Mind Your Body: Yoga for the Three F Words: Fight, Flight, or Freeze

Our fast-paced world with the prevalence of multi-tasking, profusion of information, and sense of scarcity, is creating an epidemic of stress-related conditions. Technology bombards us every day with events that are difficult to comprehend or process.

Much of the stress that we face is psychological in nature. If we were running from the sabre tooth tiger (and were successful in finding safety) we would soon calm down and return to a state of balance. Most of the time we don’t literally run out of our offices or homes, get into fist fights with our boss, family members or friends, nor do we freeze like deer in the headlights. However, our bodies do respond to stressful situations in preparation with these reactions: fight, flight, or freeze. And the stress response always seems to involve contraction.

If we are angry we may notice contraction or tension in the jaw, neck, chest, shoulders, and upper back. Our muscles tense in the places that could help us launch an attack, verbally and physically. If we are not able to discharge this energy, and these tensions, we may develop ongoing tightness, soreness, or pain in the upper body.

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If our response to stressors is fear and the desire to flee, tension may center in the muscles of the low back, buttocks, hips, and legs—the areas that would be activated by running. Our hamstrings may be particularly tight. If the feelings become stuck, we may have chronic tightness in the lower body.

A sense of overwhelm and inability to respond to the demands placed upon us may cause us to freeze up. Feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, or grief may result in “numbing out” and becoming disconnected from the feelings and sensations in our bodies. We may unconsciously “shut down” in order to dull physical and emotional pain. Our breath may become restricted and our sense of aliveness is dimmed. It’s as if “nobody’s home.”

The good news is that yoga is highly effective for relieving the stress response in all three variants of fight, flight, or freeze. The basic techniques of yoga address the physical body, breathing and the flow of energy, and the mind. Awareness from moment-to-moment underlies all of the techniques of yoga.

As we stretch, strengthen, and balance the physical body we are releasing the holding, tightness, and contraction in the body. Messages are sent to the nervous system that everything is okay and a cascade of events within the body encourages further ease. By deepening and steadying our breathing we feel revitalized and establish emotional calmness and overall steadiness. By keeping our minds centered and focused we become less reactive to events and are able to observe our responses and make better choices.

As we practice these techniques that free of us tension, they also touch the emotional underpinnings, the thoughts and feelings that underlie and feed our pain. Over time we become more skilled on our yoga mat, but also in our lives. Many yoga practitioners say that if they don’t make it to yoga class for a while, that their family members or co-workers tell them it’s time to get back on the mat!

Many yoga studios offer free initial classes. If you have never tried yoga this is a good way to start--to free yourself of unwanted stress and live with greater vitality, balance and ease.

Dorian Abel, MS, RYT is the owner of Healing Yoga in Douglassville.

An Integrative Yoga Therapist, Reiki Master-Teacher, and consultant on mind/body health, she can be reached at dorian@healingyogapa.com.