Ever been told to calm down when you’re stressed?
Or don’t sweat the small stuff when you’re clearly sweating the small stuff?
These well-intended statements often have the opposite effect. Not only are they unhelpful in the moment, but they also make us feel bad for reacting the way we do.
We tend to think of stress and anxiety as a mental problem, but it’s actually a nervous system issue. This is why we can’t out-think anxiety.
Nervous System Basics
Our nervous system has two branches:
- The Relaxation Response (parasympathetic nervous system)
- The Stress Response (sympathetic nervous system).
Our nervous system is constantly scanning our environment to detect signs of threat. And when a threat is perceived, the Stress Response is activated. The Stress Response triggers a chain reaction in our body and mind to prepare us to fight and defend ourselves or run from the threat (Fight or Flight Response).
Once the threat has passed, our nervous system returns to the relaxation response, emphasising rest and digestion.
Our nervous system has evolved to keep us safe from danger. Still, it can’t distinguish between a genuine life-threatening incident of being chased by a predator vs the non-life-threatening stress of impending work deadlines, the dread associated with giving a speech/presentation or conflict with loved ones.
And while much of the stress we experience is less of a physical threat and more mental/ emotional in nature, our nervous system acts as if it is life-threatening.
When we’re exposed to chronic stress, our nervous system stays in the Stress Response and rarely gets the chance to return to Rest and Relaxation. When the Stress Response is activated, we experience the following symptoms:
- Increased muscle tension
- Increased heart rate and blood pressure
- Increased stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol)
- Reduced blood flow to digestive organs
But what happens to our brain is far more interesting.
Our Brain on Stress
When the Stress Response is activated, the front part of our brain (pre-frontal cortex) responsible for our executive function and calm, rational thinking is shut down, and the fear centre of our brain (amygdala) takes over. This is a survival mechanism which means we respond to stress instinctively rather than rationally. This is handy in a life-threatening situation as our animal instinct will kick in and take over so that we don’t have to waste time deciding on the best course of action. But having the amygdala in charge is not so helpful when dealing with mental and emotional stress because the nature of the amygdala is fear-based, and it will be looking for the worst-case scenario.
When we’re stressed, we can’t think clearly, rationally or logically. Our thoughts will be negative and fear-based, as that’s how our nervous system kept us safe when we lived in caves.
Therefore, telling ourselves to calm down or think positively will do nothing for our stress levels.
The Nervous System is the Key to Unlocking Anxiety
When we feel anxious, it’s a sign that our nervous system is dysregulated. Feeling anxious means our nervous system feels unsafe
To reduce our anxiety, we need to create a sense of safety in the nervous system.
This is why we can’t out-think anxiety – because it’s not a mental problem. It’s a nervous system issue. If the prevailing feeling in our nervous system is unsafe, then we will stay stuck in the Stress Response.
When we try to use our thoughts and minds to recover from stress, we use the wrong tool for the job. Tools that discharge the stress hormones and calm the nervous system are far more effective at taming anxiety than thinking or analysing our thoughts.
Rather than a top-down (mind-based approach), healing anxiety requires a bottom-up approach which includes movement and the breath to create a sense of safety in the nervous system.
Yoga for Anxiety
Yoga is such an effective tool for alleviating anxiety because it is a bottom-up approach that focuses on being present in the body, mindful movement and breath regulation, all of which create a sense of safety in our nervous system.
When we feel safe in our body, our nervous system can relax. When our nervous system is relaxed and well-regulated, we will be able to think clearly and calmly.
Our yoga classes are designed with this in mind. We teach you how to connect with your body, how to feel again and how to be present with the breath. Our Vinyasa yoga classes are a moving meditation, and our Yin Yoga classes are mini-meditations in themselves. You can learn more about Yoga for Anxiety here.
If this resonates with you and you want to learn this bottom-up approach to healing anxiety, then check out our signature programs: