February 8, 2021
HOW STRESS AFFECTS THE BODY
In our modern world we are exposed to more information in one day than someone living 100 years ago would be exposed to in their entire lifetime! This information overwhelm has a profound effect on our mind, body and most importantly our nervous system. The residue shows up in our bodies with muscle tension, pain, irritability, difficulty sleeping – all of which are signs of stress.
These symptoms are often a read of the current state of our nervous system. Stress has a cascade effect throughout our body. When in a state of acute stress our digestion slows down, breathing becomes more rapid, heart rate elevates, blood pressure is ramped up and immunity is inhibited making it harder to fight off things like a cold.
The stress response exists throughout the animal kingdom. Ramping up your blood pressure if you are sprinting away from danger is only normal – but an increase in blood pressure every time you get stuck in traffic, every time you see a news update, or every time you get an email from your boss…is a recipe for chronic stress.
With the constant distractions present in today’s world – traffic, email, work expectations, time constraints, news of pandemic viruses – our stress response can become constantly activated. What’s worse is that through the power of our minds we can self-generate stress all on our own! We do this by worrying about the outcome of future events, anticipating doom and gloom, stressing out over political elections, work projects etc.
Humans are unique in the animal kingdom by the fact that we can produce stress without any outside input or stimulus. Simply through our emotions and thoughts we can produce stress. We constantly activate a body system built for responding to emergencies, but we turn it on worrying about mortgages, traffic and world events.
Chronic stress places us in a state of hyper-alertness, also called “fight flight freeze”. This is a state of hyper-alertness of our nervous system which ramps up our body systems. This keeps us ready for action in the face of danger. The part of our nervous system in control of this fight flight freeze response is our Sympathetic nervous system – the Stressed hyper-alert warrior.
The sympathetic nervous system connects to all our major organs, muscles, and tissues and in the grips of hyper alertness causes our heart to beat faster and helps us to be ready for danger. The opposing system is the Parasympathetic nervous system – the Peaceful warrior. The parasympathetic nervous system calms the stress response and helps us to soften away from stress.
A vital part of the parasympathetic nervous system is the vagus nerve – the longest cranial nerve in our body! This nerve travels all the way from the base of our brain into the area of the belly. It is connected to the heart, lungs, digestive tract, and has two-way communication. This means our brain receives information from these organs and our brain can communicate with these organs directly. This is why something as simple as deep diaphragmatic breaths can be SO powerful.
Developing awareness of the internal state of our body, is key to managing stress. And this is one of the many reasons Yoga has such a powerful effect on reducing and managing stress. Through practice we develop tools to strengthen The Peaceful Warrior of the parasympathetic nervous system – which is so important in managing our response to daily events.
Here are a few tips to help manage daily stress:
- Take three deep belly breaths when you notice stress showing up in your body.
- Every week practice at least one nervous system nourishing Yoga class such as Yin, Restorative or a Gentle practice.
- Meditate daily – make it a priority. Even 5 minutes makes a world of difference!
Lastly, I’ll leave you with a few suggested practices to also help with stress management: