Anxiety and stress seem to be everywhere and on everyone’s mind. Modern-day society has us geared up for a fast-paced lifestyle. Fast food, fast cars, mortgages, loans, work, traffic, money, social anxiety and the list goes on. It’s no wonder so many people are experiencing anxiety.
Our autonomic nervous system has been turned on to level ten with little chance to turn it down or off. The autonomic nervous system is a control system in our bodies that acts largely unconsciously and, as the name suggests, automatically. This autonomic system mediates two different components: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is also known as the flight-flight-fake-freeze response (FFFF), and the parasympathetic system is also known as the rest-digest system. They act to either save our lives in dangerous or stressful situations or bring us back to homeostasis and rest.
FFFF is not the bad guy even though it has a bad reputation. The response is natural and is very helpful in our day-to-day lives; the problem is the time spent in that state. The FFFF response helps to keep us on our toes, helps us to meet deadlines, to be alert, to get us up when the alarm clock goes off, to listen to our instinct about a suspicious person, to hear children crying at night, and to have a sense of when enough is enough. The fact that your mind tells your body to create a response so powerful that you can become almost superhuman is amazing.
Here’s what happens when you turn on the stress hormones—adrenaline, cortisol, norepinephrine: heart racing, ready, eyes wide open, taking in everything, remembering every detail, mind racing, calculating every worst-case scenario and how to get out of it, muscles tense, prepared to run, catching your breath, giving you the ability to hide, to think fast, to be strong, to survive. This quick-acting, automatic response means your body is competent; your body is smart, it did the best thing possible to save you from danger.
The problem lies in how long we stay in this state, Every living creature has the same response, but they know how to shake it off after the chase and how to rid the body of the built-up energy. Because we are intelligent creatures and our minds have amazing capacities we can recall every detail of the stressful moment and bring it to life over and over, reliving the same feelings. This ability to relive is when we get in trouble because the body does not know the difference between the real danger of perceived danger and will set of the FFFF response just in case. When the FFFF response starts to last, and we can’t shake it off, it can become habitual we can begin to live in a constant state of worry and anxiety.
We as humans thrive on regularity like a baby or pet. The body likes being feed at a certain time, going to bed or to the bathroom at a certain time, following the circadian rhythm. This creates a sense of safety and normalcy for us. We learn to become perfunctory; this isn’t such a bad thing, after all we wouldn’t want to learn how to drive our car continually. But what if you become habituated into a pattern of stress? Anxiety and worry, what if they become the norm?
What if a traumatic event happens? What if our old coping skills no longer work? The FFFF response so very powerful, when left unchecked long-term becomes a factor in the diagnoses of insomnia, heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease, lowering of the immune response, chronic muscle tension, increased blood pressure, kidney disease, digestive issues, infertility, and accidents. In research, it is estimated that most doctor visits are for stress-related issues. According to scientists the hormones associated with stress down-regulate the genes causing disease and over time can change our posture, emotional state and outlook on life. Unfortunately for most of us, we never learned the skill of self-regulation, self-compassion and stress management from our ancestors because they simply did not live as we do.
There is good news however and a star to the show: the parasympathetic system—our feel-good system, rest-and-digest system, FFFF’s sister. The rest-and-digest system returns the body to homeostasis after the FFFF response. It slows our heart rate, breathing rate, lowers our blood pressure and turns on the organs of digestion. This is where we can focus on the good things in life, where we have the ability to be more positive. We can connect to source energy, feel grounded, slow down and have a good meal, and enjoy life. We also gain the ability to calm and anchor our minds inward to the body, not outward to the senses as the FFFF requires of us. It is here that we strive to be, as our bodies thrive, here. Science has now proven to us that we can only heal when the mind and body are at rest.
The problem is that the FFFF response doesn’t go away on its own and the rest-and-digest system must be activated. If left unbalanced it can be forgotten by the body’s and mind’s constant belief that it is in danger, imagined or real. I am a firm believer in the power of positive thinking and meditation to help re-pattern our thoughts, but the body must be re-patterned as well. Our bodies can get stuck in the pattern of stress and anxiety. We can eventually begin to lose sleep, crave junk food, feel moody, or pessimistic and feel tight in our bodies. When we activate the rest-and-digest response on a regular basis, it balances the two systems, so one doesn’t dominate and wreak havoc.
The first place I like to start when working with the body is with the nervous system, and in particular a cranial nerve called the vagus nerve. The word “vagus” means wandering in Latin, as the vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve. It runs all the way from the brain stem to part of the colon, and through many organs in between. The vagus nerve is part of the automatic nervous system that links the neck, heart, lungs, and abdomen to the brain and has a number of different functions both on the FFFF side and the rest side. Very importantly the nerve serves to help regulate the rest-and-digest system, by communicating directly between the brain and the gut. It is stimulating involuntary contractions in the digestive tract, esophagus, stomach, and most of the intestines, which allow food to move. It communicates with the diaphragm helping to regulate our breath. It decreasing inflammation by sending an anti-inflammatory signal to other parts of the body. It lowers the heart rate and blood pressure. These are just some of its functions. When all these actions combine we relax better, digest better, sleep better, our blood sugar becomes regulated, we have improved relationships, we are more creative, we enjoy intimacy, we can feel okay with the world around us, and how we fit in. We feel like ourselves.
There are many ways to help stimulate the vagus nerve; these are just some:
- Yoga poses, especially those that help open your neck, upper chest, shoulders
- Diaphragmatic breathing with longer exhalations
- Deep relaxation
- Singing or humming
- Splashing your face with cold water
This next practice is one of my favorites as it combines extended-exhale breathing, vibration in your sinuses, throat and upper chest, and can help stabilize your mood. It is very safe and can be practiced frequently and for up to twenty minutes a day. One of the best parts is that it also serves to shut off worrying/busy thoughts.
To practice bee breath, take an inhalation and as you breathe out start humming gently, continuing to exhale and hum as long as is comfortable. Keep the inhales and exhales slow and steady. The sound will reverberate inside you. The vibration and sound of the bee can drown out the racing thoughts when we really concentration on the sound and feeling. To enhance the experience, you can place a finger on the outer flap (closet to your cheekbone) of both ears and press lightly and gently toward the center of your ear (or you can wear earplugs) and hum away. I have even played with this breath to put me to sleep at night by allowing each bee sound too slowly putter out like I was putting the bee to bed.
Anxiety is very complex, and perhaps you have lived with the symptoms for many years, it takes practice and re-patterning of the mind, body and spirit to overcome. I believe that with consistency and persistence everyone can manage the effects of anxiety with gentle movement and breath practices that invite peace and calm. I have experienced anxiety myself and know how life-stealing the experience can be. I have used the tools of yoga and yoga therapy to help myself and hundreds of clients feel better.