going to be something.
Tomorrow: Fearless Stress Management
Geoff Colvin, The Upside of The Downturn. Portfolio, 2009.
Megan Gunnar and Karina Quevedo, The Neurobiology of Stress and Development. Annual. Rev. Psychology. 2007.
Selye (1975). “Confusion and controversy in the stress field”. Journal of Human Stress 1: 37–44
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.