How to manage and arrest the STRESS RESPONSE by Brenda Strong
Even for a Yoga Teacher, life is stressful. Honestly, this year has been rough for me. Last weekend, I went to my 93 year-old aunt’s memorial in California, after a car had struck her while she was crossing the street. In July, my mother in law passed away in Texas. It seems that between my own mother passing away in January, our house on it’s 17th month of a major remodel, my son starting high-school, and dealing with numerous other difficult personal situations, I have been subject to a lot of emotional stress this year. I realize now after having dealt with infertility, stress isn’t something that goes away once you are a parent, or even a Yoga Teacher. It’s something that one needs to manage daily. Dealing with reproductive difficulties has been shown to have the equivalent stress, depression and anxiety levels of someone diagnosed with aids or cancer. Life is stressful enough without adding infertility to the mix!
So how do we pursue our dreams of building our family without killing ourselves with stress? Learning to sit with the discomfort of life’s uncertainty is the key.
It’s complicated and simple at the same time. The old adage, “what happens to you, doesn’t create stress, it’s your reaction to what happens to you.”
What are reactions? Simply put, they are a series of emotional responses based on thinking or events that trigger the fight or flight response in the sympathetic nervous system. This reaction causes a series of physical responses like increased blood flow to the large muscle groups in the extremities, elevated heart rate, a flood of stress hormones into our blood stream, and a shut down of our digestive and reproductive organs. This reaction was very helpful in previous centuries when we needed to run for our lives (if a large animal was going to eat us for lunch, or if we needed to rescue a drowning child) or when life and survival depended on our quick reactions to danger. However, this “reptilian” part of our brain now gets triggered by simpler events; a traffic jam, financial worry, a call from our doctor about test results, or even a long line at Starbucks when we are running late. This type of chronic and recurring stress is taking a toll on those of us who are trying to conceive and on our health and vitality in general. Chronic stress creates “dis-ease” in the body. Hence discomfort. So how do we “sit with this discomfort”?
I was thrilled when I saw a recent study entitled, Clinical Implications of Neuroscience Research in PTSD by Bessel A. Van Der Kolk at Boston University School of Medicine. They have now documented the value of yoga and meditation for arresting the stress response for those suffering from PTSD. The effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is something I have been close to for years since my husband served two tours in Vietnam. I have watched him intuitively find coping strategies through his practice of yoga and meditation, which has helped him to manage his stress over the 23 years we’ve been together. For women going through reproductive difficulties this is wonderful news indeed, since the uncertainty of conceiving causes their stress levels to be extremely high. When we do yoga, it helps to detoxify our bodies, release stress accumulated in the muscles and tissues, and increases positive feelings through the release of the “feel good” hormones. Yoga for fertility moves us out of the sympathetic nervous system into the parasympathetic (relaxation response), helps to balance hormones in the endocrine system and increase blood flow to reproductive organs.
But how do we prolong the benefits of that “relaxed” post yoga feel? How do we practice yoga off the mat? The key is learning that when our “reactions and discomfort” start to kick in, we have a plan to meet that discomfort with space and awareness. Learning to “be with” rather than fight the feelings that accompany stress, gives us the buffer we need. This doesn’t mean we indulge or resist the feelings, but look at them with curiosity and watch what is happening to us and learn what the thought and feeling- triggers are. This gives us enough room to learn to respond instead of react, or take us out of reaction and into “response-ability”.
I know with the year of stressful circumstances I’ve had, these few key reminders have helped me when faced with daily difficulties.
- 1. Be aware of your breath. Pause and take a deep breath often. Close your eyes and visualize that breath going deep into your abdomen, (8-10 counts) and as you exhale, (8-10 counts) relax the tight feeling in the pit of your belly where we hold fear. Continue to breathe, looking for hidden tension that you may be holding in your jaw, shoulders, and hips. Scan your body from head to toe, breathing into all the tight places and letting them release. Do this for 2-10 minutes or until your system calms down. If you know yogic ujjayi breath, even better.
- 2. Notice your thoughts. Our thoughts have the power to influence our moods and our sense of well being which in turn will impact our hormones. As soon as we think a thought that leads us down a path toward worry, fear, anger or hopelessness, stress begins to take hold in the body, our heart rate increases, the hormones adrenaline and cortisol course through our body and we are hijacked into a stress response. Notice when these negative thoughts start to form and replace them with positive ones of appreciation. Stress thoughts usually project us into future worry or past regret. Use your breath to bring you back to your body and the present moment. (See Step 1) Then reframe your thoughts to acknowledge that you are okay right now. Take time to appreciate yourself daily and acknowledge the things that are working. If you can keep a journal and at the end of each day write down 3-5 things that you appreciate about yourself that day or were personal “wins” you can start to not feel so overwhelmed. Placing these things in the forefront of our mind before sleep can help the next day start on a positive note and starts to put a reserve of well being in our mind and body.
- 3. Put your attention on your body. To release tension and to bring you present, close your eyes and notice your sit bones. Notice if they are even, or uneven, if they are heavy or light, what is the sensation in your hips and legs? Notice if you have your weight even or imbalanced. Where is the weight in your feet? Inside edge or outside edge? Is each foot different? Bringing your awareness into your body right now, brings you present in a non-judgmental and observant way. Your attention is now on noticing and not on spinning out of control. It has a way of grounding the energy in your body. Most of us are only living from the neck up in the thinking world and once we bring our awareness into the field of the body it grounds us into reality. Using our mind to observe our physical body helps to occupy us and reframe the thoughts that disconnect us from ourselves. We become the observer of our experience and can “sit with discomfort” consciously.
- 4. Count to ten. My mother used to do this when she felt stressed in her parenting practice so she could respond to us instead of react. I think this is one of the simplest stress disrupters, particularly if you are in an argument with someone that starts to escalate and send you into fight or flight. It might be considered a “time out” for adults.
- 5. Practice Forgiveness: A lot of our stress is caused from our thinking and feeling like what ever is occurring to us, “shouldn’t be happening”. We then have a tremendous amount of self-criticism and judgment about ourselves for not being more ‘fill in the blank’ (whole, perfect, successful, balanced, patient, loving, healthy, fit, etc) We think something is “wrong” with us and then we beat ourselves up. One of the biggest keys to well being, is learning to forgive yourself for what ever “is”. I can’t tell you how many women after working with me doing Strong Yoga4FertilityÔ say they finally forgave their body and then subsequently got pregnant. The mind and body are an intricate communication system, trust me, what ever you are thinking, your body is listening. So, when you are hard on yourself, try saying to yourself, “I forgive myself for judging myself for”…fill in the blank. This can work wonders in healing the self-flagellation cycle that leads to depression and anxiety.
- 6. Remember Life is a Journey: Remember how annoyed your parents were when you were on a family road trip and incessantly asked, “Are we there yet?” Often times when you are trying to conceive, the goal of getting pregnant and having a baby is so dominant that we only focus on the fact that we don’t have the goal yet. We forget that this is a journey, and that “getting there” is more enjoyable when we can be where we are now and enjoy the scenery. In other words, if you place your attention on the here and now and find some appreciation for the present, the future will take care of itself. There is a gift here for you somewhere, whether it is learning to love yourself more, heal your body, or deal with the dynamics of your relationship- try to remember that this is a journey, and “how” your baby comes to you is beyond your control. (If it was within our control all the A-Type women would be mothers by now!) If you are committed to being a parent, your baby is on its way to you, it just may look different than you thought. Just like the Grand Canyon did after the long drive there in the family car.
Learning to sit with the discomfort of life and breathe is the gift that infertility offers us. You’ll need it for the rest of the ride ahead.
All rights reserved. Ó Sept. 2009 Illuminating Artists, Inc
Brenda Strong sits on the board of The American Fertility Association and serves as the organizations National Spokesperson. She is a certified 500hr EYRT Yoga teacher and the creator of Strong Yoga4FertilityÔ, which has helped women world wide get pregnant. For more info visit www.yoga4fertility.com or email her at