My dog Dos got into a scuffle with another dog on the beach a few months ago. The other dog was a lot bigger than him and Dos kept jumping out of the way to avoid being bitten. I was terrified. The other dog’s person finally stepped in and reached for the dog’s collar. Dos looked around, noticed he was no longer being chased, and ran down the beach shaking himself off. He bounded back and forth for a few minutes and then we went home and he slept it off.
I didn’t get out of it so easily. Although I had stood frozen in place during the encounter, I could feel a tell-tale jumpiness in my muscles and a certain shortness of breath. I wanted to run. Turns out, I should have. The entire day, the feeling of jumpiness persisted, eventually wearing off into a state of exhaustion that led to an uneasy sleep.
Fear, anger and stress all click on the same fight-or-flight state of arousal. This fight-or-flight response (also called fight/flight/freeze) works just as did for our ancestors who needed to run from woolly mammoths, bears and tigers. Our adrenals go into overdrive. The whole body mobilizes to protect and defend, primarily within the sympathetic nervous system. Being pissed off or scared stirs up a hormonal cocktail that help us flee or fight out way out of hairy situations. The problem is that these days – we don’t.
Instead of running, modern life tends to find us anchored to ergonomic chairs, subway benches, and car seats while rage or fear boil inside. Sitting still when our muscles are flooded with cortisol and adrenaline is toxic. Left unattended, these stress hormones steep into our muscles and course through the bloodstream. They keep us in an activated state of sympathetic arousal. The tiniest triggers set us off. Meanwhile the other long-term tasks of the sympathetic nervous system have to be set aside because the fight-flight response takes precedence. The sympathetic nervous system controls functions that we generally consider to be out of our conscious control: internal organs, digestion, cellular respiration, body temperature, pH levels to name a few). And after a while fight-flight becomes our new normal. Welcome to the land of chronic stress.
So – shocker – couch-potato-ing and movie marathon-ing aren’t going to clear us of the toxic cocktail of stress hormones. On the other hand, vigorous exercise – a fast-paced vinyasa yoga class or a quick run – push the adrenaline out of our system before it can turn into poison. A good yoga class is meant to cycle through the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system so that both get a thorough workout. This is one reason why typical yoga classes follow an arc or bell-curve of intensity.
This doesn’t take a lot of time – you don’t have to start training for a marathon. I find that running a quick mile (eight to ten minutes) is enough to run off the rage.
Once we’ve processed the adrenaline properly, we can move to the rest-and-digest phase. The parasympathetic nervous system manages this relaxation response. The yoga tradition offers plenty of way to activate this system – through calming habits like restorative yoga, meditation, and pranayama. But yoga isn’t the only answer. Anything that you love to do has the potential to activate this relaxation response. Golf anyone?
This is part of a series of articles about managing challenging emotions. Tomorrow’s post is about metta or lovingkindness meditation and the way that this practice has the capacity to transform afflictive mind states. For more posts in this series: