“The body keeps the score.” Bessel A van der Kolk
This simple quote reveals so much about what we are just beginning to understand about the science of chronic stress. Dr. van der Kolk, a researcher who studies the effect of yoga on stress and trauma, is reminding us that the body stores up life’s messes and stresses.
Stress enters through our senses (what we hear, see, smell, and feel) and the nervous system. All that we perceive is processed through the brain. The brain is then involved in little or large reactions that are physical, physiological, mental and emotional. We store up knowing how to flee the tiger, deal with a long, uncertain period of unemployment, make the next deadline, or deal with the next difficult person.
The problem with chronic, unrelenting stress is that if we don’t discharge and unwind, our body runs on what I call “reaction overdrive.” Chronic stress often plays out in body tension and pain, headaches, sleeplessness, fatigue, mental fog, increased blood pressure, elevated heart rate, gastrointestinal problems, anxiety and depression.
Yoga helps reduce stress and the symptoms of stress by:
- Gentle, breath-supported movement that helps dislodge the issues from the tissues
- Breath practices that re-train and tune the nervous system to be able to handle life’s normal stresses without going into overdrive
- Yoga philosophy teachings on the nature of the mind that can help usunderstand and work with thought patterns
- Mental techniques, including self-inquiry and meditation, that help us identify and change disruptive, negative thoughts, attitudes and behaviors
- Other techniques such as the use of sound/chanting to calm the nervous system and focus the mind
Breath-supported gentle movement is often the doorway in to feeling embodied again after periods of chronic stress. The body begins to feel as if it’s connected to the brain. And once that connection is more fully established, it provides avenues to begin to explore more deeply the sources of stress, how we react to them and how we can develop more productive, life-affirming thoughts, attitudes and behaviors.
We can live life’s messes and stresses over and over again, building up a toxic load for our body, mind and spirit or we can take steps to deal with past stress and the day-to-day stresses through positive action.