Recently I witnessed a confrontation between a group of cyclists and a motorist. The motorist was waiting patiently at a light on Route 25 with her blinker on, signaling a left turn. The group of about 30 cyclists facing her on the opposite side of the road proceeded to go through the red light and when it turned green, the motorist was prevented from making a left turn. The motorist began screaming out her window to the cyclists that they should abide by the laws. Some of the cyclists answered her with lewd gestures. The question for you is, who will hold on to stress longer after the incident, the cyclists or the motorist?
If you answered the motorist, you’re probably right. In the past few weeks I have heard many people complain about traffic and cyclists and limos and vineyards and rock festivals. It’s summer, and we’re surely experiencing stimuli unlike at any other time of the year. Just trying to make a left turn can raise our physiology a few notches.
It doesn’t take much for anybody to recall an incident that stressed them out, and the need to commiserate is greatly understood. However, when you continue for days or weeks to relive stressful situations verbally or just in your mind, you prevent stress from dissipating. The more stress, the more the response. That can often cause issues in your tissues because it’s similar to trauma. While the injured tissue heals, adjacent structures around the site remain tight and splinted, still reacting to the initial response.
The immediate response to stress is to go into fight-or-flight mode. Dictated by the sympathetic nervous system, your heart rate increases, blood pressure soars, and muscles contract and tighten as you shout and gesture. These responses are all good, and the fight-or-flight response is healthy and protective so long as the response doesn’t linger far after the incident.
We have a built-in feedback system that can prevent these responses from lingering and return our physiological systems to a dynamic constancy or equilibrium. The feedback system is called our parasympathetic nervous system.
All through the day, we experience fluctuations. When the fluctuations are extreme, the body must fight harder to come back to a neutral state. With an untrained parasympathetic nervous system, the body may stay in the fight-or-flight mode, supplied by the sympathetic nervous system, which can lead to chronic stress syndromes, such as persistent neck pain, headache, stomach disorders and high blood pressure.
Yoga trains the parasympathetic nervous system. By allowing the body to be stressed in yoga postures and then move into deep relaxation or meditation, the parasympathetic nervous system is challenged and strengthened.
Another thing you can do to boost this nervous system after a stressful incident is to take a deep, cleansing breath and relax your shoulders. Then smile; it’s by far the best face-lift.
Denise Plastiras is a physical therapist at Maximum Performance in Greenport. She also teaches yoga workshops.