The internet and blogs and books are full of information about the fight, flight, or freeze response and the sympathetic nervous system. My favorite personal writing about it was in response to getting chased by a sea lion in New Zealand. It was a perfect example of the fight, flight, or freeze response done right . . . and for the reason we have the response in the first place. I was being chased by a wild animal, and I had to get away. I got away. What happens, though, when that threat is gone? Can our body go back to its resting state?
The sympathetic nervous system is the part of the nervous system that activates when we are in fight, flight, or freeze. The parasympathetic nervous system is what allows us to relax and heal. It is the “rest and digest” part of the nervous system. It is what allows our body to go into its healing place. As I have mentioned before, the body is capable of healing itself, but in order to do that, it must be in a state of rest.
Chronic stress (of all varieties) has a tendency to keep our bodies in a constant state of the fight, flight, or freeze response without an opportunity to get into the parasympathetic “rest and digest” and heal mode. This, of course, can wreck havoc on our health. And look around at the world and notice how many people deal with chronic dis-ease. Many of us are not living in our parasympathetic state most of the time.
But what does it mean to truly rest? How many of us are able to get into that space? How many of us know what it really feels like to allow the body to release its tension patterns?
Most of us get so used to our tension patterns we do not even realize when we are holding them. Yoga is one of the ways we learn how to go into our bodies and learn to listen to them and find our patterns. The patterns in our body are similar to our mental patterns, called samskaras. Undoing a samskara is not an easy task. It requires knowing it and wanting it to change. But then it also requires unwinding the pattern itself, a task that can seem daunting when we have lived with the samskara longer than we have not. Imagine taking a hike and ask yourself which is easier – the pre-made path or the path never before taken? Imagine cutting down a path to hike, and that is what it takes to release a long-held samskara.
Releasing a tension pattern in the body is no different. We have to first feel the tension patterns and then be willing to release them. But then we have to understand what it takes to relax. We have to trust that when we release the tension, something else will continue to hold our body up.
Tension patterns exist for a reason. Some are there because of how we sit at a desk or in a car. Some are there, however, as a response to the traumas we have faced in our lives. Trauma can come in many forms – childhood abuse, relationship abuse, earthquakes, floods, and even vicarious trauma. When we experience trauma, we tense up to protect ourselves and never let go for fear of not having the strength to stay upright. But those patterns then begin to cause their own problems. Long after they have stopped protecting us from a trauma, they wreck havoc on our bodies and make it difficult to allow the body to relax.
And then we have a three-fold problem. The mental samskaras are the thoughts we hold as a result of our childhood and events in our lives, and they hold the body in tension. Together, they inhibit our parasympathetic nervous system from activating, and we end up with a downward spiral of tension and mental patterns that becomes more and more difficult to overcome, and at the end of the day it is our health (mental, physical, and spiritual) that suffers. Our ability to heal is diminished until we learn to bypass these tension patterns.
I want to be clear. We never lose the ability to heal. We inhibit our body’s access to its healing capabilities. And it is because we are literally stuck in a rut and trying to pull ourselves out. But this can be overcome, and deep within us we never lose the ability to heal ourselves. The parasympathetic nervous system is always there, and it is always able to function if we give it the time and quiet to do it.
But instead we hold our tension patterns. We live in a world with nearly constant overwhelm. There are more forms of pollution today than ever before. We have chemical pollutions, of course, but we also have noise, news, and phone pollution. We have stress of constantly being connected, and we have the stress of trying to keep up as the world moves faster and faster and faster.
But amidst it all, relaxation is still possible. We can find a way to release the tension in the body and allow our body to enter its natural healing state. But we have to be willing to surrender. We have to be willing to trust that when we let go, the body, and therefore ourselves, will be safe. We hear so often how the body and the mind are connected. I do not actually subscribe to that mentality. In my worldview, they are simply the same thing. The more I read in scientific, not new age, literature, the more true that statement is.
So tension is tension, whether mental or physical. They are one and the same. Our brains run our bodies, and together they create health or dis-ease. So, today I ask you to notice your mental patterns. Notice your physical tension patterns. Where are they? What do they mean? And then ask yourself the all-important question. In this world of constant overwhelm, are you willing to release these patterns to find calm and health? Part 2 will have some ideas for learning these techniques.
©Rebecca Stahl 2014, all rights reserved