Yoga: Stress Arousal Scale

+ Hypo-Arousal: Low activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). Our breathing is easy and deep, our pulse is slow, and our skin tone is normal. + Low Arousal: Low to moderate PNS activation combined with low activation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). Our breathing and pulse increase, though our skin color remains normal; or our skin may become pale and glisten without increasing our breathing and pulse.

+ Moderate Arousal: Increased SNS arousal.

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Our skin becomes pale, our heart rate and breathing rapid.

+ High Arousal: Dramatic increases in SNS arousal. Our heart rate accelerates, as does our respiration. Our skin becomes very pale, and we get the cold sweats. + Hyper Arousal: Dramatic increases in SNS and PNS. Though our skin stays pale, our heart rate drops off very low; or our pupils dilate and our face flushes with color; or our heart rate drops and our breathing gets shallow and rapid; or our breathing becomes very slow but our heart rate races.

However, like all things, the longer we sustain an activity, the more we adapt and progress to make that activity repeatable. In the case of stress, we become more tolerant. So in reference to the Stress Arousal Scale, our base level doesn't return to no arousal. We stay at low arousal all the time. Smaller and smaller things seem to set us off balance emotionally. And this is just the first stage. We grow even more tolerant, and moderate arousal becomes our normal state.

Like becoming tolerant to a drug, we can take higher dosages to get the original effect; that's the nature of addiction. In the case of stress, as we become more tolerant we accept more stress than before, but come to accept that as the norm, as average. Many people live with dangerous levels of stress daily because they've come to accept it as normal. Many people live with abuse (and self abuse) because they adapted and progressed, becoming tolerant of their terrible situations.

Fear reactivity is our nervous system's conditioned reaction to perceived dangers, pain, and trauma – often referred to as shock in cases of physical harm or accidents. That is its most extreme occurrence. Fear reactivity also occurs under lesser forms of threat, and even when the body is not actually harmed, such as when we step down, expecting another stair where there is none, when we think something flies at our head when it is only a shadow, or when we think that we left our eye glasses at home and come to find them only a moment later on top of our head.

Prey may create fear reactivity when stalked by predators whether or not it is caught and eaten. In the case of modern life, this can take the shape of feeling we are being followed, of anticipating an angered spouse or belligerent employer's wrath, or of anticipating embarrassment when engaged in public speaking.

Very simply, in threat, the typical escape reaction is fight, flight, or freeze. The reaction is assisted by the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system: Blood flow comes strongly to the muscles of the limbs, breathing increases, heart rate increases, blood pressure increases, internal temperature increases, digestion and waste elimination are inhibited (or instantly evacuated to assist fight or flight); the system is in all alert condition red. After the event is over, the nervous system releases an alarm inhibitor (cortisol) and will usually return these body systems to a normal level of functioning within a few hours, days, or weeks (depending on the intensity, duration, frequency, or complexity of the stressors).

Sometimes we are unable to make sense of the threatening event – if it's too intense, lasts too long, happens too frequently, or is too complex. Our nervous system doesn't get the message that the traumatic event is over and that we have survived. The chemical signal is insufficient to halt the alarm reactions, and we become more and more aroused. We get caught in a feedback loop continuing to signal the nervous system to prepare the body. The result is we freeze in place, paralyzed to act upon the events demanding our action.

The continued preparation for defensive action is at the core of the disturbing physical and psychological symptoms associated with traumatic stress. It disturbs our sleep, makes our concentration difficult, and leads to panic attacks, extreme startle reflex, a rapid or irregular heartbeat, cold sweats, hyperactivity, exhaustion, and fatigue. Psychological symptoms include anxiety, feeling unsafe, flashbacks, nightmares, avoidance of situations, thoughts and feelings that carry reminders of the traumatic event, and feeling detached from ourselves or others.

If a threat is repeated before we have had time to recover, or if we perceive ourselves as caught, the parasympathetic branch will also come into play and may even mask the sympathetic. For example, blood may flow to the center of the body as respiration decreases and our heart rate drops, while the skin becomes cold and paralysis, or tonic immobility, occurs.

Tonic immobility is loosely defined as a state of prolonged muscular contraction. Ironically that is the same definition for being “muscle bound. ” Tonic immobility is a state of profound motor inhibition typically elicited by a high-fear situation. Specific features include a temporary paralysis, tremors/shaking, inability to call out or scream, loss of consciousness/fainting, numbness and insensitivity to pain, and the sensation of feeling cold.

Fainting goats dropping over from loud noise, paralyzing silky sharks by grabbing their tail, the antelope that suddenly stops struggling while in the lion's jaws, the deer frozen in headlights – all exemplify tonic immobility.

The most severe case of this is PTSD, which can result from any traumatic situation in which a person's life is at risk or where he or she perceives it as such. Examples include war, surgery, rape, sudden loss, assault, abuse, and accidents. Fear-reactivity can begin from an individual event such as an accident. Or the events can be linked in chains: abuse, torture (which usually involves several incidents over time). When this trauma and the fear are not worked through at the time of occurrence, usually because adequate help, support, safety, and contact are not available, psychological and physical symptoms can develop. Typical complaints include phobias; panic attacks; night terrors; dizziness and fainting; heart palpitations; tremors; feeling paralyzed to act, speak, or decide when under stress; and other unexplainable, physical symptoms.

Everyone who faces stress of any sort suffers post-traumatic stress syndrome, differing only by slight degree. If we harbor fears, have been called defensive, are attached to issues or things, feel that we could be embarrassed, are volatile, can be easily angered or aroused, are irritable, have anxieties, experience fears or trepidations or the whole host of non-fun living, then we are subject to the above. Remember, we become tolerant – we produce outcomes, adapt, and progress. We embed fear-reactivity and it becomes more and more our baseline trait.

It is fear-reactivity that must be removed. Natural synergy, harmony, and flow lie underneath the armor that we've created. We don't need that rusty suit of plate mail. We can take it off and cast it away.

Fear-reactivity is what binds our flow. To get out of the way of our natural, abundant body flow, we need to do one thing: diminish and eliminate fear-reactivity.

The stress arousal syndrome is a process of increasing alertness and mobilizing our organism. It begins with monitoring and collecting information from the inside and from the outside environment. It continues to judge and evaluate the threat level of the information, and then elicits a reflex or reaction to address the stimulus. The stress arousal syndrome comprises the following capacities, step by step:

Movement involves all temporal and spatial changes in the configuration of our living body and its parts, such as breathing, eating, speaking, blood circulation, and digestion. It's our moment-to-moment state that our body evaluates. A state is that fleeting condition that, if repeated, we adapt to and progress upon, eventually turning it into a trait – such as the difference between being angry (a state) and being a curmudgeon (a trait). Everything is a skill, be it fatness or fitness, fear or anger, sorrow or frustration. At any time, we can choose to not reinforce a particular state by changing our behavior. We can choose which traits we cultivate. It begins with movement, the most fundamental aspect of our somatic experience.

Sensation is what we receive from the exteroceptive – the five senses – and from the interoceptive – the “sixth” sense, or proprioception and vestibular sense. (Scott M. Lephart and Freddie H. Fu, Proprioception and Neuromuscular Control in Joint Stability. ) In the next section we discuss the sixth sense, which includes pain, spatial orientation, time passage, rhythm, force/pressure, velocity/acceleration, weight/gravity, balance/equilibrium, and stabilization.

We need to consider sensat{on as the information-gathering phase where we monitor what is happening within us and around us. Once we understand how we gather information, then we can begin to practice filtering or muffiing the noise in order to amplify true signals. Our brain is like a satellite dish – we can direct the reception to collect critical data and to halt unessential messages to tune out the noise. Through our yoga, we learn to turn the satellite dish to find the clearest signal of crucial information.

+ Emotions are actually divided into three substeps. To understand what emotions are, we need to realize that we often inappropriately interchange the term feelings for the term emotions. Feelings are only one subset of emotions. And because of the basic misuse of the terms, we often think that emotions lie outside of our control. Feelings are rooted concretely in our movement. The first step. And they begin with autonomic arousal:

Autonomic arousal provides quick mobilization of energy for vigorous movement, such as increased heart rate, blood pressure, muscular tension, respiration, core temperature, and pupil dilation. Hormonal arousal washes the system with a supercharged chemical cocktail including epinephrine, norepinephrine, aldosterone, and endorphins. One major problem here has to do with the rate at which this fuel injection occurs.

If we face numerous, intense, frequent, and/or complex stressors, then these chemicals are not slowly added to the system. We immediately go into red, alert survival mode, and involuntarily we throw the sluice gate wide open and dump all of these chemicals, undiluted and full strength, into our system. If we become tolerant to higher and higher levels of stress, the chemical released to halt our internal alarm system does not suffice to shut down our arousal. We fall prey to tonic immobility, as well as face Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, chronic fatigue, and so on. (Robert M. Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers. ) Yoga helps us regulate the positive release of this biochemistry into our system through breath control, meditation techniques, and body control.

Feelings are our brain's interpretation of sensory feedback from the muscles and organs that produce the reactions. Familiar emotions include joy, grie£ anger, self, respect, inferiority, supersensitivity, and other conscious and unconscious experiences. We are not the feelings that erupt from arousal and hyper, arousal. Who you are lies beneath those patterns of fear, reactivity. (David H. Barlow, Anxiety and Its Disorders, second edition. )

+ Thoughts are divided into two substeps: Mental impressions relate to memory in that we anchor certain feelings together, and we access those related emotions when we confront a similar experience, or challenge of similar intensity, which is why in yoga we may have flashes of past suppressed, unaddressed, or unresolved events. Self dialogue acts as the function of the intellect, such as understanding, classifications, imagination, and memory. Thoughts erupt from feelings. Without understanding that how we feel determines our thoughts, without understanding that our thoughts, our very self.. image, are a product of concrete physical actions and choices, we can become enslaved to the fear reactivity that binds our flow. Our self image is simply the end product of our practice. Separating the above capacities in stress arousal syndrome is a function ofliterary convention only. It's nearly impossible to separate them. It follows from this interaction that detailed attention to anyone capacity necessarily influences the others – the whole person and our self image.

We often can understand the exteroceptive senses – hearing, touching, seeing, tasting, and smelling. But we often discuss the sixth sense as extrasensory perception, sensing beyond the senses. Perhaps the sixth sense is not nonsense, but rather very much sensory perception: the interoceptive. Yoga in this sense is very no nonsense.

People see the nimble, uncanny, and bewildering bodily control of yogi/ni and presume them to be keepers of esoteric powers. Some develop elaborate theories and convoluted programs to develop the sixth sense. Occam's razor states, “One should not increase, beyond the necessary, the number of entities required to explain anything. ” In other words, all things being equal, the simplest solution among several possible solutions to a given problem is the “best” one. What is the simplest explanation of the sixth sense and how to develop it? The best and most obvious answer is that the sixth sense is the proprioception – the refinement of bodily awareness in time and space.

Scientists have remained locked in a struggle to answer this question ever since Sherrington coined the term in 1906. Proprioception, very succinctly though not very simply, involves all of those inputs that originate from the joints, muscles, tendons, and deep tissue and those signals sent to our central nervous system (CNS) for processing.

Proprioception has nothing to do with your CNS' processing of this information, nor does it have anything to do with reflexes, reactions, and responses. It merely senses and collects information. Proprioception is how we determine our place in the world because it directly assesses our muscular tensions (including our movements and respiratory control), postural equilibrium, and joint stability.

Proprioception gathers this information through special sensors in your muscles, connective tissues, and joints. Like satellite dishes dedicated to different channels, there are five different receptions:

Nociceptors detect levels of pain, aches, and trauma in the body. Chemoreceptors detect changes in internal and external chemistry, such as alluded to previously with hormonal arousal in the stress arousal syndrome. Electromagnetic receptors detect changes in the electromagnetic field in which we live, and account for the host of energy work disciplines. Thermoreceptors detect changes in temperature, externally and internally. Mechanoreceptors detect three different though similar categories of information:

Position sense, also known as “joint sense, ” detects the position of all of your joints in three-dimensional space, including postural equilibrium, joint stability. Movement sense, also known as “kinesthetic sense, ” detects all of the changes in velocity, direction, and angle of all of your movement. Tension sense, also known as “force sense, ” detects all of the levels, changes, and rates of tension in your muscles, tendons, and ligaments, as well as pressure and vibration.

All of this information is received and converted into a final common signal that is transmitted to your eNS. The sixth sense is the amalgam of all of the information transmitted to our brain to process and then decide on how to interact with the environment. Let's consider where in the game we collect this information. Our nervous system can basically be divided into three parts. Here we look at them in reverse order from farthest from the brain to nearest:

+ Spinal cord: The spinal cord receives the proprioceptive information. + Brain stem: The brain stem receives visual (your eyes) and vestibular information – the fluid gyroscope in your inner ear that senses position, velocity, and acceleration of the head in relation to the body – and acts as an internal guidance and balance system.

+ Cerebral cortex: The cerebral cortex processes all of the sensory information and forms an internal representation, or mental blueprint – essential information for your brain integrated into a momenHo moment portrait of your movement in relation to your environment. What's very important to understand here is that your mental blueprint is the brain's interpretive model of your physical self image. As a whole, these physiological data collectors create an ongoing, moment-to-moment report of our bodily status in our brain. This entire process relays very accurate information about what our body does and, more important, who we are – our self-image. Once it is communicated, our brain takes the sensory information and renders a three-dimensional portrait of ourselves in our environment. This mental blueprint changes from each moment to the next. The sixth sense, or proprioception, is so powerful that it causes the most widespread and intense electrical activity in the brain. For example, using our mental blueprint we can differentiate between two disparate arm positions that are no greater than a mere 1.25 centimeters apart.

This mental blueprint permits us to close our eyes and touch our nose, a small task but absolutely amazing to consider. The mental blueprint is an internal sensory schema of everything in our environment.

The APA Monitor (Azar, 1998) reported a case where a man, because of a certain viral infection, had lost his kinesthesia – his ability to internally represent bodily position in space. Despite the fact that all of his motor functions were fine, ifhe was blindfolded he could not stand upright. He compensated after significant years of trial and error and managed to walk and move with relative competence. However, should anyone come into the room and turn off the lights, he will immediately fall to the floor in a heap, able to get up only if someone turns on the lights.

Without his vision this man had no frame of reference (mental blueprint) regarding where to place his hands down on the floor or how to elevate his elbow over his hand at a sufficient angle to leverage himself off the floor. When standing, deprived of vision, he had no cues on where to place his feet underneath his center of gravity, no cues on how to shift his weight, and no cues on how to maintain his balance. This was a rare case, but it definitely demonstrates the effect of just one aspect of proprioception. However, we allow the other information to compete and dominate our information collecting.

Pain competes for our performance. The signal that is capable of dominating all of the other channels is nociception. Pain, ache, and trauma override the other signals due to the urgency of the message to arrive at the eNS. This is simply an evolutionarily stable survival strategy. If we didn't get this information to our brains so that we could process it and do something about it immediately, we wouldn't have survived this long as a species.

The problem from a motor skill development perspective is that the presence of pain, aches, and trauma competes with our ability to release bound flow and unlock body flow. Although we may think that if we push into the pain we will achieve a particular pose or movement, we only reinforce the trauma.

We cannot stop pain, aches, and trauma, but we can unbind them so that the body can heal itsel£ We begin by releasing the fear-reactivity, which prevents us from accessing this healing capacity. But first we must realize that our pain, aches, and trauma compete for our ability to heal them.

As we have established, fear-reactivity is a tolerance to pain, aches, and trauma. Sustained repetition of any event produces an adaptation. That progress or addiction tolerance influences our self-image. The negative feelings and internal dialogue that result defensively lock down to protect the area or acljacent areas from future harm. This is not a negative reaction; it's our body protecting itself as part of the healing process. But avoiding the discomfort of actually moving into the area has set up artificial structures that prevent the area from healing and enabling body flow.

Pain is just information, but there is a difference between noise and signal. The noise involves all of those knotted muscles, weakened tendons and ligaments, and dry joint capsules straining under the effort of our movement.

Injury differs. An injury sends an urgent distress signal. We must learn the difference between the noise of pain and the signal of injury. Yoga helps us tune out the noise and amplify the clarity of any signals we transmit.

It begins with daily deepening of one's personal practice and, more important, how we practice. Intuitive practice is a quantitative tool that will help us relearn how to qualify discomfort from injury.

One solution to chronic pain and fear-reactivity involves distracting the nervous system through yoga practice. This conservative approach to pain management helps foster the physiological environment critical for allowing the body to heal.

In 1962, Ronald Melzack and Patrick Wall developed a new theory of pain – the gate control theory – to account for the clinically recognized importance of the mind and brain in pain perception. Though the theory primarily regards the mental issues involved in amplifying pain signals, it provides an important understanding of how yoga can be used for pain managemeQt. The gate control theory explores the complex relationship between the central and peripheral nervous system divisions:

+ Central nervous system (the spinal cord and the brain) + Peripheral nervous system (nerves outside of the brain and spinal cord, including in the torso and extremities and lumbar spine) The experience of pain depends upon how these two divisions interact as they process signals in different ways. With an injury, pain messages (nociception) in the damaged tissue flow along the peripheral nerves to the spine and up to the brain. But before the messages arrive at the brain, they must pass through bundles of nerves, or “gates, ” in the spine that shut or open if they have the right “key. ” When these gates are open, pain gets through and can even amplify. But when these gates are closed, pain can't arrive at the brain or be experienced. As of yet, scientists do not understand the details of this process. However, it does yield an explanation for why yoga has been used for pain management for thousands of years.

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