In times of challenge, a resilient mindset can make all the difference. But how do we cultivate resilience amidst all the stress of modern day life?
One way is through a consistent mind-body practice like yoga. Yoga can be a powerful tool to calm our nervous system, leaning on physical poses, breath work and relaxation strategies that promote physical balance. In fact, a new study published in JAMA Psychiatry found that yoga was significantly more effective for generalized anxiety disorder than many standard stress management practices.
Yin & Yang of the Autonomic Nervous System
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) rules the roost when it comes to physical balance, and it plays a key role in the stress response. The ANS consists of two opposing parts which work by counteracting each other to maintain equilibrium. The parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system control the biological wiring responsible for our “fight or flight” and “rest and digest” states.
Think of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) as the Yang of the nervous system. It’s the gas pedal that revs up our body and mind, activating its fight-or-flight response. The SNS reacts to stressful situations by triggering the release of body chemicals that arouse a high-alert defensive and protective mode.
The parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) is the body’s Yin, and functions more like the brakes. Known as the “rest and digest” mode, the PSNS is the body’s healer, repairing cells, detoxifying, and relaxing to optimize well-being.
Unfortunately, in our modern day life, the sympathetic nervous system tends to dominate, throwing the nervous system out of whack. This creates a loop of overstimulation, biochemically bathing our brains in stress hormones, and leaving us in a state of chronic stress and anxiety.
Tone It Up
Researchers say that yoga helps to address this imbalance by increasing what is called “vagal tone” – the body’s ability to respond to stress. Vagal tone directly relates to the state of the vagus nerve, part of the PSNS that helps to regulate all of our major bodily functions. Breathing, heart rate, digestion, and how we take in, process, and make meaning of our experiences are all directly related to the vagus nerve. Improvements in vagal tone have been shown to correlate with reductions in both the stress response and the accumulation of stress over time.
People with healthy vagus nerve functioning are considered to have “high vagal tone,” meaning their bodies and brains are more resilient under stress. They have an easier time moving from an “excited” state to a relaxed one. Someone with high vagal tone, for example, would recover faster from a spat with a spouse than someone with low vagal tone. Not surprisingly, these people tend to be healthier, more resilient and less vulnerable to long-term stress.
It’s a Practice
So how can we learn to move our bodies from that “excited” state to a more relaxed one at will? By creating the sensation and response of a relaxed physical state and then practicing it regularly. A weekly (or more) yoga practice!
Depending on how longstanding and severe your anxiety is, the positive effects of yoga can take some time. Most studies have shown improvements after two to three months of at least a weekly practice. Consider that retraining your nervous system is like weight training. You would not expect to be sporting big muscles after just a few workouts, right? It takes consistent practice and dedication to learn to consciously invoke the PSNS and summon a calm mind and body on demand.
A typical yoga class consists of physical postures, breathing techniques, relaxation exercises, and some meditation/mindfulness practice. Yoga philosophy is often woven throughout a class which for many provides some spiritual grounding. Be assured that there are many types of yoga and levels of intensity — you’re bound to find a practice that works for you. The more you can develop a relaxed state in your yoga practice, paying attention to how you got there and how the different elements feel, the more your body will be able to find that state and turn to it in times of stress. This is mental resilience at work.
Do you have a mind-body practice that you’re leaning on right now? Share what ‘s working for you below! Be sure to come follow Blendtopia on Facebook to stay connected and come follow us on Instagram and Pinterest for even more ideas for maintaining our mental, physical, and emotional wellness.