By Silvia San Miguel (Surya). Reposted here with the authors' permission.
In De-Stressing 101, I looked at the signs of a state of chronic agitation, a precursor of a stress breakdown and proposed a change in lifestyle based on the 5 Points of Yoga taught by Swami Vishnudevananda. Now I would like to look at the stress episode itself.
The stress response (SR) is a survival mechanism in a life or death situation. Once it is triggered there is a release of hormones in the adrenal glands that are pumped by the heart into the blood stream reaching specifically the extremities in order to either run away from danger or fight it off. This is accompanied by faster breathing, increased blood pressure, production of glucose to provide energy, sweating to prevent overheating, secretion of acid in the stomach to kill off bacteria in case of infection caused by injury, evacuation of urine and bowels to lighten the body's load to flee, etc. It's a wonderful mechanism that keeps us safe. It does not last long, from 2 or 3 minutes, as our organism cannot sustain such a state of "wear and tear" for a long time.
There is a major difference between real danger and perceived danger and because stress happens inside, and not so much outside, we can prolong and even perpetuate a situation that stopped being threatening a long time ago. This can start at a very young age when stress becomes a learned response. But just as it can be learned, it can be un-learned. We all know the detrimental effects of stress, what we call being "stressed out": heart attacks, ulcers, diabetes, cancers and even death. It's true that from the moment we get up we are faced with mental and emotional stressors: being late for work, dealing with difficulties in the work place, facing financial or emotional problems, etc. And the accumulation of a high level of agitation during a prolonged period of time can result in a stress breakdown such as an anxiety attack or a fit of anger or fear.
Because we cannot remove ourselves from life and its unavoidable ups and downs we have no option but to learn to respond to them rather than to re-act. We only have two possibilities: (1) we can deal with them in an emotional way, or (2) in a calm state of mind. When we are calm, away from the adrenaline rush, more blood flows to the brain, we think more clearly and act more efficiently and wisely. This is managing our stress. But how do we do it?
The first step is to be mindful and watch for signs of chronic agitation like constant irritability, worry, defensiveness, insecurity, obsessiveness, indecisiveness, etc., the precursors of a stress breakdown. Please refer to my previous post De-Stressing 101, which includes a checklist that will help you detect some of these signs.
If the agitation symptoms have gone undetected for a while you might be already in the red zone and many events can become triggers for the SR: a criticism from you boss, a fight with your spouse, loosing a job, etc. However, if we are continuously "stressed out" it does not take a major event, just being stuck in traffic or being in a slow counter line will do it.
Once the SR has been triggered what can we do? How can we quiet our heart beat, slow down the breath and think straight? I would like to explore two approaches.
- The cognitive approach. We want to use our thinking brain, our neo-cortex, to gain control of the emotional brain, the limbic system, by asking ourselves this question: "Is this a life and death situation?" The situation might be most unfair, inconvenient, embarrassing, very serious, it may hurt and upset you but -- let's face it, most of the time it's NOT a life or death situation. By asking this question you are trying to shock yourself out of the emotional wreck train you are in.
- The yoga approach. Breathe! By now our breath is contracted, agitated, irregular and shallow and many muscles are tight. We need oxygen. Take long abdominal breaths and make the exhale longer. Count 1, 2, 3 for the inhale and count 1, 2, 3, 4 for the exhale, until you are able to double the exhale.
Concentrate on your breath, concentrate on the count and at the same time know that your survival is not in danger. Remember that by doing this simple exercise you are taking care of yourself, body and mind. Ask yourself again, "is my reaction worth aging prematurely, having a heart attack or, even worse, dying for?" No! No! No!
Changing our mind-set takes time so perseverance and patience are necessary for success. In other words, we must practice, the pillar of yoga or any discipline. Change is a gradual process, so it can be helpful to keep track of our progress by keeping a record every day of the pre-stress signs (checklist in my previous post) as well as of the stress-out episodes. Do it for a few weeks or a few months.
Add to this the lifestyle changes already suggested in De-Stressing 101, dealing with
- Proper breathing
Simplicity is at the heart of this lifestyle so simplify your life, simplify your desires and become lighter, healthier, and happy.
Om Namah Sivaya!
Surya (Silvia San Miguel) is an educator and a certified Sivananda Yoga teacher who studied with Swami Vishnudevananda. She integrates her studies of other wisdom traditions with yoga while teaching at Sivananda ashrams in Canada, India, and the Bahamas and in private venues in Montreal and Spain.