I loved the character of The Hulk as a child, and still love him now. I wouldn’t like to meet him face to face of course, but I think he is a fantastic character.
I think that many of us can identify with the character of Dr Bruce Banner and his alter ego, the big angry green monster. When Dr Banner gets stressed, angry or feels threatened, a mutation in his DNA triggers an extreme stress response, he grows to giant proportions, gains mighty strength and becomes an unreasonable, frightening monster.
This is the perfect personification of stress, and what it does to us.
The Stress response
When we get stressed, the sympathetic nervous system is activated, triggering the Flight or Fight response. This creates a series of physiological responses. The heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, the pupils dilate, the digestive system slows down, muscles become tense, and the focus and senses become heightened. Physical strength increases, as does our stamina and immunity to pain. Adrenaline courses through our body, wiring us for action and giving us bursts of energy that we didn’t realise we had.
As well as the response,changes also occur in the brain when we become stressed. The prefrontal cortex, or logical part of the brain, switches off, and we are in primal, instinct driven mode. This is vital in a real life or death situation, as we cannot spend valuable seconds working out the pros and cons of a certain action when we are facing a threat to life, we must act immediately without analysing the likely consequences. Think of example of mothers who are able to lift cars off their children, a phenomenon known as hysterical strength. If that mother analysed that situation to work out if it was possible to save her child, then she would conclude that there was no way she could do it, and the child would die. The sympathetic nervous system stops her questioning, and she does it. She doesn’t feel the pain of tearing muscles as she does it,.or the fear that she won’t succeed, her attention is microscopically focused on lifting the car, and she thinks of nothing else.
This lack of logical thought explain why, when stressed, angry or upset, we often do and say things we later regret. Dr Bruce Banner refers to ‘the other guy’ when he talks about The Hulk, and it can sometimes seem that our stressed self is a different being all together. My life is littered with times I have said or done something in temper or stress, and 10 minutes later am shaking my head in total disbelief at my actions, wondering how I can possibly put it right.
The sympathetic nervous system is quite clearly vital to our survival, and if we didn’t have it, human kind would almost certainly not have survived the first generation, never mind to have lived long enough for me to be writing this blog post!
Designed to keep us alive, the 21st Century’s biggest killer
All incredibly useful actions if we are in a life or death situation, but these responses can get triggered in all sorts of situations. We experience this sort of stress in the supermarket when the queue is moving slowly, when we are stuck in traffic, and more.
In a real life or death situation, the stress response would only be needed for a short time. The fight would be won or lost, or we would succeed in our flight efforts and escape. Either way, we would not need the superhuman capabilities stress gives us for long, and the parasympathetic nervous system, the rest and relax response, would come back in, allowing us to relax and get back to normal.
In the modern Western world, most of us aren’t experiencing actual life threatening situations on a daily basis, but we feel this kind of low level stress from over stimulation, overwork, overwhelm and a consumer society that needs us to never quite feel happy in order to keep spending.
We often don’t even know that we are stressed, we have got so used to the occasional insomnia, the outbursts, the digestive upsets, the headaches, lack of concentration and low moods. We might be taking medication for some of these, or we might be self medicating with alcohol, food, sex, coffee, shopping, social media and more. I was recently shocked when a long standing dispute, which has raged for 6 years, was finally brought to closure. I hadn’t realised what an impact this had been having on my own wellbeing all these years, until I no longer had to worry about it. It took me a few days to actually recover from it, which surprised me until I thought about the recovery time we need from a stressful experience.
How Yoga could help Dr Banner fight off The Hulk
When the practices and philosophies of Yoga were formulated, the men who pioneered the practice were not doing so to escape from intolerable stress, to fight depression, anxiety and addiction, or to get flexible bodies. They practiced yoga to deepen their spiritual life, to connect with the Divine, and to achieve enlightenment. These ancient Yogis probably had very little need for the stress reduction potential of Yoga, but they realised that greater happiness is possible when we breathe deeper, relax more, and live a simpler, more wholesome life.
In the modern world, with all it’s trappings and traps, we need these benefits more than ever. More and more people are suffering the negative effects of stress, statistics made all the more tragic because it is all so preventable.
Yoga offers many practices and tools you can use to help reduce and manage stress in your life, promote relaxation and better sleep, increase mental clarity, and stop the big green monster from spoiling your day!
The 21 Days to Balance Self Discovery challenge will guide you through strategies and reflections that will help you to look at yourself and your life, find pockets of calm and peace in your busy day, and make that vital space for self care that will enable you to take better care of your mental health. Find out more here, or register below to get started
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