When you see or hear the word “stress,” what image comes to mind? You might see a business executive poring over the latest numbers with a concerned look in her eye. Or perhaps you see a mother waiting up late, her gaze alternating between the clock and the door. Whatever image you see, the implication is the same—stress is a negative influence. We do our best to avoid stress at all costs.
But what if I told you stress could be positive, too? In fact, what if I told you stress is a necessary part of life? How would your view of handling stress change?
Humans are naturally resilient creatures. We are resilient in pretty much every sense of the word:
Able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions.
Able to recoil or spring back into shape after bending, stretching, or being compressed.
Able to overcome, correct, to become better than.
From the second we come into this world, our bodies and minds encounter stress and deal with it accordingly. The ways in which we go about handling stress are built over time. If properly supported and nurtured, we overcome and become stronger. As babies learning to crawl, we build our muscles on the resistance that gravity provides until we are strong enough to stand up. Without the stress that the Earth’s pull puts on our bodies, our muscles would never fully develop.
Because we don’t usually think twice about gravity in our daily lives, we take it for granted and adapt to it pretty easily. Our bodies automatically know that when we wake up in the morning, we will have to struggle against the inclination to fall down. But, given that we are able-bodied and in good health, it doesn’t feel like a struggle. We naturally push against the floor to stand up. You can think of the growth that comes from the above example as the hallmark of “good” stress. It challenges us and invigorates our sense of motivation. When we come into contact with this kind of stress, we have a desire for progress, a desire to push back against the stressor—for every contraction, there is an expansion.
“But babies overcoming gravity is a pretty wimpy example,” you might be thinking. Well, I disagree, but let’s come back to that later. Right now, we need to dive right into the inner workings of stress.
Over the last three million years, our bodies have evolved to react quickly to danger. When our ancestors perceived a physical threat, their sympathetic nervous systems (SNS) gave them the speed, strength, and agility to deal with the threat. In simpler terms, “fight or flight” protected them, as it still protects us today. However, what was once a tiger lurking in the bushes is now a looming work deadline, chronic pain, money problems, relationship trouble—things that threaten our emotional stability and physical comfort but not our immediate safety. The instinctual reactions of our bodies, once helpful in avoiding death, now throw our emotions into chaos when we have to deal with a problem we’d rather not have to solve.
If we could react to these modern-day stressors like our ancestors did to the predators of old—running to safety or fighting, whatever the outcome—they would not be such a problem for our mental and physical health. We could simply run from our money troubles and be debt-free in a matter of minutes. The stress that we often feel today, however, is drawn out and constant, which messes with the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) and throws our Autonomic Nervous System (the system that the SNS and PSNS combine to form) out of balance. Think of the PSNS as the Yin to the SNS’s Yang. For every contraction, there is an expansion.
Good stress allows the PSNS to do its job, to reset the SNS’s “fight or flight” response, curtailing the flood of hormones and chemicals that weaken every system within the body: endocrine, immune, digestive, cardiovascular, reproductive, and musculoskeletal. When the PSNS cannot do its job because of bad stress these systems become weak, making us susceptible to illness, disease, depression, anxiety, and early aging. The natural rhythm of contraction and expansion is interrupted, depriving our bodies of the resilience and stability that we are accustomed to possessing.
Positively Influencing the Cycle of Balance in the Autonomic Nervous System
So, how do we reclaim a sense of balance when bad stress is practically inseparable from our daily lives? I’m glad you asked.
First, we have to address the reason behind our suppression of the PSNS. We are not usually taught, in school or otherwise, that the SNS and PSNS are aspects of a single system. Rather, we learn that they are separate parts of a larger whole. When we begin to think of them as a whole, we can start to see that they work in harmony with one another and that they contribute to the development of a thriving human being.
To refresh our bodies and minds, we can utilize certain physical cues that will activate the PSNS, such as different methods of breathing, moving, and sensing:
Breath: slow rhythmic cycles, full exhalations, yawning.
Movements: slow, mindful movements, Feldenkrais movement classes, certain types of Yoga, Tai Chi, walks in nature.
Warm temperatures: bath soaks, moist towel wraps, hot stone massage.
Music: slow and peaceful rhythms.
Animals: petting a dog or cat.
These simple actions can help bring your mind into focus and relieve stress. Remember the example of the baby learning to crawl and walk? The reason I don’t think that it’s a wimpy example is because when we revert to natural, baby-like movements—such as those used in Feldenkrais, Yoga, Tai Chi, etc.—stress melts away.
When we are overcome with bad stress, we must relearn to sense the resilience of the contraction/expansion rhythm that our bodies need in order to function healthily. It is ultimately the resilience, the spring-like fluctuation of the SNS and PSNS that allows us to simultaneously sustain high levels of stress while still maintaining courage, hope, and a sense of wellbeing. Restoring resilience to the body’s nervous systems allows us to function in states of “relaxed alertness” and “focused spaciousness.” In the end, stress is neither good nor bad; the only difference is in the way our bodies react to it. The ways we go about handling stress and malleable and changeable.
Carol is a physical therapist, a co-creator of Integral Human Gait theory, a certified Feldenkrais practitioner, and a Senior Trainer in Movement Intelligence. Focus, Align, Teach and Inspire! These qualities not only describe her work, but they also describe her presence. She is passionate when it comes to reconnecting learning with human function and health. Carol is in private practice at MontgomerySomatics.com in Columbus, Indiana.