Your bodies stress response is an amazing built-in mechanism to enable you to deal with tough situations and be resilient. We can define resilience as the capacity to prepare for, recover from and adapt in the face of stress, change, challenge or adversity.
We often think about stress as bad, but the stress response is essential to our health. Stress energises your body to respond, it is helpful for performance. It is not stress that is bad, it is chronic stress that is bad.
Kelly McGonigal has done a lot of work on stress and suggests we befriend ‘stress’, see stress as an ally and in so doing have a healthier relationship to this gift of responsiveness.
When we understand the innate responses of our nervous system, we can self-regulate when needed. Self-regulation begins with self awareness. It is the ability to monitor and manage your mind, body, and emotions so you can calm yourself down when needed and move forward when immobilised, resulting in:
- your ability to act in your long-term best interest
- greater resilience
- optimal energy management
So, what is the stress response? Our understanding has expanded in the last 25 years with the work of Stephen Porges who has outlined polyvagal theory with three key nervous system responses:
- Dorsal Vagal, your ‘freeze’ mode
- Sympathetic nervous system (SNS), your fight/flight mode
- Ventral Vagal, your ‘rest, digest, social connection’ mode
This image is a helpful one to get a sense of the territory.
We don’t want to get stuck in the sympathetic nervous system response of ‘fight or flight’ or in the dorsal vagal response of ‘freeze’. We want to be able to recover and return to a state of ease and feeling of safety, the realm of the ventral vagal system. Kelly McGonigal’s research has shown that when you reach out to others when stressed you recover more quickly.
Yoga offers us many practices to find our way back home to ventral vagal mode.
When we understand the stress response, the gift of it, and have ways to self regulate our nervous system, and people who we co-regulate with, we find balance and well being, we are resilient.