Ever feel out of sorts? Stressed? Anxious? You wouldn’t be human if you haven’t. What happens? Heart races, stomach tightens up, perspiration, shallow breath. Suddenly you’re in the thralls of a physiological “stress response” regulated by the autonomic nervous system (sympathetic in this case).
If you remember from Part I, Merriam-Webster’s definition of Balance included not only physical equilibrium but also, mental and emotional steadiness.1
To consider how to achieve mental and emotional balance, we should reflect on the forces, which might teeter us into a state of unsteadiness. Some things that can throw us off are:
- Stress (including unintended life circumstances)
- Daily habits (including taking on more than we can handle)
I’ll discuss stress and it’s affects on the autonomic nervous system. And I’ll also look into how we can find balance by cutting out habits that may be weighing us down unintentionally. And doing this all in the face of knowing that the only constant is change. Life throws us boulders sometimes, this, we know. We just have to know how to dodge them and stand on our grounded feet.
Stressful life circumstances are definitely up there on the list of things that can send us swaying to the side. Hans Selye, MD, first coined the term stress under the general adaptation syndrome (GAS). He demonstrated that a stress-induced breakdown of the hormonal system could lead to conditions, such as heart disease and high blood pressure, which he called “diseases of adaptation.”2
In a recent article, Bruce McEwen wrote, “Stress is a state of the mind, involving both brain and body as well as their interactions; it differs among individuals and reflects not only major life events but also the conflicts and pressures of daily life that alter physiological systems to produce a chronic stress burden that, in turn, is a factor in the expression of disease.”3
Seeing the picture? Stress is in the mind, literally, and thereby affects the body. The author notes that the sympathetic nervous systems activation increases inflammatory cytokine production, which in turn increases glucocorticoid (hormones such as cortisol or epinephrine) production. Click this link for a succinct description on the balance of glucocorticoids in the stress response. On the other hand he notes, the parasympathetic system counterbalances by having an anti-inflammatory effect. There is a delicate balance, called allostasis, which is the body’s ability to regain homeostasis.
McEwen goes onto report that the core of allostasis in the stress response of humans lies in “how individuals perceive and have or do not have confidence in their ability to cope with the burdens of life experiences.”3 So our stress and subsequent memories produced during those stressful times affects your ability to get back to balance, or homeostasis. Remember that part above about glucocorticoids increasing during sympathetic activation? Well, glucocorticoid receptors have been discovered on the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory. It’s no wonder then that these hormones have been found to be active in promoting memory of adverse events. And that there is shrinkage of the hippocampus in those with cognitive impairment, Alzheimer’s, Type II Diabetes, prolonged depression, chronic inflammation (see my previous post “Chronic Inflammation, Could it be Making you Depressed”), chronic pain, and lack of physical activity.
So, a healthy/appropriate stress response –>happy hippocampus –> a better, balanced you, despite the amount of stress in your life.
This leads us to finding better balance with your daily schedule. There are so many distractions out there to take our attention away from our tasks and goals and more importantly, from the enjoyable experiences in life. Think of that bar on the side of your internet browser or Facebook page that boasts of losing weight or exotic travels….we are enticed by anything that takes us away from the things we should/could be doing. How many times do you check your ______ (email, Facebook , etc. fill in the blank) during the day? Or what time do you eat dinner? When do you go to bed? Wake up? These are our samskaras, or habits, or our patterns.
The Sanskrit word samskara comes from sam (complete or joining together) and kara (action, cause or doing).5 Not all of our samskaras are negative. We certainly have positive habits in which we engage. Making time to play with our kids. Setting time to volunteer our time. Or making time to exercise during the week. But our negative samskaras are what keep us from maintaining the balance that we so adamantly seek. Develop a new sankalpa (intention). And see it to completion with tapas (practice/intensity). In the words of the late Michael Jackson, “I’m starting with the man in the mirror. I’m asking him to make a change. If you want to make the world (your life) a better place (more balanced), take a look at yourself and make a change.” (Quote italics added for emphasis).
Finally the stuff you can use!
How can your yoga practice help you to find balance in daily life? Try these 4 things:
1. Develop a new sankalpa: What is one thing in your day that you could change that would make all the difference? What is one habit that if you changed it today, you would have more time with your kids, get more sleep, find time to travel, to exercise, to breath, etc.?
- Find one thing to change.
- Write it down.
- Mark off on your calendar when you did this one thing
- Do this for a month (30 days)
- Experience balance knowing that you can do it if you just use tapas (sorry, not those little appetizer plates)
- Try again the next month with the same thing, or try something new
- Continue to experience living in balance, knowing that all your efforts are going towards being the best you.
2. Physical Activity: Simple, add it to your life!
- Walk a little more.
- Start a daily yoga practice—Yoga postures (asanas) are physical activity! McEwen notes that physical activity has increased hippocampal activity in previously sedentary adults.3 And while conventional Western approaches to managing emotions and stress tend to rely on verbal interaction and pharmacology, Eastern cultures root their healing and emotional management in body based techniques (yoga, meditation, breath practice and acupuncture). Yoga has been found to alter the autonomic nervous system, reducing anxiety and regulating the body’s stress response. 4
- Garden, bike, hike, play with your kids, play with your spouse, join an exercise group that motivates you to get out there. “Exercise” at work is not like exercising for the sake of exercise. Do it because it feels good, not because you have to!
3. Breathe: While breathing takes place outside of our conscious effort, we DO have control of it on some level. Actually, breathing is under both voluntary and involuntary control via complex feedback mechanisms involving our seat of emotions (limbic system), the seat of executive control and planning (pre-frontal cortex) and our centers for immunity (neuroendocrine system). 4
Didn’t think you could regulate your brain balance just by modifying your breath? Now you know, you can!
Relax the space around the chest and shoulders, allowing the movement to come into the belly and lower ribs. The breath should be comfortable, without strain.
Try these techniques:
a. Paced Breathing: breathing to a count, metronome or paced visual cue. Click this link for a handout.
i. Try matching your inhale to your exhale….Inhale 1, 2, 3, 4 Exhale 1, 2, 3, 4.
ii. Or slow the exhale to twice as long as the inhale……Inhale 1,2, 3, 4 Exhale 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.
b. Alternate Nostril Breath: Alternate nostril breath (nadi sodhana) has been shown to modulate cardiac autonomic function. They found that breathing at a rate of 5 breaths per minute was effective, whether it was alternate nostril breath, or paced breathing. By using the breath, one can shift the nervous system towards parasympathetic dominance.6 Click this link for a handout and directions.
4. Utilize Technology: There are some easy to use, FREE apps out there for your devices that help you to regulate the breath, play calming music and just remind you to take a break. See above for that sankalpa.
a. Breathe2Relax: This app has education about the fight or flight response, about diaphragmatic breathing, takes you through a breath pacer training, tracks your progress and lets your take notes on your triggers. Click here for the app for Android. Click here for app for iphone/ipad.
b. GPS4theSoul: This app allows you to set reminders to check in with yourself, provides set up to enter in music, mantra/quotes of inspiration to use when you are feeling stressed and includes a breath pacer. Click here for the app for iphone/ipad, Android.
Consider the 90/10 rule. Ten percent of life is what happens to us. Ninety percent is how we react to it. So yes, stress is ever-present and life circumstances continue to knock us off our feet. But you can control how your mind and thus, your body react. And that will make all the difference in the world.
Balance is a complex task, physically and mentally. From the big toe up to the brain and back again….you will find challenges at every step. Keep practicing and in a week, a month, a year, 5 years…..you will see change—it’s the only constant, right?
I welcome your feedback and hope that if you find this helpful, you will share with your colleagues and your friends. Click here to Contact Tianna to see how she can help you with improving your balance through an integration of your senses via therapeutic yoga and physical therapy.
- McEwen, B. (2012). Brain on stress: How the social environment gets under the skin. PNAS, 102(9), 17180–17185. doi: doi/10.1073/pnas.1121254109
- Moore, M., Brown, D., Money, N., & Bates, M. (2011). Mind-body skills for managing the autonomic nervous system. Defense Centers Of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury, (2),
- Forbes, B. (n.d.). Stuck in a rut?. Yoga Journal, Retrieved from http://www.yogajournal.com/lifestyle/1318
- Ghiya S, Lee CM (2012). Influence of alternate nostril breathing on heart rate variability in non-practitioners of yogic breathing. Int J Yoga. Jan-Jun; 5(1): 66–69.
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