Fight - Flight - Freeze
If you’ve spent some time on the deeper layers of self-care to release stress (and no judgment if you haven’t - we all have our own pace), you’ve learned a bit about the sympathetic nervous system and the “fight - flight - freeze” response. It is part of the involuntary, or autonomic nervous system, and it works something like this: you’re a cave woman, and a tiger is near. Your body secretes hormones to push all the blood in to the legs and eyes to run or fight. Your heart rate goes up (to pump blood into the limbs). When you can’t fight or run, more hormones kick in to numb the body, you freeze, and the tiger eats you.
That’s a super simplified version.
If you’ve been in a yoga class or therapy session with someone who knows what they’re talking about, you’ve also heard that the tiger is not a necessary element for the body’s response to kick in full force. Your safety can be threatened on the street or even in the home. The hormonal response is the same when the mind reads a situation as life-threatening.
Here’s where we start to get a little more nuanced: we live in such a disconnected, fast-paced world that many (most?) of us are walking around with mental patterns that kick in to read an argument or confrontation (even driving?) as a CODE 1 threat. Our sympathetic nervous system kicks in (the hormones) over and over and over again, creating a body, mind, and heart, wired to fight, flee, or freeze, as part of our daily lives. So there’s the full force response, and there’s also the chronic state of stress that produces a body easily triggered to respond, and a body that’s halfway there much of the time.
Continued, unreleased stress on the inside of the body is, of course, not healthy. This is why you hear “stress is the #1 factor” associated with almost every kind of disease and chronic illness that you can think of. It makes sense, of course. The body is under strain, and susceptible to any viruses, bacteria, or worse, that it comes across. Healthy bodies are strong on the inside. And hormones are no joke.
Yin and restorative yoga focus specifically on releasing built-up tension in the body and turning on the opposite system: the PARAsympathetic nervous system, also referred to as “rest and digest.” Through breathing exercises and a combination of supportive and deeply releasing postures, we can reset the body’s state of stress.
It’s not an easy process, and it takes regular practice to really release some of the tensions and mental or emotional patterns that are stored in the many layers of the body (read my post on the koshas here). But you knew that.
We pile on stress, drive emotions down, hold resentments and hurts. We all do, in our own, unique patterns. Knowing that we store these tensions in the body, many therapists are now incorporating movement in their treatments, and many yoga teachers are being educated in ways to reach mental and emotional layers in addition to physical postures. Some classes are not focused on the deeper layers, so if that’s what you need, keep looking until you find the right teacher for you.
Want to read a little more about the physiological AND behavioral response to fight - flight - freeze? I’ve just read a study about behavioral responses in women that is really interesting. Click here to read about it.