Flight or Fight: The Modern Stress Response
Our lives are constructed with ease in mind. Modern conveniences minimise the effort we need to perform daily tasks and technological advances ensure that life should only get easier with each new year. Yet we work much longer hours, often forfeiting the extra time that the modern conveniences we work to pay for provide. All this extra desk time could be paying its toll, as statistically we are under more stress than ever with 526,000 workers suffering from work related stress, depression or anxiety (new or long-standing) in 2016/17.
Anatomically we are not designed to sit at a desk for 8-10 hours every day, with additional seated time commuting to and from work. Over time we are seriously constricting our psoas muscle which has bigger implications that you might initially think. And for many this may be the first time that you’ve even heard of the psoas. So what is it and why is it so important?
What Is The Psoas Muscle and Where Will You Find It?
The psoas is a rope-like muscle rooted deep in the stomach, stretching from the legs to the spinal column. In addition to connecting the legs to the spinal column the psoas is also connected to the diaphragm which modulates your breathing.
The psoas often referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ muscle due to its intrinsic connection to the body’s emotions. When the body is under duress (be it stress, anxiety or trauma), the psoas contracts. Pulling the body into a protective shape (think of a foetal shape, with knees bent and in toward the chest). Sitting for extended periods of time shortens the psoas and in its shortened state the psoas confuses the body into thinking it is under duress, triggering a ‘flight or fight’ response from the body.
What happens during a Fight or Flight Response?
The term “fight or flight” describes a mechanism in the body that enables humans and animals to mobilise a lot of energy rapidly in order to cope with threats to survival. In this state the body releases hormones via the sympathetic nervous system such as adrenalin and cortisol, that cause changes to occur throughout the body. Changes include; an increase in heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate. Typically it can take between 20 and 60 minutes for the body to normalise after the threat as gone.
This is all fine when the body is presented with real danger but the ‘fight or flight’ response is often triggered in situations where it isn’t appropriate such as heavy traffic or during a stressful day at work. These aren’t isolated events either, chances are if you’re suffering from work related stress its a daily or weekly occurrence. In normal circumstances the body will regulate itself following a trigger situation and return to normal function, but in our times of chronic stress, this isn’t allowed to happen, the result of which is long term and repeated damage to the body.
How to manage your response to stress
One of the ways the body manages stress is via the vagus nerve. Often referred to as the ‘wandering nerve’, the vagus nerve is a long rambling bundle of motor and sensory fibres that link the brain stem to most of the bodies vital organs, including; the heart, lungs, intestine, liver, spleen, gall bladder, ureter, kidney, female fertility organs, ears and tongue. Responsible for powering up the parasympathetic nervous system (the body’s involuntary nerve centre), the vagus nerve helps to regulate many of the body’s functions, from maintaining a healthy blood pressure to a constant heart rate.
If you have ever been told to trust your gut instinct you are essentially being told to trust your vagus nerve. The management and processing of emotions between the heart, brain and gut happens via the vagal nerve, which is why we have a strong gut reaction to intense mental and emotional states.
However, poor vagal tone can lead to difficulties managing emotions in addition to responding appropriately to stress (among other things). Common triggers that impact negatively on the health of the vagus nerve include; cafeteria diets (such as high fat, high carb junk foods), diabetes, alcoholism, upper respiratory viral infections, stress, fatigue, anxiety and even poor posture.
Yoga for Stress Management
The good news however, is that yoga can help to both stretch your psoas muscle and tone your vagus nerve, working toward harmonic personal stress management. Warrior sequences incorporating crescent lunge all help to elongate the psoas undoing the damage of sitting for extended periods.
Look at sequences that incorporate:
- Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I)
- Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II)
- Crescent Lunge
- Anjaneyasana (low lunge)
- Parsvakonasana (side angle pose)
- Paripurna Navasana (full boat pose)
- Wind relieving pose (laying on your back, knees bent in to chest)
- Sukhasana (Easy pose: sitting cross legged with a straight back)
You may be surprised to know that practicing yogic breathing or diaphragmatic breathing can help to tone/stimulate your vagus nerve.
- Inhale for the count of 4 and
- Exhale for the count of 6
Try to keep your exhalation longer than your inhalation. As you inhale you activate you sympathetic response (the heart rate accelerates, and the vagus nerve is suppressed), as you exhale you activate the parasympathetic response (slowing the heart rate and activating the vagus nerve). Lengthening the exhalation activates the vagus nerve for longer, ultimately toning the nerve. Vagal tone refers to the variability between the heart rate on the inhale and the exhale. The higher your vagal tone, the greater the heart rate variability, which means that your body will find it easier to switch from fight or flight mode to rest and digest mode, reducing the impact of stress.