How to Cope with Stress
Although stress is a common factor in everyday life, it is important to not define this as simply bad, but to instead examine our responses to challenges and the number of things ‘to do’ that we may habitually take on – or not say no to!
The nature of stress in the 21st century (in developed countries) isn’t so much about everyday survival and physical hardship, yet we still respond in the full physiological fight-or-flight way even if we’re wound up about the email influx, worried about paying the bills or having relationship woes. Finding ways and the time and space to come down from these heightened responses can create a day-to-day life where demands can seem less threatening, reactions less well, reactionary and a sense of easy come/ easy go more possible it. It is this adaptability and resilience that shows how well we are able to cope and when it feels frazzled and low, how much we need to nurture the sense of safety and gathering resources that we need to feel life is joyous, rather than wading through treacle…..
The importance of touch
Many people who are experiencing high levels of stress or in a state of continuous stress find themselves disconnected from their bodies and living life from their heads; ‘tired, but wired’ and dominated by anxiety and fear. A way of beginning to ease out of this state of being is to gently offer themselves loving touch, be it softly stroking their arms, mindfully massaging their shoulders one at a time or placing their hands gently on their bellies and making circular movements can have a hugely beneficial effect.
We live in a society dominated by visual and auditory input, where kinaesthetic communication is often undervalued and many feel the loss of not living within a physically and emotionally supportive extended family or tribe. Touch grounds us back into our bodies and reconnects us with our physicality, something greatly needed by those caught up in the mind stuff of stress. We are pack mammals – warm-blooded creatures that have evolved to respond with reward to actions that secure cohesion of the tribe. Many of us don’t get this touch, comfort and bodily heat that comes from continual close proximity to others.
When we offer ourselves (or receive from others) loving touch, a hormone called oxytocin is released from the pituitary gland in the brain. This hormone has been found to reduce levels of fear by reducing the activity of the amygdala, the (lower) mammalian centre of the brain responsible for detecting danger and reacting to a perceived emergency situation. It also helps store memories of past events so that a similar, dangerous or threatening situation can be detected by drawing on these memories.
Oxytocin is also known as the ‘bonding hormone’ as it opens up our capacity to connect and feel bonded with others, reducing stress hormones like cortisol and elevating mood. In lieu of having someone on hand to hug or massage us, offering ourselves loving touch is a direct way of soothing ourselves, bringing us into our bodies and engaging interoception to shut off left brain chatter. Oxytocin is believed to be released after 20 seconds of sustained touch, so a brief hug won’t quite cut it, but we do get this same response from hugging ourselves for this long. In yogic terms this would be introducing the guna of sattva into the system (equilibrium, balance, serenity, purity, light).
Exercises to pacify and soothe an agitated nervous system
Placing hands on our bodies (nyasa) can have the same weight and reassurance to the nervous system. Adding in intention of self-compassion simply felt or stated as internal mantras, can intercept loops of the self-criticism, comparison and high personal expectations that can feed into heightened stress responses:
- Stroking lower arms in a downwards direction (elbow to wrist) saying softly ‘I am at home in my body’ or ‘my body feels safe and comfortable’ or ‘I love my body just as it is’.
- Gently place the hands at your heart centre and softly say to yourself ‘I offer myself unconditional love in this moment’ or ‘My heart is open to life’ or ‘My heart beats with all of existence’. It is important that you feel comfortable with anything you say to yourself and can say it with full meaning for beneficial effect, so play around with any wording that you respond to well.
- You can place the right hand (signifying compassion) on heart; left hand of wisdom (awareness) on belly at any time you need to bring these intertwined qualities to your practice, need a focus for embodiment or feel you need the reassurance of the weight, warmth and pressure of your touch. When stress has us off and away in our heads, this niyasa (placing) can bring us back to a grounding, physical sense that we are really here in the present moment.
Feel free to experiment with any or all of these exercises for yourself and see how they make you feel. You can also modify or create new ones which put you in touch with your body in a restful way.
Releasing the face and jaw
Stress creates a lock-down effect on the body with tense jaw, headaches and teeth grinding common stress-related symptoms. This is part of the self-protection response to increase blood flow to the brain, human’s most important organ of survival. The frowning and pursing lips that can accompany the seriousness and concentration when we go into survival mode can get stuck, telling the whole body to keep in constant alert mode. Face and jaw release at the beginning of a class can allow all muscles to get the signal that it is safe to release. We often hold our habitual expressions – setting the jaw, frowning, even a forced smile – as our expression to the world and a coping strategy, so noticing this stress manifestation and recognising that we don’t need to be expressing anything during our practice, helps us both notice these habits and drop away from them.
- Gurning – aka facial distortion – gives tense muscles a well-needed inner massage, makes us feel carefree and may even create the whole body (including diaphragm) release of laughter.
- Get as ugly as you can and squeeze into areas that resist release, so just like massage, giving muscles the job they are designed to do (ie contracting) helps remind them they can go full circle and acquiesce.
- Stretching the top lip over the top teeth releases an area where tension at the base of the skull is commonly expressed.
Grounding and fluidity for stress relief
This floor practice creates grounding by moving in different ways around our root – the base of the spine, pelvis and hips where we can foster the inherent safety that allows us to come down from stress. Grounding is a sense of where our physical body is placed in the world, right now, which when we don’t have creates more vigilance from the brain and therefore, internally generated stress.
The movements create pliability and fluidity in all aspects of the body that radiate out from the spine, especially the hips, shoulders and neck where can tend to accumulate stress that creates tension throughout the whole body. Releasing tight fascia (connective tissue) and muscle here feeds back to the nervous system that it does not need to keep up this protection against the perceived danger of stress and can let go, calm, release and relax.
- Sitting in ‘z-legs’, with the right leg turned in and the left folded behind, lean to the right side, hand on the ground. Take the left arm out to the side, fixing your eyes on that hand, retaining that focus as you take the arm down past the body and then up and over in full circles, to turn the whole body from the hips and move from the belly.
- On the same side, bend the left elbow so the forearm is parallel to the ground and with an exhale, reach round to the right into a twist. With the inhale, take the arm as far back round to the right as feels easily comfortable, opening the chest. Repeat steps 1 and 2 on the other side.
- Now coming to sit legs forward, bend the knees to roll the thighs outwards and heels towards each other, not trying to get the feet together. On an exhalation, let your belly drop back and curl the arms as if holding a great big ball, dropping your head into it.
- Inhale to draw up from the belly and chest, without lifting the chin beyond that which creates tension into the base of the skull. Move between these positions with the breath, feeling the pelvic tilt and the front and back off the body taking turns to open.
- Coming back to z-legs with the right leg turned in, with the exhalation come back to the same shape as step 4 with the upper body, letting the belly drop right back and opening right out across the upper back and neck.
- With the inhalation, lift and lengthen out the right leg, dropping onto the left elbow. Here flex (opposite of point) the foot to lengthen heel to crown of the head and keep lifting up from the left elbow so you keep space in the left shoulder. Let the breath lead between the two movements and then finish with the twist shown in step 2 before changing to the other side.