April is stress awareness month, so for the month of April, I’m going to be bringing you practices that help with stress relief. Practices that will either help to mitigate stress that’s already present, or to help prevent future stress from building.
In today’s practice, we’re going to focus on dissipating stress that has already arisen. But first, let’s talk about what’s happening in the body when we experience stress…
Stress is the body’s instant and automatic reaction to a change that requires a physical, mental or emotional adjustment or response.
We experience stress whenever we feel vulnerable or threatened. So being physically under attack or in danger is clearly stressful (chased by a bear, floods, fires, etc.). Going through life adjustments, daily responsibilities, and changes can also trigger unwanted stress, whether we perceive those changes as positive or negative.
Stress can either be acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term).
Acute stress is an immediate reaction to something you’re presented with (a stressor). This is that “in the moment” feeling you get when you’re running late for a meeting, or you’re startled by a sudden noise.
Acute stress is immediate and short-term. In most cases, your body and mind return to a normal state once the stressor is gone.
Chronic stress is long-term nature. This is the type of stress that you feel constantly, every day.
Most chronic stressors are situations, like hating your job, or financial insecurity. These types of chronic stress situations are dangerous because they keep your body’s defenses activated and heightened longer than is healthy.
So what happens in the body when we experience stress?
Related: Understanding Stress Guide
FIGHT OR FLIGHT
The fight or flight response activates whenever there is a real or perceived threat, no matter the size; this is the sympathetic nervous system firing up.
When the fight or flight response activates, your system is immediately and involuntarily flooded with stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones enable you to run faster, fight harder, see more clearly and breathe more easily than you normally would.
They also stop your digestive processes entirely, as well as other functions that are not essential for survival. This is so that your body doesn’t waste any energy when it’s trying to survive.
Super helpful if you’re trying to escape a burning building; not so helpful if your boss is shouting at you and you just ate lunch.
The body’s fight or flight response is designed to handle acute stress, not chronic stress. It’s meant to keep us on high alert while we deal with danger or obstacles. The problem is that the body can’t differentiate between acute stress and chronic stress – it perceives it all the same. This means that if you’re experiencing chronic stress, then your body’s flight or fight response is turned on all the time.
If your body’s fight or flight response is turned on all the time, then you’re constantly flooding your system with those stress hormones, which are only meant to be in our systems for a short period.
If these hormones stay in your system for too long, they can eventually lead to increased heart rate, high blood pressure, stroke risk, ulcers and other gastrointestinal issues, a suppressed immune system, exhaustion, and sexual issues (among many other things).
WHY MOVEMENT HELPS
Moving your body helps to use up the fight or flight adrenaline energy. This will reduce the amount of toxins building up in your muscles and helps burn out the immediate emotional reaction.
Any physical activity will help to release stress – going for a walk, a run or a swim; playing with your kids or your dog; doing some gardening or housework; dancing! Anything that gets your body moving.
In a yoga practice, poses that bring our heads below our hearts (standing forward fold, downward facing dog, headstand, etc.) allow blood to rush to the head, which facilitates in switching off fight or flight mode.
Hip and shoulder openers are great options as well, as we tend to hold a lot of tension in our hips and shoulders.
Today’s class has all that and then some! Ready to release some stress with me? Unroll your mat and I’ll meet you there!