Facing the lion: Understanding and managing stress response while parenting

Yoga therapist Emily Gold gives some practical advice on dealing with 'fight or flight' stress responses when the stress is caused not by a roaring lion, but instead, babies that won’t sleep, screaming toddlers, children demanding more screen time, piles of laundry, demanding jobs and all the rest.

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Parenting can be stressful. If you are reading this, I doubt that statement is a revelation. But have you ever stopped to think about what exactly it means to be “stressed”, what happens to your body when it happens and what you can do about it?

Feeling stressed is our body’s natural response to any sort of threat. Unfortunately for us 21st century parents, our bodies have evolved these responses over hundreds of thousands of years, and haven’t quite caught up to modern stress. When sensing danger, our nervous system kicks into “Fight or Flight” mode, setting off a chain of reactions as it has evolved to do, as if there was a hungry lion lurking nearby. So we react the way we would if faced with a hungry lion. We can fight it or fly (run) from it.

Feeling stressed is our body’s natural response to any sort of threat. […] In the wild, this is a good thing.

What this means is that our bodies literally get prepared to run or fight. We crouch down and tighten our shoulders. Clench our jaws. Our breaths get faster and our hearts race to send more blood away from digestion and reproductive organs (these aren’t important if you are facing a hungry lion) and to muscles and skin. All that matters is facing the threat.

In the wild, this is a good thing. And in the wild, if you manage to get away from the lion your body’s counter response kicks in. “Rest and Digest” begins, your heart rate slow, blood returns to digestive and reproductive organs, muscles relax and you can go back to your cave or down to the watering hole.  

While we are lucky that most of us don’t have to fear hungry lions, our stress looks more like babies that won’t sleep, screaming toddlers, children demanding more screen time, piles of laundry, demanding jobs and a list that goes on and on. Yet our bodies respond to all of these threats the same way they would to that hungry lion. Ready to fight or run from the stress. Heart rate goes up. Muscles clench. Breathing becomes shallow, digestive system falters. 

Unfortunately these responses actually make it MORE difficult to deal with the current stress. As much as we may sometimes want to, we can’t run away from a toddler tantrum or fight a pile of laundry. So our body and nervous systems stay in this stress response, never getting to return to the watering hole.

Unfortunately these responses actually make it MORE difficult to deal with the current stress.

After time, bodies and nervous systems become acclimated to the Fight or Flight mode, till this becomes the norm. The fight or flight cycle continues, whether or not there is a hungry lion, or even a hungry toddler around. This can make it feel difficult to ever relax, making things like yoga classes, meditation or any other kind of “self care” seem pointless. Relaxing becomes challenging and feeling stressed, and the physical symptoms that accompany it, the norm.   

But don’t worry, all is not lost! Retraining your nervous system to come out of fight or flight and strengthening your rest and digest response isn’t as difficult as it sounds. There are a number of ways to do this.

I always recommend working with the breath first, as it is easiest to control, followed by the body and finally the mind.

Below are a few of my favorite ways to begin to begin retraining body and mind:

  • Belly breathing. One of the most common stress responses is fast, shallow breathing. Countering this can remind your brain and body that there isn’t a lion chasing you. 

    To do this wherever you are, you can place your hands so your middle fingers touch right above your belly button. Inhale the hands should move up and apart, exhale they move down and together. Try to do this at least 5 times, letting each inhale and exhale be even and at least 4 seconds long.  
  • Meet Lion with Lion’s Breath. This is one of my favorite forms of yogic breathing. 

    Inhale through your nose. Exhale, stick your tongue out and fold forward, making a “haa” sound. If you have a young child with you they will likely find this hysterical (I know mine does) and probably want to join you. 
  • Fold Forward.  Ever feel like just curling up in a ball? This is a completely normal desire to hide from a perceived threat. And while I am not suggesting you ACTUALLY hide from your children (and let’s be honest, they’ll find you) folding forward can actually help relieve stress. Several nerves related to the parasympathetic nervous system (which controls your rest and digest response) are stimulated when you fold forward.

    To do this wherever you are standing, bend your knees so you can fold from you hip and avoid rounding your shoulders forward.
  • Label your breathing. This is one of the most accessible mindfulness practices. Take am moment to close your eyes and just notice your breath.

    As you inhale, say to yourself “inhale”. As you exhale, say to yourself  “exhale”. You don’t need to do anything else with your breathing. Just notice and label it. If you’re mind drifts off, which it likely will, you can label “thinking” and then come back to labeling “inhale” and “exhale”. You can try this for a minute a day and over time start doing it for a bit longer. 

If you are ready to take bigger steps towards changing your mind and body’s reaction to stress, join me for the next iteration of the 8-Week Yoga Therapy Course for Stress, Anxiety and Depression. Beginning 10 October 11:00-13:00, running for 9 weeks, with no course on 31 October. Visit my website for more information and to sign up. 

Emily Gold is a Masters of Public Health and a Certified Yoga Therapist based in Brussels. For more information and to learn how to work with her visit her website at EmilyGoldYoga.com