’Tis the season of good tidings, peppermint mochas, and gatherings with friends—and also lots to accomplish (gift-giving anyone?), people to accommodate (hello, Aunt Erma!), and more than likely, weeks of over-extending ourselves.
And while all of this busy-ness is due to a truly wonderful time of year, it’s important to get clear on what “stress” actually entails.
The Physiology of Stress
When we are in high gear, plowing through a long to-do list to get stuff done (read: we’re stressed!), the body turns on the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS), otherwise known as the fight-or-flight mode. When the SNS is turned on and we’re under perceived stress, it triggers energy to be released, allowing the body to fight or take flight.
By activating the SNS, the energy is directed to prioritized systems to fight or flight and takes energy away from (or shuts down) non-priority systems, such as the immune, digestion, and reproduction systems. This is why some people are more prone to illness, digestive upset, and for women, menstrual irregularities during or after stress.
The SNS’s counterpart is the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS), or the rest-and-digest mode. When the PSNS is activated, the body conserves energy and turns “on” all down-regulated systems.
So, how can you activate the PSNS? By stimulating the vagus nerve: the longest cranial nerve that interconnects the brain to many organ systems and runs through the back of the throat and through the diaphragm.
Pranayama and Yoga are primary ways to access the vagus nerve, because the breath has the capacity to stimulate the vagus nerve through the back of the throat (hello, Ujjayi breath!) and diaphragmatic breathing (a.k.a. belly breathing). By stimulating the vagus nerve, we increase our vagal tone and turn on the PSNS, ultimately counter-balancing the stress response.
Interval Yoga: The Ultimate Counter to Stress
Interval Yoga is a combination of heart-pumping, timed movements interspersed with strengthening flows. The dynamic change between increasing heart rate and space for the heart rate to slow is great for a few reasons:
- Research indicates interval training may lengthen telomeres by increasing activity of the enzyme telomerase. Telomeres are the ‘end-caps’ on chromosomes (DNA that carries our genetic information) that protect the genetic information and prevent cell aging. Every time a cell replicates, the telomeres become shorter, eventually leading to cell death when the telomeres have been “used up.” By increasing telomerase activity to add telomere length, we are essentially adding longevity to our cells—and therefore ourselves.
- In Traditional Chinese Medicine, winter is the energy of yin within yin—and yin equals cold, rest, and non-movement. To counter-balance all of this yin energy, we will add yang energy (heat and activity) through movement and blood-pumping intervals.
- In TCM, stress affects the energy of the liver, creating Liver Qi Stagnation. One of the liver’s functions is the free-flow of energy throughout the body and to all organ systems. Which means stagnation here can feel like constriction in the body, neck and shoulder tension, constipation, irritability, and being quick to get angry. The best remedy for liver Qi stagnation is movement. Moving the body and getting the blood flowing will move the liver Qi to alleviate the above symptoms.
A 12-Pose Home Practice to Counter Holiday Stress
The Holiday season is about giving to others—our time, presence, presents, and energy. That’s why it’s especially important to make this practice about giving to yourself. Create a space that feels supportive to you: play music that feels good for movement; light a few candles; diffuse your favorite essential oils; and set an intention to nurture you.
Also, keep in mind that you can customize how fast or slow you move based on your energy levels. Please, honor your body and modify this sequence to fit your needs.
About our author
Teresa Biggs, AP, DOM is a board-certified Doctor of Oriental Medicine and Yoga Medicine Instructor and founder of Biggs Acupuncture & Wellness Center in Naples, Florida. Support the Yoga Medicine Seva Foundation and Purchase-with-Purpose the Yoga Medicine Seva Tank & Pants. Learn more about Teresa at biggsacupuncture.com