For every individual, the experience of emotional stress is unique. It may involve feelings of overwhelm, hopelessness, or just plain fear. Emotional stress also manifests itself in the body in a variety of ways. Tightness in your chest, restricted breathing, high blood pressure, difficulty eating or swallowing, a clenched jaw, and tense muscles are a few common emotional stress responses.
When we are in this state, our bodies are undergoing a fight, flight, or freeze reaction that is driven by the sympathetic nervous system. This system is releasing chemicals into your body, such as excess adrenaline and cortisol, making it difficult to see (or feel) things clearly. In order to calm your mind and body and return to a neutral state, you must work on the level of your nervous system.
Unfortunately, your sympathetic nervous system doesn’t always listen to reason. We cannot command our bodies to stop feeling emotional stress, and we can’t make ourselves relax if we approach the issue from a mental standpoint. In order to calm feelings of emotional stress, we must work with our body on a physical level, giving it the cues it needs to feel safe.
When you’re experiencing emotional stress, or a fight, flight, freeze response in your body, one of the best ways to return to a neutral or relaxed state is to practice yoga. When in this state, you may not always feel motivated to go to a yoga class, and that’s okay. You can still practice some simple moves in the privacy of your own home and calm your nervous system.
Studies have shown that yoga is an effective tool for emotional regulation and improvement of your self esteem. Yoga helps by increasing your serotonin levels, improving your self-awareness and releasing tension. Yoga poses allow you to connect with your body on a physical level, and yogic breathing balances your oxygen intake and brings you back to the present moment — which can directly diffuse your nervous system and restore equilibrium.
If it sounds simple, that’s because it is. You can release emotional stress and relax your body with just a handful of yoga poses and breathing exercises. Regular practice is also a benefit, in that it can make episodes of emotional stress less common, and help your body return to baseline quicker and easier as you continue to gain experience regulating your nervous system. Over time, you may find that experiences of fight, flight, freeze become less common, as you are able to weather the ebb and flow of stressful circumstances with greater ease.
To address feelings of emotional stress and regulate your nervous system, try performing the poses below when you feel afraid, overwhelmed, or tense.
Known to immediately calm feelings of distress and tension, Child’s pose is a go-to for emotional regulation.
Start on your hands and knees and then lower yourself down so that your backside is resting on your heels, and your big toes are touching each other. Move your hands forward, palms down, so that your forehead is resting on the floor. Allow your spine to lengthen and your neck muscles to fully relax. Breathe deeply and mindfully while staying in this pose for 5-6 minutes.
Like Child’s pose, Standing Forward Fold is also an effective posture to restore calm in a body that is experiencing a stress or fear response.
Stand at the front of your mat, feet hip distance apart. Exhale and bend forward from the waist, with your knees slightly bent and touching your hands to the floor in front of your feet. Inhale and exhale, allowing your torso to extend without rounding your back. Lengthen and soften your neck, and let the muscles of your thighs and lower back open and release any built-up tension. Hold the pose for 1-2 minutes.
It’s common to experience stress and fight, flight, freeze responses in your psoas muscle. Reclined Fixed Angle helps open up your hips and release tension from this muscle.
Lie down on your yoga mat with your knees bent and the soles of your feet pressed against each other, allowing your legs to open and rest at your sides. With your spine straight, rest your hands on your stomach, pelvis, or at your sides, while allowing your hips and pelvic floor muscles to relax and open. Hold the pose for 1-2 minutes.
This yoga pose is easy to perform and it’s incredibly relaxing. By propping your legs up against a wall, you allow any heaviness to drain from your legs while releasing tension from your lower back.
Place a folded blanket parallel against a wall. Sit sideways in the middle of the blanket, and turn yourself toward the wall, lifting your legs up and propping them against the wall. Lay back comfortably, rest your head and neck on the floor, and fully straighten your legs. Spread your arms out to your sides with your palms facing up. Allow your chest, abdomen, and pelvis to completely relax. Breathe evenly and mindfully while holding this pose for 5-8 minutes.
Lying very still on your back may be difficult when you’re experiencing feelings of stress and overwhelm. That’s why it’s best to save this pose until the end of your sequence, and the benefits are innumerable. This posture regulates your blood pressure, your nervous system, and provides much-needed rest.
Sit on your yoga mat and lower your body to the floor, relaxing your legs and letting your arms rest on the floor at your sides, palms up. Keep your eyes closed and focus on your breathing. Relax the muscles in your face and neck, and visualize every part of your body letting go of all tension. Hold this pose for 5-7 minutes.
Along with the above yoga poses, you can also utilize yogic breathing, or pranayama, to calm emotional stress.
You can perform this breathing technique anywhere and anytime you feel overwhelmed or fearful.
Exhale completely, and then place your right index finger onto your right nostril, and breathe deeply in through the left. Alternate and place your thumb over your left nostril, and exhale through your right. Continue alternating, repeating at least 10 times.
When you’re feeling the heat of emotional stress, you can quite literally cool things off with this cooling breathing exercise.
Roll your tongue into an “o” shape and slowly breathe in through it — as if your tongue were a straw. Hold the inhale for several seconds, then exhale through your nose. Repeat.
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