Updated: Jun 17
The diet pressure is real right now, people. You know it. I know it. Everyone knows it. The country is opening up, people are going out, experimenting with clothes that don’t have elastic (I’m certainly not, but I guess some people are?) and everywhere we look, we are being told that it’s time to get back into shape. It’s all “New Year, New You” up in here AGAIN and no one should have to put up with that noise twice in one year!
The reality is that when these messages start pouring in from the outside, it triggers feelings of inadequacy, fear of not fitting in, and of not being accepted (all of this on top of whatever negative thoughts we were already having on our own). And it affects each of us differently; for some of us, these messages bring on more self-critical thoughts as we inspect our reflections in the mirror; for some, it may lead to self-harm in the form of food restriction, overexercise, or worse; and it can also bring on bouts of anxiety and depression, anti-social behavior, and lead to eating disorders.
Diet culture would have us believe that it’s our food and exercise habits that have the greatest effect on our health. Sugar and fried foods, a higher weight, and a sedentary lifestyle are all blamed as the single greatest threats to our overall health and wellbeing. We are given completely overwhelming (and often totally inaccessible) instructions on how to overhaul our lifestyle so that we may avoid an untimely death. Cut out this food, eat lots of that food, exercise for at least this length of time each day, lose this many pounds...studies show that if you do, you’ll live a longer life and if you don’t, well. It’ll be your own fault, won’t it? It is this “all or nothing” mentality that leads us to throw up our hands in exasperation, believing ourselves to be too lazy, too lacking in willpower, and too broken to do anything at all.
The stress that comes with living in a human body in our modern day society is ubiquitous. In addition to the stressors that most face with family, work, traffic, and the like, we are also steamrolled under the pressures of a culture that preys on our insecurities for profit. From the images of svelte, toned personal trainer influencers we can’t escape on Instagram, to the empty promises found in ads for diet programs...from the hunger pangs that arise in our own bellies that must be “dealt with”, to the daily task of putting clothes on our bodies and trying to feel good about how we look...not to mention the doctor’s appointment we keep putting off because we know that we’ll be met with the same judgment and useless advice that we got the last time we went, and the time before that.
WITH KNOWLEDGE COMES POWER
The good news is that we aren’t totally helpless in this situation. There is something we can do about it that doesn’t involve giving in to the pressure; it starts with understanding the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS).
The ANS is a brilliant survival mechanism that our miraculous bodies have been equipped with since we lived in caves. It is responsible for providing us with the ability to escape from life threatening situations and it is also designed to help us recover from such scenarios. The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS), also known as the stress response, is the branch of the ANS that allowed our cavemen ancestors to avoid the fate of being someone else’s lunch by releasing adrenaline and cortisol into their bloodstreams when a predator attacked. This physiological response gave them the energy to fight or flee the perils they faced by focusing all of their resources towards physical strength and stamina.
Once they escaped, they’d retreat to a cave and recover from the ordeal. The blood would return from their limbs back to their internal organs, the breath rate would slow, the blood pressure would lower, and the functions of the body that help maintain homeostasis (the digestive process, reproductive system, and immune function, for example) would resume. The adrenal glands would halt production of stress hormones and our ancestors would take a restful, restorative nap. At this point, the other branch of the ANS, the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), was activated, restoring balance.
Unfortunately, the stress response becomes activated not only when there is a true threat, but anytime there is a perceived threat; in other words, whenever you face a situation where you feel the demands outweigh your resources to successfully cope: reading a disturbing and overwhelming news story; receiving a snide remark from someone whose opinion matters to you; a looming deadline...and the list goes on. Those of us who have a difficult relationship with food and body can attest to multiple additional stressors each day, on top of the usual fare. And those who experience oppression (racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, sizeism, classism, etc) have significantly more to deal with.
And so we are chronically imbalanced. Our SNS is overactive and our PNS is underactive–in fact, the recovery period rarely happens. We go from one stressor to the next, and then plop down on the couch to watch tv and unwind, but our nervous system doesn’t get the message. In fact, in many cases, we become even further stressed by what we see on the screen. The hormones that are released in the bloodstream to facilitate emergency action stay there, causing damage to the blood vessels and the organs they supply, which then leads to a slew of health complications.
So what do we do? The answer is twofold: first, it would certainly behoove us to commit to the long term work of dismantling the systems of oppression that cause the stress in the first place; secondly, in the meantime, we can develop our ability to cope. And that, my friends, is where yoga can come in handy. Yoga offers many tools and strategies that are extremely powerful when it comes to activating the PNS:
Pranayama (breathing exercises)
Conscious control of the breath increases our lung capacity, tones the diaphragm, and certain types of exercises stimulate the vagus nerve, which directly triggers the relaxation response. When our SNS is triggered, our breath becomes shallow and fast. Reversing this pattern stimulates the PNS, sending the message that our threat is gone and we are safe and can relax.
To start: Begin with abdominal breathing. Lie down and place one hand on your abdomen. Follow the rise of the belly as you inhale and the fall of the belly as you exhale. Use your abdominal muscles to expand the belly like a balloon and as you exhale, do so slowly, letting the air out evenly and gradually. Work towards an exhale that’s twice as long as your inhale.
The physical practice of yoga asanas lead to stress reduction for many reasons, but the one I’ll highlight here has to do with the fact that exercising the body actually stimulates the SNS and when we come into a relaxation after such a practice, we are then able to relax much more deeply than if we had not exercised prior (like how we often get a better night’s sleep after an active day). Compared with your standard workout routine, which usually involves a cool down but not a deep relaxation at the end, and which may end up leaving our SNS activated, asana practice wins!
To start: Try doing a few minutes of sun salutations followed by a few minutes of conscious relaxation everyday. There are many versions of sun salutations (chair-based, standing, etc) to choose from–there is something for everyone.
Since the stress response is triggered by our perception of a threat rather than any sort of objective reality, it follows that in the case of non-emergencies, if we can alter our perception, we can alter our response. This shift is possible through meditation. There is a common misconception that the purpose of meditation is to force the mind to be quiet, but that is not the case. Meditation is the practice of observing the mind and over time, it leads us to realize that we are, in fact, not the mind. We develop the capacity to watch the thoughts as an observer, which in turn distances us from the drama of our lives. We begin to realize that we have a choice in how we respond to the situations we face, rather than being in a constant state of uncontrollable reactivity to them. With regular practice, we develop strength of mind, which in turn gives us more control over it.
To start: Find a comfortable position seated or lying down and set a timer for five minutes. Close your eyes and bring your focus to either the heart center or the point between the eyebrows. Take a few deep breaths through the nose (if possible) to energize the mind, and then allow the breath to become more subtle. As you inhale, mentally hear the mantra Ommmmmmm. As you exhale, hear the same sound again. Whenever you notice that the mind has wandered, just watch it. Wait until the thought has passed, and then bring your focus back to your breath, your focal point, and the mantra. Repeat. As your comfort with the practice increases, increase the amount of time you spend meditating. (If you are experiencing disturbing or painful thoughts while you practice, I recommend trying a guided meditation or sticking with breathing exercises instead. You don’t have to subject yourself to that type of experience.)
Savasana (conscious relaxation)
Savasana (pronounced sha-va-sa-na) means “corpse pose” in sanskrit and it’s aptly named; the idea is to bring the body and mind into the deepest state of relaxation possible while still conscious. This often involves mentally scanning the entire body from the toes to the top of the head and letting go of any and all tension, all while breathing deeply and slowly. After the entire body has been actively relaxed, you rest in the pose for at least 5-10 minutes. This is the simulation of the rest in the cave after escaping the jaws of a tiger and we can access it anytime we want.
To start: Try it using the simple description above. If possible, do some sun salutations or go for a brisk walk first. You can also find tons of videos and recordings online and in meditation apps.
If you’ve been alive for a while, you know that diets don’t work in the long run. And usually, it’s some experience of stress that leads us to decide we need to go on one in the first place. We have the sense that it’ll help us gain some control, find happiness, etc. While this may be true for a period of time, the truth is that it’s very likely to be a temporary fix. What if our best bet for long term health, wellness, and contentment were actually to ditch the diets and instead, train ourselves to retreat to our very own modern day “cave” where we can rest, digest, and soothe the nervous system? Even just a minimal amount of breathing, conscious relaxation, movement, and/or meditation may go a long way.
If you're interested in exploring some of these strategies with me and learning more about the stress response, join me for my upcoming workshop, Yoga Philosophy and Practice for Stress Management (Diet Culture Edition) on June 26th-27th! Please don't hesitate to contact me with questions.