Have you ever had one of those days where you get done with work and you are left feeling completely exhausted? You can barely wait to get home to have your glass of wine, make dinner, and get into bed.
When you finally get into bed, you rub your toes against the sheets and you feel the comfort of your pillow under your head. You close your eyes to fall asleep…
And then you’re staring up at the ceiling. No matter what you do, you cannot seem to turn your mind off. You start thinking about what happened that day. Thinking about what you need to do tomorrow. Thinking about your to-do list.
Yup, we know all about it: the weary inability to get off the stress hamster wheel.
During periods of stress or anxiety, the pesky racing thoughts at night are one of many ways that stress can affect our quality of life. The good news? Having a basic knowledge of what happens in the body and mind with stress gives us the ability to become aware what stress feels like and allows us to use yoga and mindfulness as tools to “take us off the hamster wheel.”
The Limbic System = How Stress is DETECTED
The stress response begins in the brain, specifically the limbic system (downstairs brain), setting off a chain reaction in response to a perceived threat by activating the brain’s emergency response system. When someone experiences a stressful event, the amygdala – an almond shape section of nervous tissues responsible for emotions, survival instincts, and memory – sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus – a small cone-shaped structure that functions as a command center for the autonomic nervous system and pituitary gland.
The hypothalamus then commands the body to respond to stress through the nervous system, a complex network of nerves and cells that carry messages between the brain, spinal cord, and the rest of the body.
The Nervous System = How Stress is RESPONDED to
The brain sends messages to the rest of the body through the spinal cord. Together, the brain and spinal cord comprise the central nervous system.
The central nervous system signals the peripheral nervous system, or all the nerves that innervate the body, to respond to stress.
Working in conjunction, the sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic nervous system are parts of the peripheral nervous system that is responsible for the involuntary regulation of internal organs and glands in the body.
Fight or Flight?! Sympathetic Nervous System
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is the body’s “fight or flight” response. The SNS is responsible for actions requiring quick responses. It initiates a series of physiological changes in the body by releasing stress hormones like cortisol. Blood, oxygen, and energy are shunted to the torso, arms, and legs to allow us to “fight or flight.” Acute and chronic psychological factors such as stress and anxiety can increase its activity.
Rest and Digest… Parasympathetic Nervous System
The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is responsible for the “rest and digest” activities that occur in a body at rest or relaxation. Complementary to the sympathetic nervous system, the PNS modulates slower actions in the body to recover from stressful events. Blood, oxygen, and energy return to the digestive and reproductive organs to allow us to “rest and digest.” This is the relaxation response.
Generally, the sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic nervous system work in opposition to one another. So when the sympathetic nervous system is more active, the parasympathetic nervous system activity decreases, and vice versa.
How do I get on the Hamster Wheel anyway?
The limbic system (downstairs brain) is able to send information to the body as a response to perceived stress without first communicating with the rest of the brain. Remember, threats do not need to be physically present, or physical threats to our safety, to trigger stress in the body. They can be psychologically perceived; public speaking and test anxiety are common examples of perceived stress.
Within milliseconds of assigning a threat, the limbic system triggers a rise in heart rate, breath rate, blood pressure, and muscular tension. Rest and digest functions shut down and fight or flight is activated. The communication between the body and the brain produces a stress feedback loop: stress signals from the brain produce changes in the body, and these changes reinforce stress in the brain.
teaching activity: personify the stress response
To make this easier for students to understand, you can personify the stress response in the mind and body with characters that portray them. Introduce students to the domino effect of the stress response, from the activity in the limbic system to the response of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Then, start to brainstorm who lives in the mind and body (for younger students, it may be helpful to come up with names yourself).
The limbic system characters are feelers who are focused on our safety and survival. These characters identify dangers, spark emotions, and respond quickly (see our brain resource for more information).
Ideas: Anxious Andy, Angry Amy
When the limbic system characters detect a potential threat, they signal the sympathetic nervous system characters to respond. The sympathetic nervous system initiates a response through fight, flight, or freeze.
Ideas: Fighting Fiona, Flighty Flynn, Frozen Fred
While the sympathetic nervous system is responding, the parasympathetic nervous system characters are sitting by idly until the threat passes. Once the threat passes, the sympathetic characters calm down and the parasympathetic nervous system characters resume their normal rest and digest functions.
Ideas: Resting Remy, Digesting Diana
Let your students know our stress response is important. Ask your students when stress reactions would be safest. For younger students, start with unlikely situations so that they do not get scared.
Then, brainstorm when these responses may not be to our advantage. What if we were always in a state of fight, flight or freeze? What if our stress response makes us unable to respond to an important situation?
By doing this activity, you work with your students to establish a shared language to understand and more freely communicate their stress response. It also helps to remove the personalization and judgment around our reactions and enables students to learn functional ways to have conversations about them.
teaching activity: draw the domino effect
Ask a student volunteer to trace their body on a large sheet of paper. On the paper, draw what happens during the stress response: how stress goes from the brain to the rest of the body.
So… how do I get off?
Evidence shows that yoga and mindfulness can help to reduce stress (Li & Goldsmith, 2012; Birdee, Yeh, & Gardiner, 2009). Yoga’s effects on stress can be explained by a couple of mechanisms. First, yoga combines an active practice with relaxation. Research has shown active practices followed by relaxing practices trigger deeper relaxation than relaxing practices alone (McCall, 2007).
Second, yoga may modulate the physical effects of stress by reducing perceived stress and increasing self-compassion. This may help the mind deal with stress more effectively and lessen its toll on the body (Gard et al., 2012).
let’s release that tension
Stress typically stores itself in your neck, shoulders, and low back. Here are our four favorite stress releasing activities.
Why it works:
Relieves stress in the neck
Why it works:
Relieves stress in the shoulders
Why it works:
Relieves stress in the low back and the center of the shoulders
Why it works:
By breathing into the belly, we interrupt the stress feedback loop and trigger rest and digest in the body