Stressed? Your brain's been hijacked! here's how meditation helps
Looking for a quick fix stress busting yoga practice?
As a yoga therapist and meditation teacher, I get asked about this ALL THE TIME.
“Can you give me a yoga practice to do when I’m having a stressy day?”
“What’s the best meditation for when I’m feeling burned out?”
It’s true that there are yoga techniques that will help you feel better at challenging times. But there is a MUCH easier - and more effective way - to deal with those stressy days...
Practice yoga and meditation when you’re NOT stressed.
Your brain has been hijacked
You’ve been worried about a presentation. You haven’t been sleeping well. Your financial situation’s a bit dicey. Your relationship’s going through a rough patch. These issues may not be immediately life threatening, but your brain responds as if you’re in mortal danger. You only have to THINK about one of these issues for your brain to scramble into emergency mode. This causes a cascade of activity in the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPAA).
- Your thalamus (in the middle of your brain) sounds the alarm first. Waves of the stimulating neurotransmitter norepinephrine flood the brain.
- Next, your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) kicks in, telling your organs to get ready to deal with the looming threat. Your digestive system shuts down, your heart beats faster, your capacity to bond with other people is overwhelmed by a self-protective vigilance.
- The hypothalamus triggers a cascade of hormonal responses that floods your system with the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol.
All this takes just a few seconds and your body and brain are now on high alert. As the parts of your brain that deal with primitive stress responses ramp up, the brain area that does all the reasoned thinking - the prefrontal cortex - takes a back seat. It’s like being on a runaway train with no brakes - your ability to control what happens (including your reactions) all but disappears. What’s more, your brain is now primed to look at the world through a negative lens.
If you are constantly experiencing a state of heightened stress (and that’s most of us in recent years), this emergency response becomes your default setting. And it has long term consequences for your physical and mental health. Chronic stress increases the risk of health problems including gastrointestinal issues, compromised immune system functioning, cardiovascular disease and endocrine dysfunction such as type 2 diabetes.
But it’s the mental health issues that can pack the biggest punch. Anxiety, depression and panic disorder are all triggered by this SNS/HPAA activation.
All of this makes it very hard to make good, reasoned decisions. Which is why it’s can be hard to apply yoga and meditation as a band-aid when you’re already stressed. In fact, trying to do calming breathing or a relaxation practice when your brain has been hijacked by stress hormones can sometimes feel stressful in itself - especially if you haven’t had much practice. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do yoga and meditation when you’re feeling anxious or burned out - it can certainly help. But the real magic happens when you practice on days when you’re feeling more chilled.
Practising yoga and meditation can have an instantaneous effect - triggering the parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for maintaining a steady, well functioning and relaxed state (the ‘rest and digest’ state). But regular practice can have a profound and long lasting effect, making it much easier to manage the tricky times.
When you regularly engage in yoga and meditation, you actually change the structure of your brain. The habitual ‘emergency’ responses that your brain and body have learned through ongoing exposure to stress are replaced by new, more supportive responses. The brain rewires itself so that you hardly ever need those ‘band-aid’ solutions in times of crisis. You’ve trained your brain to better manage its responses to whatever comes your way.
So next time you’re feeling frazzled, gift yourself some healing yoga. But then do it again the next day. And the day after that. And every subsequent day (even if it’s just 5 minutes!). That’s how you rewire your brain. And that changes EVERYTHING.
FREE Guided Breath Awareness Meditation.