A New Evolutionary Response to Stress

A new Evolutionary Response to Stress

What do we do with all this information we have learned about our vagus nerve?  We develop a new evolutionary response to stress!

I love the “new science” supporting what the yogis have said for millennia… such as recently released big research paper which I came across in a new book “Yoga & Science in Pain care”, which led me to finding the work and research on the vagus nerve that I have been following and talking about done by Dr. Steven Porges in this study on Yoga Therapy and our Vagus nerve. This is my overall interpretation of how to digest and apply what we learned from these papers and what I wrote about in Yoga and your Vagus Nerve.  

Polyvagal theory means to me we can train our vagus nerve to not just go from 100% PNS activity to 100% SNS activity ~ but that there are gradients in between being stressed and relaxed.

This is good news as we need a new evolutionary approach to stress. In cave man days which seems to be when our bodies learned the stress response, stress was life threatening… outrun the tiger or you die. Your body is not going to waste a shred of energy on healing that infection or on regeneration because if the tiger eats you it’s for naught. So all systems go to run, fight, and think quick survival.

Most stress is no longer life threatening.  We need a new evolutionary response to stress that allows us the benefit of some circulating stress hormones for motivation and energy without breaking down the entire body in the process.  Turns out we might be able to do this 🙂

In the polyvagal theory, there are levels of tapping into a little SNS (Sympathetic Nervous System — aka the stress response) activity while we remain predominantly PNS (Parasympathetic Nervous System aka the rest and digest response). This is the new evolutionary response I am talking about.

It’s not new, I learned this is in yoga terms 30 years ago as I began this journey. Yoga postures I learned, put a little stress in our body, but we use our breath and bandhas (remember both bandhas stimulate PNS activity) to mitigate this stress and stay calm and relaxed while we do the “work” in the posture (and part of the work is to relax in the posture!).

Yoga is effectively helping us raise the barre of how much work we can do without tripping our stress response 🙂

This is a big upside to a yoga practice. Learning to control your stress response while you work or do something challenging will allow you the grace under pressure that gives one clearer thinking while they deal with the stressor at hand keeping us healthier and younger while we go through our lives.

This paper explained polyvagal theory as basically a modern view of yoga’s gunas (sattvic, rajasic, tamasic) or finding balance (sattva) between activity and stillness.

Sattva is the quality of pleasure, calmness and tranquility that serves the function of illumination. Sattva is described as: lightness, clarity, harmony, buoyance, illumination, lucidity, joy and understanding (Stoler-Miller, 2004; Bawra, 2012; Miller, 2012).

Rajas balanced with sattva and tamas creates the motivation and creativity for inspiring change, movement and right action. Conversely too much rajas,  may increase anger, agitation, or anxiety. (Bawra, 2012; Miller, 2012).
Tamas balanced with sattva and rajas may provide form and stability, whereas an over-predominance of tamas may give rise to delusion, inertia or obscuration (
Bawra, 2012; Miller, 2012). “

This polyvagal theory for our vagus nerve is kind of similar to HRV or heart rate variability for our heart — most people think our heart rate should be a metronome at 70 BPM, but this is not the case. A healthy heart varies from beat to beat depending on what we are doing and thinking. People with a high stress response actually don’t have this variability — they have that driving beat — driving the need to keep moving to protect yourself.

Same goes for our nervous system we need it to be able to have some variability between stressed and relaxed as we go throughout our days. We can support this process by applying what we learned about our vagus nerve to our everyday activities and responsibilities by:

  • Going throughout our days with our tongue on the roofs of our mouth (improving vagal tone)
  • Breathing deeply and rhythmically through our noses (stimulating PNS and oxygenating your body)
  • Staying connected to our bandhas (more PNS stimulation)
  • And smiling 🙂
  • Keeping our jaws relaxed
  • Keeping our eyes soft — and by being aware when we start to put tensions in our eyes or throat, or jaw, neck, or wherever you tend to hold tension.

And you too can stay young while you work and go through your days.

In this way you too can raise the barre of what you are able to do without any stress hormones!

Heart Rate Variability (HRV)
Understanding HRV quick overview

The heart has two main nerves; the accerlans nerve which connects the heart to the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) — fight or flight response.  And the vagus nerve which connects the heart to our Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) — calming, rest & digest, regenerate response.

When we have HRV, we can respond to a stressor — then use our vagus nerve to calm us down and not remain in the stress response.  Essentially what we need is our vagus nerve or PNS to be stronger than our accerlans nerve or SNS — we need to literally think of our vagus nerve and our PNS as a muscle and strengthen it so it can override the accerlans and SNS.  Our vagus nerve i the brake to the accelerans nerve.

Strengthening your vagus nerve to stop the stress response and turn it off is what we need.  Stress is not bad, staying in a stress response is bad.

For example; you have a disagreement or riff with someone — or are  just experiencing a bad day, fear, or negative emotions.  You come home from work and are greeted by a loving spouse who hugs you and cuddles you and tells you its going to be ok.  The vagus nerve with its sensors relaying information all the way from your gut to your heart to your brain will relay messages of safety, calm, relax -its ok type of messages.  Your vagus nerve will then stimulate the release of a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine which further stimulates your PNS activity which dilates blood vessels so blood can flow, slows heart rate, contracts the smooth muscles that line the tubes in our body and digestive system improving digestion, etc.

Now take the same bad day as above; and picture coming home to a stressed out spouse who is also angry about their day, or neglectful to your relationship, or perhaps under financial stress or work stress too, and is not interesting in connecting with you in any way.  Your nervous system senses this too and your accerlans nerve will keep stimulating the stress response — so your heart rate stays up and your SNS stays in arousal — your heart receives the signal to stay alert so you can run or fight in a moments notice.  No HRV happening there.

Combine this scenario with a disconnect from nature, long work hours, or other family stressors and life becomes a constant stressor.  This leads to chronic decreased HRV and a weak under-toned vagus nerve.  Decreased HRV is akin to a wounded heart.

There is hope!  No worries if you have a stressful job and a less than supportive spouse or family, you have trees and plants and yoga and meditation and vagal nerve stimulation all day long as I spoke about here.  Here are few other tools to help you have better HRV and stronger vagal tone:

  • Rest – and time away from the stressor.  You need a sacred space to come home to so your vagus nerve can more easily relax you.  Whether you are single or married is there a space you can make your own that you feel comfortable in, warm, safe, and able to relax?
  • Contemplative movement — or as some call it, sacred movement.  Exercises that help you relax, destress, release tension and tightness such as Qi gong and yoga.  These are systems of exercise that encourage resiliency and improve HRV and strengthen vagal tone.
  • Simple breathing exercises, such as the resonance breath – slowing down your breath to about a 5 second inhale and a 5 second exhale, or   breathing exercises like nadi shodhana – alternate nostril breathing are especially calming to the mind and balancing to our nervous systems.
  • Get outside — especially to a forest if you can.  Or if that is not possible, or it’s cold or rainy you can try to bring the outside in with plants and aromatherapy.
  • Aromatherapy – just the act of diffusing oils from trees and flowers can calm your heart and increase HRV — scents of lavender, vetiver, lemon balm, rosemary, and floral scents can instantly increase your calm.  
    • You can put some of the essential oils in sesame oil or olive oil and massage them into your skin for which will even have more of a calming effect because of the touch.  Even the touch of care-ingly massage oils into your own skin will stimulate your vagus nerve and PNS.
    • You can also use a smudge stick and waft around smoke scent from white sage, rosemary, cedar, mugwort — all sustainably harvested of course.  Smudging releases the same volatile oils that are in essential oils and can also improve mood.

Also this is where we need to learn to use our yoga effectively to help strengthen vagal tone — not beat ourselves up because we can’t do it like we’d like to!  Your thoughts alone can help you recover from a stressful day, so in your yoga don’t strive for a perfect posture — this just sets us up for more stress.  Instead

  • Don’t fidget with your posture, be happy where you land.  Just make sure it’s comfortable and and you can breathe freely.  Don’t try to get any deeper or further.
    • You can move your awareness through different parts of your body to “check in” without fidgeting.  Your body will tell you if it is not happy with something in the posture, then you can adjust that.
  • Then stop thinking about the posture and get into your breath, once your breath is deep and calm, then check in with your mindstuff.  Take control of your mind and direct it — either toward a sound or mantra — or healing and regenerating in your body or mind or on something you are trying to create or build outside of your body.  But keep the mind “soft”, we want a relaxed mind as we go through our postures while at the same time we do need to direct it — left to its own the mind will gravitate toward ego and striving to be more, get more …
    • I came across a study — and I didn’t save it but if I find it again I will!  It showed through biofeedback devices that even long time meditators and yogis are challenged to hold the mind still for longer than 12 seconds!

We need a balance of awareness on our breath, posture and mindstuff.  Not easy!  This is why we do practice!  This is what we are really practicing!  Someone a looong time ago when we in my New Cumberland studio said to me, if this is practice, what are we practicing for if there is no game or competition?  My response; The game is when you step off your mat.  We are practicing for life.

When we first start yoga postures they are not easy — its a lot of hard work … but over time if we just keep gently practicing they become easier — we have all experienced this with our ashtanga practice — and it is part of the beauty of the ashtanga practice since it is the “hardest” form so “they” say.  (I don’t agree, fyi.)

Sticking with something that is difficult with a calm mind is the crux of all this!  Through the practice of yoga postures and doing the work with calm mind, we are better able to navigate the ups and downs of life with a calm mind.  Ultimately this is resiliency — being able to bend without breaking and to even snap back stronger than before.  This is how to use your yoga!

Homeostasis vs. Allostasis vs. Allostatic Load and hormesis – Raising the Barre

This is allopathic (and even herbal medicines) version of the gunas — and when in balance helps us get the right amount of stress hormones for movement without setting off a full stress response.

Homeostasis — at home in our bodies, even better explained as: at rest at home in our bodies.

Homeostasis is scientifically explained as a very narrow window of operation for key critical systems in our body — pH, body temperature (body temp can only vary by 5-6% without death), glucose levels, and oxygen tension (blood oxygen levels).  

These systems have a very narrow range of operation to be in homeostasis — when we are in homeostasis our body is in the perfect state to heal, digest, regenerate, get rid of mutated cells, fight of pathogens, etc.

All this is good, but what if you have to go to work? Can we achieve some level of homeostasis while we do more than rest?  yes.

Allostasis – Staying at rest, at home in our bodies while we “work”

Allostasis also has a fairly narrow range of physiologic end points that is just slightly outside of what defines homeostasis — it is basically a way of our body finding a type of “homeostasis” that is outside of the narrow range of physiological end points that determine it.  So allostasis is the the ability to achieve stability through change.

One of the primary mediators in the body for allostasis includes the HPA axis, in the most simple terms; HPA axis is our nervous system relaying information to our hormone system and telling it how much cortisol to release.  A little cortisol is necessary, to activate us to get up and move — but too much cortisol will throw us into a stress response.   Cortisol becomes unhealthy when stress or extenuating circumstances stimulate cortisol to release and stay high throughout the day or evening.  Allostasis is our body releasing just the right amount of cortisol.

 Allostasis is basically our body trying to maintain homeostasis while we work and live. Allostasis is homeostasis in action.  Allostasis is akin to sattva balanced with rajas and tamas.

We want to encourage allostasis without increasing allostatic load

    • What is the HPA Axis? Bobbi’s HPA definition:
      The HPA (Hypothalamic, pituitary, adrenal) axis, is the hypothalamus sensing information from the nervous system, that sets off a chain of events that stimulate the pituitary gland to stimulate the adrenals to release stress hormones or other hormones for movement — usually this is used to refer to setting off the stress response — but it does not always have to set off a full blown stress response. ________________________________________
    • More scientific explanation from Integrative Medicine
      “The HPA axis is responsible for the neuroendocrine adaptation component of the stress response. This response is characterized by hypothalamic release of corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF). CRF is also known as CRH or corticotropin-releasing hormone. When CRF binds to CRF receptors on the anterior pituitary gland, adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) is released. ACTH binds to receptors on the adrenal cortex and stimulates adrenal release of cortisol.

Allostasis can help the body in adapting — essentially raising the barre on what we can do while we still regenerate in homeostasis.  However if we stay in allostasis too long it becomes an allostatic load; if allostasis remains high for too long, it will set off the stress response and start to break the body down. 

Allostatic load can also be from lack of sleep, too much sugar or food in general, too much exercise, an infection, being exposed to a danger, worrying, along with all the other stressors people identify as stress.

For example if you are dehydrated, your body will reduce urine output and sweating to preserve water, this is allostasis.  For a short period this will not harm the body, if the dehydration goes on too long the body will start to overheat easily, and be burdened by toxins the kidneys are unable to get rid of due to lack of water.

Or another example would be exercise and weight lifting — when you lift a weight you break a muscle down, when you rest the muscle rebuilds stronger.  Rest is important — without rest the muscle will break down not get stronger.  When you overtrain — whether its weight lifting, cardio, or yoga you are breaking muscle down without adequate recovery time in homeostasis to build tissue — your workouts become an allostatic load and start to break down your tissues.  

How do you know if you are approaching an allostatic load?  Do you feel exhausted after your practices or workouts?  Do you feel very sore at the beginning of your workouts or practices?  These are signs your body is telling you that you need more rest.  Rest is just as important as the workout … and those in my yoga classes have heard me say many times as we crawl into rest pose; “This pose is just as important as all the other poses.”

The key to resilience and growth is being able to do your “work” in homeostasis or allostasis without getting an allostatic load.

The other side of A New Evolutionary response to Stress — How quickly can you release your stress after an event?

I enjoyed learning about the researcher, professor, and author Robert Sapolsky, he wrote a book titled “Why Zebras Don’t get Ulcers”.  For a few months each year he would take his family members along with him to the bush in Africa where they studied wild animals.  In his studies he would shoot a little dart anesthesia in it at an animal that was under stress or just got out of stress, and so forth and then take their blood and look at their hormones in their blood.  What he discovered is that animals such as zebras, while under huge threat of death while being chased by a predator and in full stress response; as soon as they escaped their predator they went back to homeostasis very quickly.

Humans don’t seem to have that ability quite as easy.

And that is the key to resiliency from our stress — how quickly can you recover from it?  The quicker we can release our stress, the healthier we will be.  Our yoga gives us tools for this by the way — and so do methods like EFT tapping, which I will share a little EFT tapping routine with you at the end of this.

And the other key element to changing our stress response; how do you handle non-life threatening stress?

I came across a study that was interesting; under the stress response males and female will react differently.  The female response to non-life-threatening stress is to “tend and befriend” while the male response tends to be “fight or flight”.  Women will flee from extreme danger, of course, but the differences in how someone responds to a stressor is the difference in how much wear and tear it will have on your body.

Tending and befriending is trying to calm the upset person down, solve the argument, or fix whatever is out of whack — this will relax the stress response and bring in more oxytocin –the love hormone, which is needed during times of stress.

On the other hand being defensive or argumentative — fighting so to speak, will increase or sustain the stress response adding to the wear and tear or the allostatic load on your body.

Allostatic load will wear the body down.  In our endeavors we want to tune in to our physiology and make sure we are not pushing ourselves from allostasis into an Allostatic load.

Adding this into “minding your mindstuff” our thoughts can drive us from homeostasis to allostasis to allostatic load.  And it’s all within our control.

And this leads me to:  Hormesis – That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger

Homeopathy is based on hormesis, taking a small micro dose of the “poison” to elicit an immune response that is favorable and protective. 

I learned about hormesis through digestion — digesting small healthy amounts of gluten and lectins from wheat and grains, phytic acids from nuts and seeds and beans, and oxalates from spinach, star fruit, taro etc. improve our digestion.  These are the anti-nutrients in plants that plants use to protect themselves from bugs, bacteria, and environmental conditions, if we avoid these foods our digestive power weakens — but if we eat them 3x per day every day they will become an allostatic load and cause issues.

The irritation from these “anti-nutrients” in foods actually strengthens our gut lining not only improving our digestion but also our immunity.  This is very important right now!

Adapting from strenuous workouts could be another form of hormesis — for example Wim Hof who’s lessons use cold exposure and breathing techniques to keep himself fit — and studies on him have proven it does — he has shown improved immunity, energy, and stamina just from cold exposure — he holds the world record for the longest ice bath in which his core body temperature actually rose!

While this may be a method, I’m not sure I want this method.  Maybe in the words of Wim Hof we have become weak and unable to withstand cold while our ancestors had to endure long winters without heat (and summers without air conditioning) which is what helped them get stronger and survive.

Fasting is also a form of hormesis.

So how much of the “poison” or toxic substance becomes too much??  How hard do we have to work to grow stronger?

Can we relax our way into better health and fitness?

It seems the yogic techniques and other alternative mind body exercises have found a way to relax into being more fit, for example;

  • Exercise improves blood flow — very important.  So does does deep breathing and gentle yoga
  • Running and cycling improve cardiovascular function, so does pranayama
  • Exercise releases stress but also breaks the body down — albeit hopefully just a little bit, meditation and breathing and yoga all release stress as well without breaking the body down.
  • Exercise improves Nitric Oxide (a healthy molecule in our body!) — so does sitting or standing in the sunshine for just a few minutes, or drinking a couple ounces of beet juice.
  • Exercise gives our skin a nice glow, so does lying in the sunshine.
  • Exercise burns fat and lowers blood sugar, so does deep breathing with extended exhales and a little breath holding in pranayama.

So do we need the strenuous workouts?  I do feel like I need a little resistance for my muscles, which I prefer to do with yoga and calisthenics, and love beach walks and bike rides … but what I have come to is that we just don’t have to work that hard!  We need a little of the poison or work, but not as much as we tend to drive our bodies to do.  When we strive too hard and push our bodies too hard we are unnecessarily breaking our body down too much making it hard for our body to recover and rebuild stronger.

What I’ve learned is keep it pleasant and enjoyable!  If you want to do some strenuous workouts — enjoy them.  I see so many runners, bikers, and long distance walkers grimacing as I pass them by … while I am walking or riding with my tongue on the roof of my mouth, breathing deeply through my nose, and smiling as I enjoy the sunshine and my time with Mother Nature.

We each have our own “Goldilocks” zone, experiment with yours.

Another tool to mitigate stress quickly; EFT Tapping.

EFT Tapping is another tool to help us find a new evolutionary response to stress.  The trick is when stress comes your way, deal with it and release it promptly. 

In a study done by Dawson, he cites research showing that EFT can cause a 37 percent drop in cortisol. It also improves many beneficial enzymes, for example, baseline immunoglobulin levels rose by 113 percent — doubling immune-functioning markers. It also decreases sympathetic nervous system activation.

Noticeable changes in how quickly your body releases stress can improve about a month or two after developing an EFT, meditation or stress relieving practice of some type.  Even as little as 10 minutes a day can produce shifts in about 10 days in how quickly you mitigate your stress.

Here is a link to a version of EFT tapping I like.

Comments are closed.