Don’t Be So “Sympathetic”!

Lisa Terenzio
Lisa Terenzio is a certified yoga instructor who is working on an advanced credential in yoga therapy. She focuses on using yoga and behavioral modification to help her clients make small, incremental yet powerful changes in their lives. She has also been teaching and creating arts and crafts for over 20 years and believes in the deep therapy that comes through working with one’s hands.

More than ever, we are searching for a way to mitigate the stress in our lives. Countless books are written and seminars are offered as folks search for a way to de-escalate stress and try to reverse the havoc it causes in our bodies and minds. But is the process really complex and elusive?

Our nervous system has two modes, sympathetic and parasympathetic. To simplify, the former features “fight or flight” impulses and the latter “rest and digest”.  The sympathetic system becomes involved when we perceive a threat or stressful situation and signals our bodies to bring blood to our arms (to fight the threat) or legs (to run away). For our primitive ancestors, whose basic survival depended upon eternal vigilance, this feature worked well. In modern, civilized life, however, threats are generally more theoretical or at least indirect. The problem arises because the primitive portion of our brain cannot distinguish between the specter of a predator and a letter from the Internal Revenue Service. Feeling threatened by the letter and secreting all of those powerful sympathetic neurotransmitters is not useful in combating the perceived threat and might even be counterproductive. We carry these experiences, and the neurochemicals that we’ve produced while reacting, long after the “threat” is gone. We will even revive and ruminate on perceived injustices and injuries during what would otherwise be a subsequent peaceful moment. This is because the sympathetic response is largely maladaptive today. It simply is not necessary, or even advisable, to respond—even internally—to every stimulus that presents itself.

One excellent way to flex your parasympathetic power is through yoga and meditation. Not only will you have peace and quiet during your practice but you will also be developing equanimity to bring forward into the rest of your life. And that is stress reduction!

Lisa Terenzio is a health coach and yoga instructor offering classes and workshops at Niantic Yoga.

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