‘HUMANING’ IS HARD AND STRESSFULL
“FINDING THE CALM WITHIN THE CHAOS”
When life feels hard and nothing seems to go right, it is so easy to lose our sense of peace. Life can be extremely overwhelming at times. Powering through life’s difficult moments asks us to dig a little bit deeper and find some handy tools that can be utilized to regain stability and a sense of calm within. External factors/noise cause us to be thrown off track - finding a space of “quiet” on a daily basis as these tools are being practiced and tapped into is essential.
THE SCIENCY STUFF BEHIND THE “STRESS REACTION” AND ANXIETY
(What happens in your mind that makes the body react the way it does)
WE STRESS ABOUT EVERYTHING
From academic pressures, finding the right career path, to not being able to find a job, finances, our physical, mental and emotional well-being. Our friendships, relationships, exposure to media, not sleeping enough, or sleeping too much. Too little exercise, no exercise….
When real or imagined stress is being detected, the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and the endocrine system both respond automatically. With so much to worry about on a continuous basis, however, our natural relaxation response can get “rusty” or stuck in a frozen or on position. It becomes a vicious cycle where the parasympathetic nervous systems becomes harder and harder to access, if deliberate attempt to do so is not made and if left this may have a negative effect on the body, mind and heart.
So what happens in moments of crisis or anxiety exactly ? The limbic brain (amygdala) immediately triggers a cascade of hormonal reactions in the body in preparation for either fighting, fleeing or freezing. We are now in
survival mode, which means our “thinking brain” is affected. Rational thinking is impossible at this point.
When we don’t channel and manage this pent up energy within the body the fight, flight or freeze response can become a constant state. These high levels of tension has a dramatic effect on both our physical as well as our emotional and psychological well-being.
It can damage the heart
Contribute to chronic muscle tension
Affect the digestive system
Contribute to mental and emotional distress
THE AUTONOMIC NERVOUS SYSTEM
The ANS is always operating in an effort to maintain internal functions normally. It is part of the peripheral nervous system and is composed of a network of nerve fibres that extend throughout the body, connecting the brain with various organs such as the heart, stomach, and intestines. Some muscles are also controlled by the ANS. It controls things like breathing, blood pressure variations, digestive track, and whether our eyes are dilating or constricting. The fine balance needed for good health is disrupted by ongoing stress and can cause serious problems.
2 MAIN BRANCHES OF THE ANS:
Parasympathetic Nervous System
Sympathetic Nervous System
Both systems are supposed to work in harmony to maintain balance internally, whether anxious or not.
a) THE SYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM AND STRESS REACTION:
If we were cave men, still hunting for our food or needing to protect ourselves against predators our sympathetic nervous system would’ve served its purpose well. Being responsible for the flight-fight reaction we would be able to fight harder, run faster, see more clearly and breathe better than we normally would to protect ourselves against predators. So what exactly happens when the mind believes itself to be under threat (interestingly enough, this “threat” can be imagined or real – when we refer to trauma “triggers” the physical response experienced (anxiety) to something that happened in the past (memory/presently imagined) is in fact our nervous system preparing us to either fight, run or freeze. This presents as anxiety experienced in the body (the body is doing what it is naturally designed to do).
INVOLUNTARY REACTIONS TO STRESS
(Can’t be controlled/happens naturally)
The hormone adrenaline (sometimes called epinephrine) increases the heart rate, elevates blood pressure, and boosts energy
Breathing increases to deliver more oxygen to the major muscles
Muscular tension increases
Another hormone, norepinephrine, increases sensory awareness (hyper alert)
Blood vessels constrict
Hormonal levels change (Males – testosterone, Females – oxytocin)
A steroid hormone called cortisol is released which gears up the immune system. The immune system first increases, but if stress is prolonged or there is too much cortisol in the system, immunity is suppressed in order to divert energy back to the heart and lungs
Cortisol starts conserving energy
Digestion, kidney functions and tissue repair are slowed
Decreased salivation levels (Dry-mouth)
Reproductive and growth processes are suppressed.
When the fight or flight reaction is not possible the ANS automatically changes from the fight or flight to the freeze response. Just as with the fight or flight the freeze response is a subconscious reaction that happens involuntarily when the brains limbic system determines that staying still is the optimal strategy. It’s that feeling of “being scared stiff” and shut down physically or emotionally. You might be holding your breath or breathing shallowly.
RESULTS OF FREEZE REACTION:
Feelings of being helpless, hopeless, numb or dissociated, walled off, powerless, and lifelessness.
Endorphins are secreted that reduce panic
Recovery from the freeze response typically starts with shaking, followed by the fight or flight response.
b) PARASYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM FOR ACTIVATING THE RELAXATION RESPONSE:
The parasympathetic nervous system is the second branch of the ANS. It functions by signalling to the body that the stress is over, and it initiates the relaxation response. Hormone levels are returned to normal, and as adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels, and other systems resume their regular activities.
RELAXATION RESPONSE IS ACCOUNTABLE FOR MANY THINGS:
Turns the stress response off
Reduces the stress hormones (adrenaline, norepinephrine, cortisol)
Regulates the heart rate and pulse to healthy levels
Lowers high blood pressure
Slows the respiratory rate and decreases oxygen consumption
Decreases muscle tension
Increases blood flow to major muscles
Reduces fatigue and increases energy
Change genetic activities that are in opposition to those associated with stress
ABOVE CHANGES RESULT IN THESE CHANGES:
Digestion naturally occurs
Breathing becomes regular
A sense of calm is produced
Brain functions increase for improved attention and decision making
Aging process slows down
Anxiety is decreased
Happiness, satisfaction and the ability to focus increase
WHAT TOOLS DO WE HAVE THAT WE CAN USE TO RELAX AND TAKE OWNERSHIP OF OUR ANXIETY OR STRESS ?
BREATHING ALLEVIATES SYMPTOMS OF ANXIETY
The very first tool that comes to mind is the first gift we were gifted when we entered into this existence. This gift is one that will remain with you until your very last days on earth. It is, YOUR BREATH. In my opinion you’re breath is THE biggest gift you have received. You’re body naturally and, oh so effortlessly allows the inhalation to announce the exhalation. A rhythmic, patterned, symbiotic dance of intricate and natural simplicity performing the most beautiful and crucial process of all – You’re breathe sustains you and carries you throughout you’re day without you needing to even think about it. The beautiful thing about the breath is that no one individuals pattern of breathing is the same. Almost as unique as a fingerprint, it is yours to study and become intimate with so as to tap into the powers that it hold and brings.
Navy seals and medical personal have already harnessed the power of utilising the breath to their advantage in moments of crisis – as “box-breathing” or “square breathe” for eg. Has been proven to significantly lower the heart rate in a short amount of time, allowing emergency and crisis personnel to remain calm and clear headed in anxiety inducing situations.
(As with everything in life this requires practice, patience and awareness. The more you practice utilising a controlled patterned rhythm of breath under “normal/everyday” circumstances, the easier it will be to access effortlessly in moments of distress)
COMBINING BREATH WORK WITH MEDITATION RELAXES MIND & BODY
The misconception many people have regarding meditation is that the aim is to “empty the mind” of all thought – which isn’t possible, of course. The mind is made to think and thoughts will continuously come into your mind, no matter how hard you try not to think. The aim is not to “empty the mind”, but rather to guide the mind back to the flow of your breath with every thought that does come to mind. To do so patiently, persistently and without self-judgement/analysis as to the cause or root of the thinking requires patience and practice.
Guiding the awareness back to the breath over and over cultivates the ability to draw attention away from “continuous troublesome worry/thinking” and connect the mind to the body as it finds itself in time and space. This repetitive, mindful process of noticing thought, releasing thought and deliberate guidance of awareness toward breath forms the foundational steps of a meditative practice and can take months or years to settle into. The emotional, mental as well as physical benefit as a result of a mindful practice such as this can however, usually be felt within the first two sessions.
If it was only as simple as telling your heart to stop racing or to tell your palms to stop sweating. These functions happen naturally and isn’t in our conscious control and can feel extremely debilitating. What CAN be controlled, however, with practice is our breathing - even if the breath happens naturally we are able to manipulate the length and flow of our inhalations and exhalations which is where we are consciously able to activate into the parasympathetic nervous system.
YOU COULD SAY YOUR BREATH IS YOUR SUPERPOWER AND IT GIVES YOU AN ELEMENT OF CONTROL RELATED TO YOUR ANXIETY IF UTILISED CORRECTLY
While stressing out, breathing automatically becomes fast, shallow and arrhythmic. Intentionally changing our breathing pattern to diaphragmatic breathing causes the air to go deeply into the lungs rather than staying shallow. Doing so physiologically connects directly to the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system and provides stress relief via the relaxation response.
Normal breathing is a natural process requiring no thought or understanding. The volume and quality of the breath depends on the physical and emotional state of the individual. When we start focusing on the breath as a tool to enhance relaxation we are practicing to master the length, volume, flow and quality of the breath. The ribcage is made to open completely and the lungs to fill and empty consciously. Control of the diaphragm is a fundamental to achieving this.
THREE TYPES OF BREATH
CLAVICULAR BREATHING – is the most shallow and worst possible type of breathing when you find yourself in a state of anxiety. Which ironically, is what most people automatically tend to do in stressful moments. With maximum effort being made and minimal oxygen entering into the lungs, this worsens our state of anxiety.
THORACIC BREATHING – Breathing into the sides of the body, the rib cage/muscles expand outward. This breath is slightly better than clavicular breathing, but the lungs are still not functioning optimally.
DEEP ABDOMINAL BREATHING – This breath originates from deep within the belly and travel in a wave like pattern through the thoracic area/ribcage into the clavicular area. More oxygen is taken in and breathing is slow & controlled. As you allow the breath to originate from deep within the abdominal cavity in a controlled, steady way you will be surprised with the voluminous amount of oxygen the body in fact requires to function optimally.
DIAPHRAGMATIC BREATHING / BELLY BREATHING
Belly breathing uses the deepest, lowest part of our lungs. It brings in fresh air and nourishment to our body. It is a simple, straightforward way to calm the nervous system. If you have ever watched a baby breathing – you will notice how they in fact breathe with their whole body. It is a slow, controlled and expansive breath.
As awareness is placed on ones natural flow of regulated breathing the mind becomes calmed and focused and thinking lessons. Begin by simply noticing how you are breathing. Where in the body it is that you are breathing into more. If you find your breath to be more in the upper chest, shift the awareness toward the belly as you guide your breath toward the abdominal area. Notice if you are breathing through your mouth or through your nose. Is your breathing fast or slow? Placing both on the belly begin to inhale into the belly, noticing the belly expand like a balloon. Allowing this breath then to continue to travel toward the ribcage and up into the clavicular area.
Adding a count to your inhalation that is comfortable to you – you can gently start to deepen the exhalation in relation to the inhale. We want to make our exhalation longer than the inhalation.
Begin to add a count to your inhalation as well as your exhalation.
i.e. Inhale for a count of 1,2,3,4 (pause) then exhale for 1,2,3,4,5
As you keep breathing in this manner continue extending into exhale. Ideally doubling the count on the exhale. This takes practice and if you can’t completely double the count on the exhale simply shorten the count on your inhale. If you feel at any point that the breath is strained or uncomfortable feel free to adjust the count.
YOGIC / RHYTHMIC BREATHING
A full “yogic” breath combines all three, beginning with a deep breath into the abdominal and continuing the inhalation through the intercostal and clavicular areas. The key to full yogic breathing is to properly use the diaphragm in breathing, which takes time and practice.
Here we will start adding a count to the breath.
Focusing on a controlled conscious breath.
Inhalation: 1-2-3-4 ; Pause after the inhale for 5-6
Exhalation: 1-2-3-4 ; Pause after the exhale for 5-6 Combining your breath work and relaxation with relaxing music (classical music is recommended, nature sounds, water, or bell) proves to further enhance the relaxation state
Taking time for a guided relaxation and meditation session proves even more beneficial (Although caution is necessary with patience During a full Yoga Nidra session (discussed below) all sound is eliminated (This is in other words a quiet practice)
Another misconception regarding Yoga is that it is a religion. Although it’s roots lie in India and the practice of Yoga is thousands of years old, the main focus of yoga lies in flexibility, breathwork and mental and emotional wellness. Yoga can thus rather be seen as a science, that integrates body, mind and emotion.
Yoga Nidra (Yogic sleep) is generally done after the physical movement happens in a yoga class, but is mentally, physically and emotionally so beneficial that it stands alone as a restorative practice itself. Within Yoga Nidra, breathing techniques are combined with sensory training and guided meditation journeys (often including sound/music) to resulting in a deep state of relaxation to settle. This is where the body and mind naturally shifts into a parasympathetic state, allowing for healing to take place naturally.
BENEFITS OF YOGA NIDRA
Activate the relaxation response and deactivate the stress response (which improves functioning of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems and the endocrine systems
Benefits the heart by lowering blood pressure
Significantly improve anxiety, depression, and well-being in patients with psychological problems
Manage pre-and postsurgical conditions
Reduce insomnia and improve sleep: while not intended as a sleep substitute, one hour of effective yoga Nidra practice is equivalent to about four hours of sleep (During Yoga Nidra we consciously go through all the brain wave stages experienced during sleep but in a compressed time frame)
Brings about greater emotional understanding and stability
Transform thoughts and feelings of separation into a direct experience of wholeness.
In Yoga Nidra, we ultimately experience what is called “ yogic sleep”. The delta brain wave state we eventually experience during Yoga Nidra is like being in a deep sleep with one big difference. Our awareness remains alert and awake. In one of its earlier phases, it feels similar to how you feel when you are either just falling asleep or are on the verge of waking up.
As a quick review: Yoga Nidra gives us the direct experience of stress relief and the relaxation response. It provides us with a practical process for creating the conditions needed to experience and benefit from our thoughts and feelings – but from a different point of reference. Instead of identifying with our circumstances, thoughts, and feelings, it teaches us to identify with what may require change.
Stress can be viewed as impermanent and temporary, even if it does not feel that way in the moment.
During Yoga Nidra, we become objective
and aware of what is going on in and
around us, and respond to it all mindfully rather than reacting out of our habits and conditioning.
Affirming Positive Change (‘sankalpa’)
We are habitual creatures by nature. Which means that we adopt certain ways of going about life which aren’t necessarily always serving in our best interest. This includes the way in which we communicate to ourselves, about ourselves, the “not so healthy ways” in which we tend to manage/cope with our stresses (which we all have ;) ) are learnt patterns of behaviour. Anything that has been learnt can also be unlearned if we choose to want better for ourselves. ‘Affirming’ positive change within our lives while the mind is calm and receptive is more powerful than we may think. Neuroplasticity refers to the nerve cells of the brain. These nerve cells have the ability to reorganize and restructure itself on a continuous basis. One can thus understand the importance of imbedding positivity to allow for positive changes in behaviour & thought for emotional and mental wellness. Affirmations allow for significant and transformative change to take root and grow.
A few examples of an Intention/Affirmation:
I matter, I love myself, I am worthy, I am valuable, I am healing, I am creating a better life for myself.
This is also the time where you can address certain aspects about yourself or your life that you are not entirely happy with. It is a time to be brutally honest with yourself as well – the Intention/Affirmation remains private (unless you feel the need to share it).
SENSORY AWARENESS AND BODY SCANNING FOR PHYSICAL RELAXATION / ROTATION OF CONSCIOUSNESS
We have already established that meditation is not about “emptying the mind”. I have found many people to be a little sceptical when they hear the phrase “rotation of consciousness” and choose to rather suggest a “sensory journey of awareness throughout the body” as being a more accepted description … because that is exactly what “rotation of consciousness” implies. When a certain area of the brain is stimulated it connects to a certain area within the body. Mentally moving back and forth between the right and the left side of the body during the scan enhances mind and body integration which is conducive to physical restoration and a deep sense of relaxation settles within the body and mind.
The brain thus is the mediator between the mind, body and emotions. The intensifying awareness of the body stimulates the brain. This induces physical relaxation but also allows for neurological restructuring to take place.
ROTATION OF CONSCIOUSNESS
We will now be taking a journey of sensory awareness throughout the body. As I guide you to specific body parts allow yourself to mentally see, feel and even name each body part as it is mentioned. Please don’t move any part of the body physically as we would like to try and remain as still as possible throughout. You are not stuck though, if you become uncomfortable or have an itch that needs scratching allow yourself to readjust and settle into a comfortable position when you are ready.
Bring your awareness to your right hand thumb, 2nd finger, 3rd finger, 4th finger, 5th finger. Palm of the hand, back of the hand, wrist, lower arm, elbow, upper arm, shoulder, armpit. Right side of the chest, waist, hip, thigh, kneecap, calf muscle, ankle, heel, top of the foot. Right big toe, 2nd toe, 3rd toe, 4th toe, 5th toe.
Bringing your awareness to your left hand thumb. 2nd finger, 3rd finger, 4th finger, 5th finger. Palm of the hand, back of the hand, wrist, lower arm, elbow, upper arm, shoulder, armpit. Left side of the chest, waist, hip, thigh, kneecap, calf muscle, ankle, heel, top of the foot. Left big toe, 2nd toe, 3rd toe, 4th toe, 5th toe.
Right toes, left toes, right sole of the foot, left sole of the foot, right heel, left heel, right ankle, left ankle, right calf muscle, left calf muscle, back of right knee, back of left knee, back of right thigh, back of left thigh, right buttock, left buttock, right hip, left hip, right shoulder blade, left shoulder blade, back of the neck, back of the head.
Travelling your awareness up the spine, neck and back of the head to the forehead. Right temple, left temple, right eyebrow, left eyebrow, softening the frown lines.
Right eyelid, left eyelid, right eye, left eye, right ear, left ear, right cheek, left cheek, the nose. Right nostril, left nostril, the tip of the nose. Upper lip, lower lip, the chin, jaw and the throat. The entire head.
Right collarbone, the left collarbone. Right side of the chest, the lefts side of the chest. Upper abdomen, the navel, lower abdomen. The pelvis. Right thigh, the left thigh, right knee, left knee, right shin, left shin. The right ankle, left ankle, right toes, the left toes.
Right collar bone, left collar bone. The right side of the chest, left side of the chest. Upper abdomen, navel, the lower abdomen. Pelvis, right thigh, left thigh, right knee, left knee, right shin, left shin, right ankle, left ankle, right toes, left toes. The whole of the right leg, the whole of the left leg. Both legs together. The whole of the right arm, the whole of the left arm. Both arms together. The whole head, the whole back. The front of the body. Arms, legs, back, front & head. The whole body. The whole body, the entire body is a perfect system working in harmony as one.
TYPICAL FLOW OF A YOGA NIDRA SESSION
Awareness is brought to the space the individual finds him/herself in. Emphasizing a safe space.
Broadening awareness to the physical body and the space it takes up.
Noticing any sensations within the body. Guiding individuals to do a body scan and find areas of unnecessary tension within the body.
Breath awareness: Coming to focus on the breath as is. Guiding individuals into a breath exercise which assists in relaxation.
Intention/Affirmation is set
Rotation of Consciousness
Guiding individuals out of relaxation by bringing awareness to the subtler sensations in and around the body. (Natural rhythm of the heartbeat, how the body is gently being moved by the breath, bringing their awareness to the weight of the body, sounds they might be hearing, smells they might be smelling, gently moving fingers and toes/full body stretch)
Sankalpa or Intention is revisited
Yoga Nidra sessions vary in length depending on the depth of the session. Ranging anywhere from 30 min – 2 hours.
It is clear to see that the tools have been made available through guided relaxation and breathing techniques to assist us in regulating our own stress. The benefit this potentially could bring to individuals undergoing emotional distress or people in the process of psychotherapy treatment is extremely valuable.
There are a plethora of resources available online. Below I have listed but a few. Personally I love running through the rotation of consciousness while I am lying in bed at night and often fall asleep before I am even done.
‘Calm’ – available in the App Store and Google Play
‘Insight Timer’ – available in the App Store
‘Auro’ – available in the App Store and Google Play
Much Love & Blessings,
“mom, yoga instructor, always the student (never the master), graphic artist, lover of all things weird, wonderful and unique (don’t fit in it’s boring – just be true to you), committed to mental and emotional healing and growth and sharing how I choose to do so with you”
firstname.lastname@example.org | 071 355 1875
Yoga Nidra for Complete Relaxation & Stress Relief; The Yoga Bible by Christina Brown; An Introduction to Yoga – Sabrina Balanco