2020 has been a year of sudden and severe change. The global pandemic of COVID-19 has left us with underlying anxiety and concern for our health. It felt like just as we were adjusting to a new way of life, with masks and social distancing, the ugliness of racism came to the forefront of our minds and hearts. The sadness of George Floyd’s death, quickly turned into rage. As people have taken to the streets to demand change all over the world, the anger is palpable. This combination of stress and anger, while both completely appropriate and natural responses to recent events, leaves our individual nervous systems in overdrive.
Our autonomic nervous system is what keeps us in balance, and has two main components, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system controls our fight or flight response and has been on high alert since March of this year at the onset of the quarantine. We need the adrenaline and burst of energy that the fight or flight response provides when we need to flee from danger. With a global pandemic, there is an underlying level of tension on a daily basis, as we see the day’s news and there is nowhere to run to. We have to find a way through.
The parasympathetic nervous system is also referred to as the “rest and digest” system. The parasympathetic nervous system helps us to release anxiety and to feel safe in our bodies. An easy way to trigger the parasympathetic/relaxation response is through diaphragmatic breathing. When we slow our breath down, the body relaxes and muscle tension begins to soften. This is the same type of breathing that we practice in restorative yoga. The slow, easy breathing and longer holds of restorative yoga can help knots in the shoulders unwind, and tight hips find release.
It’s important that we take the time to find an outlet for our collective and individual stress and anger. Movement and exercise can help move emotions out of our bodies and allow us to return to equanimity and peace. When we return to balance we can act instead of react to the world around us. Our actions can then be mindful, intentional, and directed towards positive change. Ancient practices like yoga can help us to slow the breath down, unwind, and feel safe in our bodies. Enjoying slow, deep holds in yoga promotes a relaxation response and helps to slow our thoughts down. To help release stress and anger, try this restorative yoga sequence that focuses on the shoulders and hips: