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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.
1. Just Notice
Sounds simple, right? Well, it is, but human minds love distraction, and there are plenty of opportunities for you to become removed from the experience of being in your body. Checking in doesn’t cost a dime, though. You don’t have to book a day at the spa or attend a retreat. You simply need to hit the pause button and notice what you’re feeling. What physical sensations are you experiencing? What is your current mood? Where is your mind? What are your thoughts saying? Is there something nagging at you? Ignoring discomfort of any kind may seem like the best solution, but it doesn’t do anything to train the body or mind in resiliency. When you shut down or mask what you’re feeling, you numb yourself to life and become more susceptible to stress and illness, creating a cycle that becomes harder and harder to break. Simply pausing and checking in a few times each day is a small act of self-compassion with surprisingly profound effects. Body awareness provides a foundation for your overall health and wellbeing, and by looking inward, you can shift the paradigm so that things happen within you rather than TO you.
Lie down on a comfortable surface. Place a rolled blanket, bolster, or pillow beneath the knees. If you’re at work, find a comfortable seated position. Close your eyes and notice physical sensation, thoughts, your mind state, and the breath. Spend 2–5 minutes softening tension. When thoughts arise (and they will), try not to attach to them.
See also Yoga and the Art of Distraction
2. Diaphragmatic Breathing
Slow diaphragmatic breathing is one of the easiest and quickest routes to the parasympathetic mode. And you can thank the very long vagus nerve, which meanders its way from the skull down the neck into the chest and abdomen, communicating to every organ in the body. Lucky for you, vibrations released with the breath act like a massage to the nerve. So simple belly breathing can switch on the parasympathetic response, making changes to your internal environment that can be felt almost instantly.
Lie or sit down and place your hands still on the belly. Begin to expand the breath so that you feel your hands rise and fall with each inhale and exhale. Keep the body relaxed as you follow the breath. Visualize your lungs gently inflating on the inhale, and softly deflating on the exhale. Inhale for 4 counts and exhale for 6. Repeat several rounds and then inhale for 5 counts and exhale for 7. Repeat several rounds. Insert an easy pause at the top of the inhale and the bottom of the exhale. Keep the body relaxed. If the pauses create tension, simply leave them out. Practice for several rounds and then return to a more natural rhythm. Diaphragmatic breathing can be practiced throughout the day, at work or at home. Return to this practice when you feel stress creeping in.
3. Yin Yoga
In the context of stress management, stillness is king. When you set yourself up to become still, you establish conditions for the body and mind to be at rest. When the body is completely at rest, it begins its quiet job of cleaning up and restoring order. Training in stillness on the mat prepares you to move through life more calmly off the mat. Through Yin, you learn how to be less reactionary and a better observer and listener. You feel more connected to your body and to the world so that when situations beyond your control arise, you are less squirmy and a little more grounded.
Practice: Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose
A nourishing pose for the body, Legs-Up-the-Wall helps to drain the lymphatic system, can relieve edema or swelling, and is great for circulation as it temporarily increases blood flow to the head and heart. Place a folded blanket next to the wall. Sit on the blanket with one hip near or touching the wall. Lie back and swing the legs up. Shimmy and shift until you feel like your body is in a loose “L.” Note: you don’t have to be right next to the wall, which can potentially be uncomfortable for some. Place your hands on your belly or along your sides. Close your eyes and tune into sensation in the legs and feet. Stay here for 5–8 minutes and ease out gently.
Research has proven that meditation can effectively rewire the brain. While the techniques above are wonderful for noticing the body, getting out of our heads, and alleviating stress, the practice of meditation re-trains the mind to create new ways of coping and responding to stress. Habitual patterns can be broken and new, healthier patterns formed over time with consistent practice. There is a ton of exciting research out there and many styles to choose from. Your meditation practice should be something you look forward to, rather than a chore. Try different styles and see which ones fit.
Sit comfortably on a folded blanket, cushion, or chair. Close your eyes and rock gently forward and back until you feel the head, shoulders, and ribs stack over the hips. Drop your weight into your seat, allowing for a supportive base. Gently lengthen the spine out of the pelvis and notice the effortless support. Soften any tension in the jaw, neck, and shoulders. Direct your awareness to the breath without changing it. Feel the breath in the nostrils, the throat, and the chest. Notice how your clothing moves on the skin with each breath. Begin to count each breath, inhaling for 1 and exhaling for 1, inhaling for 2 and exhaling for 2, and so on, until you reach 10. If you lose track or when you get to 10, simply start back at 1. After 5–10 minutes let go of the counting and notice how you feel. Take time easing out of your meditation practice so that it can assimilate into the rest of your day.
ABOUT OUR EXPERT
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.