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How to beat stress with exercise

Reading time: 8 minutes

Stress is a natural part of the human experience, but chronic stress and trauma create rigidity and tension within body tissues that leave our responses less adaptable and link them to inflammatory and structural issues. Added to that toxic brew is the fact that much of modern stress is tied to sedentary behavior patterns that don’t allow us to physically express when we are angry, sad or in pain.

Recent interest in movement as ‘body psychotherapy’ reveals how we process much of our unconscious thought via our physical body – and how damaging this can be when not discharged properly.

A 2014 review of mindful movement research describes how, over the past decades, cognitive neuroscience has shifted from looking at the mind as a separate, isolated entity to taking a more “embodied” view.1 Put simply, to separate the mind from the body is to miss intricate links between our mental processes and our gestures and motions.

Practices such as yoga, qigong and tai chi, which are grounded in the concepts of embodiment, breath awareness, movement and contemplation, can help to cultivate kinesthetic awareness. Kinesthesia is often referred to as our ‘sixth sense’ and brings together interoception (sensing our internal landscape) and proprioception (sensing our position in space and sense of self).

Modern therapeutic techniques such as the Feldenkrais Method and the Alexander Technique also foster this embodied awareness, which allows us to feel the safety of knowing where we are and how we feel, beneath the heightened reactions of stress.

The review states: “Embodied activity, including cognitive processes, takes the form of sensorimotor coupling with the environment. What a living organism senses and perceives is a function of how it moves, and how a living organism moves is a function of what it senses and perceives.”

This idea – that what we sense around us helps to govern how we move – is extremely useful when trying to develop mindful movement as a coping capacity during times of stress.

Adrenal response exercise

The following exercise is aimed at resetting the adrenal response to mimic the transition usually made from when we move from the ‘startle response’ seen in babies to the more developed ‘fight-or-flight’ response seen in adults.

During the startle response, babies’ four limbs open suddenly outward in response to stress, but after the age of one, humans curl inward during moments of fear or stress for self-protection. At this point, reactions to every change of light, movement, touch, sound, temperature, hunger or thirst are inhibited.

Babies possess a highly sensitive level of response, as they cannot distinguish what is safe or unsafe and need to alert a caregiver to help and protect them.

As we become more able to help ourselves, we become more discerning about what we view as dangerous, rather than reacting to any stimulus as if it were a threat. Those with early trauma, or lack of attachment or attunement when young (or maybe illness, it is theorized) may not fully develop these ‘filters’ and continue to respond to any change (even if very subtle) as if it were a true danger. Those suffering trauma or chronic stress later in life may also return to a heightened sensitivity response and feel the world to be a harsh place to navigate. Noise and light sensitivity are key signs of stress overload, where a person stays locked in protective sympathetic fight-or-flight mode and retains a continual vigilance through heightened senses.

Meditation appears to lessen this retained primitive startle response,2 and meditative movement such as the adrenal response exercise helps to reset the head, neck and shoulder responses to nervous system input. It also creates a conscious imprint of the different sensations of the breath. Those with chronic stress can often be disconnected from a sense of when they are breathing in and out.

If possible, do this exercise regularly and around the same time every day – say, when you wake up or get home from work. These are the times that we transition from one mode of being to another and may struggle to adapt without a protective response, usually reaching for a self-soothing substance like sugar or alcohol when we’re feeling stressed out.

Aside from those times, this exercise can also be done any time, including as a soothing, rocking, meditative motion when you feel most overwhelmed or overtaken by cravings. Your body will feel safer when breath and movement are synchronized.

Adrenal response exercise

• Lie on your back, spread-eagle, with your arms and legs spread wide. This is the inhale position, where you open up the ventral or front body – meeting the world with your soft, vulnerable throat, heart and belly. It’s a gesture of action and courage, but also receptivity, indicating that you are ready to meet the world. This energizing, in-breath position is paired with the sympathetic nervous system and hence such positions (usually upright) are often referred to as ‘power poses,’ where you occupy your space and potential.

• Breathe out fully as you roll to one side, drawing all limbs in to a full fetal position with arms and legs pulled into the body, hands and feet soft. On the exhalation, open the dorsal or back body to curl yourself in (via psoas flexion), a gesture of protection paired with the calming, parasympathetic out-breath. A fetal position fully draws you in to protect your soft front body, rounding the lower back and neck as when you were a baby, before you moved upright and your secondary, inward curves developed.

• Move between these two positions, alternating the exhale position side-to-side, with movement led by the breath, finding the smoothest transitions possible between the two. It may feel jerky or mechanical to start, but letting the breath lead will allow you to find a flow.

• Repeat around 20 times on each side, continually moving, or move to change position with the breath whenever feels right, even resting in either position if you need to catch up with the breath.

Standing sequence from feet

This sequence fosters the kinesthetic quality of feeling ‘grounded.’ That means to have a full sense of your physical body, where it is, its shape and volume, right now in time and space. When fear and dissociation (feeling spacey and ‘not here’) from stress or trauma tend to take you away from this clear experience of the present moment, embodiment – particularly feeling the feet and legs – provides a tether to com
e back to. Grounding can come from lying down or from standing up from the feet; for those with deep trauma, at times it may be most appropriate to start out standing for a strong sense of self.

As Bessel van der Kolk says in his seminal book on trauma, The Body Keeps the Score: “You can be fully in charge of your life only if you acknowledge the reality of your body in all its visceral dimensions.”

1) Begin in tadasana (mountain pose), standing with feet hip-width apart and parallel, and taking time to settle your breath into your feet.

2) Keeping the left foot parallel to the outside of the mat, from bent legs, open into ardha chandrasana (half-moon pose), drawing the legs to straight and letting the bottom arm hang toward the ground. Your focus can be downward here, enabling you to stay steady enough to revolve the belly and chest upward. Balance focuses your proprioception keenly and teaches you to steady the mind and gaze
and to breathe fully, rather than ‘holding it all together’
with tension.

3) Bend the standing leg to boldly step the top leg into horse stance, shifting on the feet as you move to bring them 90 degrees apart. Draw up through the belly to support the lower back and lengthen the inner thighs to keep the knees pointing in the direction of the toes.

4) Inhale the arms out to the sides and up together above the head, as you straighten your legs.

5) Exhale down the center line, through the hands to the heart, and then inhale all the way out and up to the position in Figure 4.

6) Continuing this movement, you may even reach down lower to touch the fingertips to the ground, if your hips allow and it stays comfortable for your knees. Find your range of motion for any given day, modulating for how you feel in the present, not how far down you want to go. Be sure to cultivate a kind and accepting, rather than a punitive and pushing, relationship with your body.

7) Hold an open horse stance, arms out to the side, hands held above the shoulders. Here you can soften down the inner edge of the shoulder blades and feel the arms held up from the belly, with no tension from the shoulder. Breathe here to feel the sensations of building strength; full exhalations allow you to feel comfortable with stronger sensations as you increase intensity; this helps build resilience.

8) Move the feet to lead you into trikonasana (triangle pose) with the front foot (left to start) parallel to the outside of the mat and the back foot turned in 90 degrees to also revolve that hip in. Draw up through both legs to feel the support to revolve the belly and chest to the ceiling, only bringing the bottom hand down to where you can still find that action. Strong legs and active feet, with full breath, then allow you to tune into the movements of the spine to foster an awareness of the body’s internal state.

9) Circle the top arm back and around to come up into virabhradrasana 2 (warrior 2 pose), reaching out both arms equally from the center and, as with trikonasana, turning the back hip in to allow length in the inner front thigh where you can keep the front knee pointing toward the toes, without strain on the lower back. As with horse stance, hold the hands above the shoulders, breathing in toward intense sensations, exhaling to stay with soft jaw, eyes and attitude.

10) Lift the right heel (back leg) to be able to turn the hips to face the direction you started in tadasana, moving the front foot out from the midline enough to feel you have the feet hip-width apart and parallel to the outsides of the mat. Open the arms as you did in horse stance, feeling open across the collarbones for full breath. Only come down to bend the front knee as far as your right-side (back leg) front body lengthens without pulling on the lower back, where you can still draw up the belly from just above the pubic bone. This is working intelligently, where you can foster resilience, without alerting the nervous system that this is a stressful event.

11) From there, turn the belly into a twist, retaining space at the tops of the thighs to avoid collapse in that area. Twists encourage circulation around the adrenals and into the fascia between and around all organs, to keep the hydration that eases movement and adaptability – physical and mental.

12) Come back to center, open the arms out to the side, palms down to reach out from the collarbones, and drop the torso, belly to thigh. In this ‘humble warrior’ pose, lengthen the whole body, from the back of the heel to crown of the head, as if the whole left side was in tadasana, looking forward and down, so the back and sides of the neck stay long. This is a position of both strength and surrender, polarities you need to embrace in order to move with life’s changes with flexibility and ease.

13) Bounce into the feet, bending the back leg to create some elastic loading up through the fascia to step the back leg back up to tadasana. Step the back foot in halfway if you need, rather than struggle to step up, noticing how you can adapt to not force or strain your way into postures.
Ultimately this builds strength without injury and frees your mind from stressful attachment to how your body ‘should be.’ Breathe here, earthing back down into the feet before moving to the other side.

14) Finally, settle into a standing meditation or lie down to assimilate the movements.



Front Hum Neurosci, 2014; 8: 205


Emotion, 2012; 12: 650-658

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