Most of us are familiar with the adage: prevention is better than cure. It’s easier, cheaper and less time consuming to stop something happening in the first place than to repair the damage after it has happened.
We know that eating well can help reduce our risk of illness.
We know that brushing our teeth and regular dental checkups prevent dental problems.
Yet, many of us ignore our mental health until we’re in a crisis.
A common problem I see is that people turn to meditation as a last resort and when they’re in crisis mode. They’ve tried everything and turn to meditation as a last-ditch attempt to stave off anxiety and stress.
The problem is that yoga and meditation are not a cure for stress and anxiety; they’re a preventative. And there’s a big difference between prevention and cure.
We often wait until things are desperate before we address our stress and anxiety levels. This is partly because many of us are in denial about how bad things are, and we’re really good at pretending we’re fine when we’re not.
But I think the big reason we don’t address our stress level until it’s too late is that many of us have the mistaken belief that once the external stressor is gone (the deadline, the conflict, the illness), we assume that we will automatically relax.
In reality, while an external event may trigger our stress levels, stress and anxiety are stored in the body, and unless we address stress at the nervous system level, it will stay in our system even when the trigger is gone. If you’ve ever found yourself still stressed and anxious after the stressful event has long passed, you will know what I mean.
How to deal with acute stress and anxiety
Trying to meditate when we’re on the verge of panic is not recommended. In fact, it’s a disaster as it makes us more acutely aware of our stress levels and can make us feel worse. A far better approach for dealing with acute stress and anxiety is:
- Conscious breathing – deliberately lengthening and slowing down our exhales helps to downregulate the nervous system.
- Orienting our senses – this is where we turn our attention to our immediate experience in the present moment and focus on the things we can see, hear, touch, taste and smell. When we turn to our senses, we become present in the moment, a well-known technique for handling a panic attack.
- Embodied movement – stomping the feet, jumping up and down on the spot, shaking the body or tapping gets us out of our head and into our body (which is a safer place to be when we’re in panic mode).
When we’re stressed and anxious, our nervous system goes into the fight or flight response. From an evolutionary perspective, our nervous system was designed to protect us from physical threats where we would either run for our lives or stay and fight off the predator. These days, much of our stress is mental, so we can’t exactly run from or fight off our deadlines.
The fight or flight response requires movement to discharge the stress from our body and nervous system – otherwise, it gets stuck, and we remain perpetually stressed.
The Freeze Response
Chronic and overwhelming stress leaves us in survival mode or the Freeze Response. In nature, this is known as ‘playing dead’. Freezing is our nervous system’s last-ditch attempt at survival when the fight or flight response has failed. Freezing is when we are completely overwhelmed, shut down, dissociated and completely stuck and immobilised. In wildlife documentaries, it’s common to see the deer playing dead. If the predator assumes the deer is dead, they may leave it for a moment, and this is when the deer magically springs to life and runs off. Playing dead saved its life. Interestingly, the deer will always run away and can be seen “shaking off” the stress.
Unfortunately, we can’t run away from our problems, but we can benefit from shaking off our stress. This is why movement is a much better strategy for thawing out the freeze response than sitting still in Yin Yoga or Meditation. Becoming unfrozen requires movement and mindful movement such as vinyasa yoga or Non-Linear Movement (we teach this in the Art of Relaxation and Yoga Alchemy) are effective techniques to move out of the freeze response.
Once our nervous system has returned to a more neutral state, yoga and meditation act as preventatives and help us preserve and maintain that neutral state.
Getting our nervous system back to neutral is the key to mental wellness
We can’t heal or thrive when we’re stuck in survival mode. A regular yoga and meditation practice build awareness of our thoughts and feelings so that we can recognise when we’re stressed and take decisive action.
When faced with acute stress, the best approach is to:
- slow down our exhales
- come to our senses
- stomp, shake, tap, or some other movement to discharge the stress and get out of our head and into our body.
What tends to happen is that when we start to feel good again, we stop taking preventive action, i.e. we stop going to yoga and doing the things that benefit our physical and mental health. This is just like when we take antibiotics for an infection. As soon as we feel better, we stop taking the antibiotics, only for the infection to return.
Over time, stress starts to build, and it’s only when it becomes too much do we take action. A much better preventative approach is to prioritise our mental well-being and develop a regular yoga and meditation practice to maintain our well-being and prevent a crisis.
Learning to regulate our nervous system is the key to mental and emotional wellbeing. Don’t wait until you’re in crisis mode to act; an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
If you want to learn more, check out our signature stress management workshops: