The Science behind Restorative Yoga

STRESS

We all experience stress in varying degrees in a moment-to-moment basis. It is completely natural and normal. It is a physiological reaction to pressure brought on by situational, physical, mental or emotional tension.
 

WHAT HAPPENS TO THE BODY WHEN WE ARE STRESSED ?

“ STRESS REACTION”

The stress reaction refers to the fight or flight response, which is activated every single time we feel stressed. When real or imagined stress is being detected, the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and the endocrine system both respond automatically. (Endocrine system: All the different glands that produce and secrete hormones that regulate the activity of cells and organs) 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 the pent up energy within the body the fight, flight or freeze response can become a constant state. These high levels of tension have a dramatic effect on both our physical as well as our emotional and psychological well-being.

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 fibers that extends 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:

The Parasympathetic Nervous System & Sympathetic Nervous System

Both systems are supposed to work in harmony to maintain balance and harmony internally, whether we are being hit with stress or not.

THE SYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM AND STRESS REACTION:

The sympathetic branch of the nervous system activates the fight-flight-freeze reaction and gears up whenever stress and threats are detected. Happening in a fraction of a second, it enables you to fight harder, run more quickly, see more clearly, and breathe better than you normally would for self- protection.

KEY REACTIONS THAT INSTANTANEOUSLY OCCUR ON A REFLECTIVE, UNCONSCIOUS, AND INVOLUNTARY BASIS:

  • 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

  • Pupils dilate

  • 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.

    FREEZE REACTION
    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

  • Immobilization

  • Recovery from the freeze response typically starts with shaking, followed by the fight or flight response.
     

PARASYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM AND THE RELAXATION RESPONSE

The parasympathetic nervous system is the second branch of the ANS. It functions by signaling 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 improve attention and decision making

  • Aging process slows down

  • Anxiety is decreased

  • Sleep improves

  • Happiness, satisfaction and the ability to focus increase

HOW TO LIMIT STRESS AND ACTIVATE THE RELAXATION RESPONSE

Just because we need and want to relax doesn’t make it easy. Relaxation techniques are needed that will stop the inappropriate activity of the sympathetic nervous system and break the train of stressful thoughts. Since the response is subconscious and automatic, we must learn new ways to intervene as well as use skills to break the cycle of stress.

There are certain techniques that can be used to deliberately activate the parasympathetic nervous system and bring the relaxation response to life. Providing quick and reliable relief. It focuses on effective strategies that include specialized breathing techniques, relaxation training, visualization and meditation.

It is impossible to consciously tell our heart to slow down or make our palms quit sweating, since those functions are not under our conscious control. Even though breathing is automatic too, we can consciously control it.

While in a hyper vigilant or stressed state, 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. In other words the breath will have an affect on the body and mind and vice versa. If we are able to consciously control our breathing, we start to control the mind as well.