Women, Yoga and the Evolution of the Stress Response

(Reader’s note: I wrote several blogs about a recently published article, Potential self-regulatory mechanisms of yoga for psychological health. You can start with the first part of that series here. But there are lots of other aspects of this topic to consider so I’m going to write a few more blogs on things that are not covered by the initial article.)

Pretty much everyone is familiar with fight-or-flight – when stressed or threatened, we tend to either confront the stressor, or run away. This theory has had a long time to sink into our collective consciousness – it was first identified in 1932 by Walter Cannon – whose subjects, BTW, were men.

What about the evolution of a woman’s stress response?

Think pre-historic woman, pregnant or babied, out there on the savanna trying to survive? Flight? It would be pretty hard to run away with a bunch of little kids tugging at your furry apron strings. Fight? Not necessarily the wisest option either. How are the kids going to get to their pre-historic soccer practice if you’re injured or dead?

So what’s a Neanderthal woman to do? Developing a protective response by forming alliances with larger social groups, particularly other women, may be a wiser choice. Forget fight-or-flight, let’s tend-and-befriend.

This theory was put forth by Shelley Taylor at the University of California at Los Angeles in 2000. Taylor deferentially remarked that her theory won’t replace fight-or-flight but simply add another dimension to our understanding of the stress response (Ha! “And now I will prove my theory by doing what women are evolutionarily adapted to do well – make everyone feel safe.”)

Scientists used to think that because women have higher cortisol levels than men, they don’t handle stress as well. But the reality is that a woman’s body is set up to handle stress differently than a man’s. Women make far more oxytocin than men. Oxytocin is produced when we connect deeply with other human beings. It’s often called the love hormone (it’s also a neurotransmitter.) It mitigates the effects of cortisol and reduces stress.

A woman’s system relies more heavily on oxytocin than a man’s does and the estrogen in a woman system enhances the bonding effects of oxytocin. This means that women can more effectively buffer their stress response by tending and befriending rather than fight or flight-ing. (Suggestion to sister overworkers: after your read this blog, get together with your BFF and tell her what you just learned about your stress response).

Now let’s consider Polyvagal Theory. According to Stephen Porges, human beings have three ways of responding to stress. The most evolved way is essentially tend-and-befriend – when faced with stress, the first thing we do is try to connect with another human being. We eat, drink, listen to music, and tell our stories. We look for facial cues and body language that mirror our own and helps us feel safe and loved.

This results in a calming oxytocin brew.

When we receive positive feedback, the stress response diminishes and we can resume parasympathetic homeostasis (i.e. a happy nervous system). Oh, and this mechanism is essentially the domain of the most evolved part of our nervous system – the front brain.

The second response is fight-or-flight. The front brain can’t take it anymore; we go into mid-brain or limbic activation. It’s an evolutionarily older response. Since we can’t reason with this person or situation, we run or fight. 

The final response is the freeze response – the oldest evolutionary mechanism. Freeze is an instinctual brain stem function that helps us conserve energy and survive.  (Here’s a blog I wrote about the vagus nerve a while ago)

It would be a reductionist trap to fall into the argument that women use their front brains more in the face of stress and men, their mid-brains (I happen to live with a man who is one heck of a front brain using oxytocin producer).  It would be a gender trap to assert that women are more collective and men more individualistic, or that women don’t fight-or-flight and men don’t tend-and-befriend. It suffices to say, there is something useful about comparing these stress response theories and then, for our purposes, applying them to how we use yoga.

Think about the archetypal yogi. Male. Emaciated. Bearded. Meditating in a Himalayan cave. Utterly alone.

Equivalent female archetype? Venus of Willendorf maybe? She’s definitely not alone, she’s probably changing a diaper.

When you think about the mythic consciousness that surrounds traditional yoga – a solitary pursuit by silent men, it makes sense in terms of using the practices to prepare for samadhi – run away to a cave to diminish potential threats in pursuit of your single minded goal.

But yoga has always had it’s collective application. And it’s been refashioned, to a certain extent, by western women as a group process. Yoga, as a collective experience, seems to more appropriately address women’s different needs for self-regulation. In terms of the neurobiology of women’s self-regulation, the value of yoga may be in the collaborative process.






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