The Human Stress Response

The primary function of the human stress response is to prepare your body for an immediate explosive burst of energy in response to an emergency. The muscles need energy in the most usable form, rather than stored away elsewhere in your body for future use. Heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate increase, all to help transport nutrients and oxygen at increased rates. 

If your blood pressure rises to sprint from a lion, you are being adaptive. But when you put your heart, blood vessels, and kidneys into overdrive every time something irritates you, the risk of heart disease increases. If you’ve ever just barely avoided a collision while driving, you’re probably very familiar with this type of response. But what typically follows that all-too-familiar immediate rush of the sympathetic nervous system after a close call on the highway is not ideal. You’re trapped in your car and you probably just continue driving. Your inherent instinct is to jump out of the car and run a few laps, but it’s rare that you would have the opportunity to put that stress response to good use in the middle of your morning commute.

When faced with a stressful situation, your body naturally generates stress hormones such as adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine. This response is facilitated through the most primitive and reactive parts of the brain, so you have very little control of it. These hormones rush through the blood vessels, instructing organs to focus on emergency activities like powering your heart and large muscle groups to prepare to escape from the threat (whether it be physical or emotional.) Functions such as digestion and immunity are neglected while the brain prioritizes the body’s ability to either fight or flee.

If you are activating the sympathetic nervous system all the time and living in a constant state of high-alert, you’re chronically dialing down the parasympathetic. This makes it harder to find a state of relaxation, even during those rare moments when you’re not feeling stressed. The result is high blood pressure, disordered digestion, and a compromised immune system. 

Yoga For Anxiety

Aerobic exercise reduces levels of the body’s residual stored stress hormones. It also stimulates the production of endorphins (the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators.) And most of all, you reduce tension if you actually use the stress-response for its intended purpose — utilizing this sudden burst of energy — instead of white-knuckle gripping the steering wheel or silently gritting your teeth in the middle of a board meeting. Using large muscle groups in a rhythmic, repetitive fashion works best, and stretching exercises that help to relax your muscles will help relax your mind as well. We do all of this during yoga. 

According to the publication Progress in Brain Research, there is a significant decrease in cortisol and other stress hormones in the bloodstream after a yoga class. Practicing yoga can help to recalibrate proper homeostatic cortisol levels regardless of whether they’re too high or too low. In today’s modern society, I think it’s probably pretty rare to find a case of someone with a deficiency of stress hormones! (The exception would be someone with Addison’s Disease, which manifests as an inability of the adrenal glands to manufacture sufficient cortisol.) 

The Relaxation Response

Though it’s not in response to an emergency, when we practice a yoga posture, the brain manufactures hormones to prepare your body for that burst of energy. And when we lie in savasana between the postures, we teach the body to achieve a state of relaxation more quickly. We are bolstering the body’s ability to transition from stimulation to relaxation more efficiently.

In other words, we provide the body with practice alternating between the stress response (sympathetic nervous system activation) and the relaxation response (parasympathetic nervous system activation). While at rest, the body is no longer exclusively devoted to powering your heart and large muscle groups, so that resources can be diverted to reducing inflammation and permitting the immune system to identify pathogens and fight infection. 

Top 6 Yoga Postures for Anxiety

As a hot yoga practitioner for over 15 years, I found that I am constantly improving my ability to consciously activate the relaxation response when facing a stressful situation. I attribute it to consistent daily practice of Bikram yoga postures. Through repetition, I feel like I am giving my mind a break from active thinking. Instead, my body and mind work together to effectively toggle between the stress and relaxation responses. I notice this effect in the final six (6) postures in a Hot Yoga class:

  1. Half Tortoise (Ardha Kurmasana). Similar to “child’s pose,” this posture takes minimal effort and provides maximum relaxation response. Do this posture anywhere, at any time!
  2. Camel Pose (Ustrasana). Notice the difficulty breathing in a deep backward bend. We are activating the human stress response (sympathetic nervous system). Focus on your breath, rather than your depth, in this posture, and your nervous system will adjust!
  3. Rabbit Pose (Sasangasana). This amazing counter-pose to the Camel Pose activates the parasympathetic nervous system, or the relaxation response. Performing this after Camel Pose gives us a healthy “reset.”
  4. Head to Knee Pose (Janusirasana). The physiological effect here is similar to Rabbit Pose, but I love the extra stretch on the hamstrings.
  5. Stretching Pose (Paschimottanasana). One of the most traditional hatha yoga postures, this pose deeply activates the relaxation response with the entire backside body stretch, relieving hamstrings, hips, and lower back.
  6. Half Spine Twist Pose (Ardha Matsayendrasana). A growing amount of anecdotal evidence suggests that spine twisting postures promote “vagal tone.” The Vagus nerve feeds the visceral organs and is acutely involved in the human stress and relaxation response. This is a whole other subject we can write about, so stay tuned!

Uncertainty and Panic During a Global Disaster

Fear and anxiety during challenges like a global pandemic are automated responses of those primitive parts of the brain, and it’s more difficult for your body to maintain hormonal balance. In times like this, you might be experiencing feelings of uncertainty or panic. It’s unhealthy to attempt to stifle these emotions. However — as intelligent human beings — we are able to recognize them and control our response to them. Any type of exercise will help balance these hormone levels, but yoga additionally helps provide coping strategies and helps to regulate emotions Yoga teaches balance and resilience.

Social Isolation

Extended periods of social isolation can be harmful for both mental and physical health. Human beings are social creatures and when separated, people tend to be less capable to deal with stressful situations. People who report chronic loneliness have difficulty processing information which can result in a decline of critical decision-making skills. Research also shows that long-term isolation diminishes the immune system’s response to fighting viruses, making people more susceptible to illness. 

During this time, we’re unable to share the physical location of the yoga studio. But livestream classes are a great way to overcome that challenge, maintain a connection with your yoga community, and build a new at-home yoga routine.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (Christopher Totaro): Graduating from the Bikram Teacher Training in the spring of 2006 left Christopher hungry for a deeper comprehension of the human body and the nuances of its inner workings. On his eternal pursuit of knowledge, he completed massage school in both the United States and in Thailand. When he’s not busy working closely with Gil Hedley in his Somanautics Workshops and Leslie Kaminoff with Yoga Anatomy Seminars, he’s teaching yoga, seeing massage clients, and teaching his very own anatomy course. He also somehow makes some time to eat tacos. He moved his private massage practice from New York City to Austin in 2018 and hasn’t looked back since! His offerings are rooted in deep knowledge, insight, and skill.