Stress seems to be everywhere and on everyone’s mind. Our modern-day society has us geared up for a fast-paced lifestyle. Fast food, fast cars, mortgages, loans, work, traffic, money, social media and the list goes on….No wonder so many people are experiencing stress, our busy non-stop lives have us turned on to level 10 with little chance to turn it down or off. Unfortunately for most of us, the skills of self-regulation, self-compassion and stress management were never passed down from our ancestors because they simply did not live as we do and the effects of stress on the body has only been studied for the last 50+ years.
So what is the stress response? The response is governed by the autonomic nervous system- this control system acts largely unconsciously and as the name suggests automatically. This autonomic system mediates three different components: the Sympathetic nervous system, the Parasympathetic nervous system and the Enteric system (which we will not be discussing in this article). The Sympathetic nervous system is also known as the flight /flight fake it or freeze response, and the Parasympathetic system is also known as the rest and digest system. They act to either save our lives in dangerous or stressful situations or bring us back to homeostasis and rest.
The fight /flight fake it or freeze or FFFF for short, is not the bad guy even though it has a bad reputation. This response is natural and very helpful in our day to day lives. The FFFF helps to keep us on our toes, helps us to meet deadlines, to be alert, to get us up when the alarm clock goes off, to listen to our instinct about a suspicious person, to hear children crying at night, or to have a sense of when enough is enough. The fact that your mind tells your body to create a response so powerful that you can become almost superhuman is amazing. Turning on the stress hormones Adrenaline, Cortisol, Norepinephrine pumping thru your body, heart racing ready, eyes wide open taking in everything, mind racing calculating every worst-case scenario and how to get out of them, muscles tense prepared to run, catching your breath, giving you the ability to hide, think fast, be strong, and survive. This quick-acting automatic response means your body is competent; your body is smart, it did the best thing possible to save you from danger. The problem lies in how long we stay in this state, or how often the response is turned on.
We are intelligent creatures and our minds have amazing capacities we can recall every detail of the stressful moment and bring it to life over and over, reliving the same feelings, seeing in our mind’s eye every detail. This ability to relive the problem or situation is when we get in trouble because the body does not know the difference between the real danger or perceived danger and will set off the FFFF response just in case. When the response starts to last and we can’t shake it off, even the smallest things start to set us off and we no longer had the ability to control our responses to life. Your body does not know if you are standing in front of a bear of your difficult boss or co-worker, fighting through traffic or fighting for your life. The day to day stressors begin to add up and we can get stuck in the pattern. We begin to lose sleep, crave junk food, feel moody, pessimistic, have a lack of focus, muscle tension, gut issues, feel anxious and more.
The FFFF response is very powerful, according to scientists, the hormones of stress down-regulates the genes causing disease and over time can change our posture, emotional state and outlook on life. When left unchecked (long term) is a factor in the diagnosis’s of Anxiety, Insomnia, Heart Disease, Stroke, Respiratory Disease, lowering of the immune response, chronic muscle tension, increased blood pressure, Kidney Disease, digestive issues, infertility, accidents and more… In research, it is estimated that most doctor visits are for stress-related issues
There is good news however and a star to the show, The Parasympathetic system our feel-good system our rest and digest system. The sister system of the FFFF. The rest and digest system returns the body to homeostasis after the FFFF response, it slows our heart rates, breathing rate, lowers our blood pressure and turns on the organs of digestion. This is where we can focus on the good things in life, where we have the ability to be more positive, we can connect to source energy, feel grounded, make sound decisions, slow down and have a good meal, and enjoy life. We also gain the ability to calm and anchor our minds inward to the body, not outward to the senses as the FFFF requires of us. It is here in the rest and digest system that we strive to be, as our bodies thrive here. Science has now proven to us that we can only heal when the mind and body are at rest.
Unfortunately, the FFFF response doesn’t go away on its own and the rest and digest system must be activated and practiced. If left unbalanced the rest and digest can be forgotten by the body and mind constant belief it is in danger, imagined or real. I am a firm believer in the power of positive thinking and meditation to help re-pattern our thoughts but, the body must be re-patterned as well. When we activate the rest and digest on a regular basis, it balances the two systems, so one’s not dominating and wreaking havoc.
One of the first places I like to start when working with the body is with a cranial nerve called the Vagus nerve. The nerve is the longest cranial nerve that links the neck, heart, lungs, and abdomen to the brain and has a number of different functions on both sides of the autonomic nervous system. On the rest and digest side, it communicates with the diaphragm helping to regulate our breath, decreases inflammation, it lowers the heart rate and blood pressure, it communicating directly between the brain and the gut stimulating involuntary contractions in the digestive tract, esophagus, stomach, and most of the intestines, and these are just some of its functions. When all these actions combine we relax better, digest better, sleep better, our blood sugar is regulated, we make better decisions, we learn and retain information better, we are more creative, we have improved relationships, we enjoy intimacy, we can feel okay with the world around us, and how we fit in.
There are many ways to help stimulate the Vagus nerve; these are just some:
- Yoga poses especially those that help open your neck, upper chest, shoulders
- Diaphragmatic breathing with longer exhalations
- Deep relaxation
- Singing or humming
- Splashing your face with cold water
This next practice is one of my favourites as it combines extended exhale breathing and vibration in your sinuses, throat and upper chest This breath is very safe and can be practised frequently, up to 20 minutes a day and used as your meditation. This breath feels and sounds silly (as my many clients confess) but it can help stabilize your mood, decrease fatigue, mental stress, anxiety, frustration, get rid of anger and give you the many benefits of stimulating your rest and digest (Parasympathetic) system.
Bee breath / Brahmari breath
To practice Bee breath, take a regular inhalation and as you exhale start humming gently (sounding like a bee buzzing) continuing to exhale and hum as long as is comfortable and then inhale normally again and repeat, keeping the inhales and exhales slow and steady. The sound will reverberate inside you. The vibration and sound of the bee can drown out the racing thoughts when we really concentration on the sound and sensations. To enhance the experience, you can place a finger on the outer flap (closet to your cheekbone) of both ears and press lightly and gently toward the center of your ear acting like earplugs (or you can wear earplugs) and hum away.
Let me state working with your breath is not as easy as it sounds. Breath permeates all aspects of us physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually so changing our breath pattern can stir up a lot of stuff. Take your time and start off slow. I recommend seeking out professional help especially if you are feeling the negative effects of the FFFF response or find it difficult to breathe.
Stress is part of our everyday lives, the idea is not to eradicate it but to find balance and to not allow the stress response to take over and change who we are and keep us from living our best lives possible. Taking a little time every day to stimulate the rest and digest can make all the difference.