Fighting Off Fight-or-Flight
Back in the day—oh, maybe 2.5 million years ago—the fight-or-flight response was a necessary survival mechanism for our ancestors who were fleeing hungry cave lions or foraging for food. This natural rise in cortisol and adrenaline in the face of danger has remained hardwired into our biology.
Today, we face different kinds of terrors—work deadlines, childcare scheduling glitches, a global pandemic—but they trigger the same physiological response: increased heart rate and blood pressure, a surge of stress hormones, slowed digestion. When this happens on a daily basis, rather than helping to keep us safe it can overtax our nervous system, “easily transforming into chronic stress that affects our health and wellbeing,” explains MYX coach Lauren Sambataro.
Here are some simple strategies to use in those stressful moments to calm yourself down and bring your system back into balance.
“Deep breathing draws more oxygen into the body, increases the supply of oxygen to your brain, and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a state of calm,” says MYX coach Donna Scro Samori. “Breathwork can help regulate the heart rate, and reduce feelings of anxiety.” There are many breathwork techniques, but the simplest is to just take some nice deep inhalations through the nose and then some long, slow exhalations through the mouth. (In fact, trying to breathe to a certain count that you’re not accustomed to can actually cause more anxiety.) Make sure to focus on the exhale: “When people are stressed, they tend to inhale and then hold their breath,” says coach Lauren. “The exhale is when you activate the vagus nerve and your parasympathetic nervous system.”
Humming, OMing, or … gargling
Yep, you read that right! One of the easiest ways to stimulate the vagus nerve (and the parasympathetic nervous system) is by humming, chanting (including the sound of OM familiar to yogis), even gargling. That’s because the vagus nerve is connected to your vocal chords and the muscles at the back of your throat; using your voice in this way stimulates the nerve, increasing our vagal tone and heart rate variability (HRV). According to coach Lauren, high vagal tone is associated with less inflammation, lower cortisol, and lower resting heart rate and blood pressure. “As well as calming us down in the moment, a high vagal tone increases our resilience, making it easier to handle stress the next time around.”
You already know that regular exercise offers lots of stress-busting benefits: decreased overall tension, elevated and stabilized mood, improved sleep. Physical activity also triggers the release of endorphins, “feel-good” chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers. As far as which type of workout is best to battle the stress response, there’s really no one right answer. “I might want to sweat it out to some good music on a hard ride to move my energy,” says coach Donna, “while someone who feels like they’re jumping out of their skin may need to ‘down-regulate’ with a yoga practice.” Other types of movement that won’t overstress you physically include mobility, low-intensity cardio, or maybe a small dose of HIIT, says Lauren. All are helpful for restoring a sense of calm.
Since all emotionally reactive states begin with a thought, part of rewiring your stress response involves figuring out how it started. “Journaling can be a great way to get clear about what’s going on, what’s causing your stress, and help you prioritize if you’re feeling overwhelmed,” says Donna. You’ll get to know yourself better by articulating your most private fears, thoughts, and feelings. (And don’t worry about writing complete sentences—free-form stream-of-consciousness works fine!)
“Right now, people are having a lot of sleep issues, and journaling is a great way to ‘empty the trash’”—get troubling thoughts out of your head and onto paper— “before you go to sleep,” says Lauren. “If you go to sleep with a brain full of worry you won’t go into your active recovery.”
If you can plan some journaling time in advance, think of it as a way to de-stress and wind down. Write in a place where you feel relaxed, maybe with a cup of tea.
Leaning in to stress: You’ve got this!
As useful as these calming tools are, “it’s important to look at how we are in relationship with stress,” Donna says. “There’s no such thing as a stress-free life—that’s not realistic, especially now. And actually, we need a certain amount of stress (read: challenges) to grow, to change. It’s the same as the body: If you don’t stress the muscles you don’t get stronger.
“So the goal is not to get rid of the stress; it’s more about leaning into it, telling yourself, ‘I’ve got this!’ ” It’s about learning to be with stress, yet knowing when to reach into your toolbox for one of these relaxation techniques.