4 Simple But Powerful Practices to Change the Way You Handle Stress

These short practices from Yoga Medicine teacher Shannon Stephens can have profound effects on the way you experience stress and life's toughest moments.
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Stress is unavoidable. Balancing career with family and meeting the demands that both present can feel overwhelming. Layer on conflict, sickness, tense situations, unforeseen crises, and all the big and little things that are beyond your control, and it’s easy to find yourself wrapped in turmoil. While you can’t prepare for every scenario, with simple awareness and training, you can alter the way your body interprets and responds to stressful situations. Learning to tune in and observe your internal landscape is key to becoming calmer, more centered, and more resilient to stress. Your wonderfully intelligent body is constantly seeking balance all on its own. Important functions, such as heart rate and digestion are autonomic, or unconsciously controlled. There is a vast, intricate world beneath the skin, sending messages, delivering nutrients, managing, repairing, and quietly toiling away to keep the body’s internal environment in harmony.

Your sympathetic nervous system is responsible for your fight-or-flight response, the body’s way of coping perceived threats. When activated, this reaction releases adrenaline, elevates your heart rate, and diverts blood away from the gut to prepare the muscles to run or fight. Certain systems shut down so that energy can be expended on surviving. Living in the modern era, though, you don’t likely find yourself frequently being chased by predators; however, this same response is often triggered by seemingly mundane events like running into traffic on the way to the airport. Ever feel that buzz of nervous energy when running late? The internal alarm bells ring, blood rises into your face and neck, you start to sweat, your irritation level skyrockets.

Even if you regularly practice yoga, meditation, and pranayama for stress management, sometimes a situation can feel so immediate and threatening that all the training in the world flies right out the window. But regularly training your parasympathetic (or relaxation) response can make you more resistant to some of life’s stressors over time. Like Robin to Batman, the lesser known parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is the yin to the yang of the autonomic nervous system. Often referred to as the “rest and digest” response, the PNS is responsible for bodily functions when you are at rest, regulating digestion, and various metabolic processes. This built-in mechanism tones down the sympathetic nervous system and helps the body to relax and recover. Based on observed human behaviors (e.g., middle-finger communication during rush hour), most people could benefit by spending a little more time in parasympathetic mode. Remember, this is an autonomic response, so while you don’t have direct front-door access, you do hold a key that you can use anytime your life isn’t truly threatened.

4 Ways to Magnify Your Body’s Parasympathetic Response

In training the body and brain with the following practices, keep in mind duration isn’t as important as consistency. A 10-minute practice 5 days a week is actually more beneficial over time than a 60-minute practice once or twice a month. The cumulative effects that come with frequent, steady training tone the body and mind, changing the way you perceive stressful situations. Practice any or all of the following techniques regularly and notice any physical, mental, and emotional changes. Keep in mind that reshaping the way that you behave and respond to situations takes time. Be patient and kind with yourself, and trust in the simplicity of the practice.

Shannon Stephens teaches Yin, Meditation, and Vinyasa group and private classes in Oklahoma City, and co-owns Routed Connection, a small business specializing in retreats. Visit her blog at shannonstephensyoga.com