I’m going to talk about a tool for reducing the effects of excessive stress and anxiety disorders that my own naturopath taught me. It’s a tool I have used during times of chronic and extreme stress.
The tool is hitting a punching bag as hard as you can, and yelling if you want. If you let loose, about five minutes’ duration is all most people can manage, and indeed around five minutes is all you need.
A key aspect of using a punching bag therapeutically is that the activity is of high intensity and short duration. The short duration aspect is very important.
I will explain the theory behind this tool.
Stress puts our body into fight-or-flight, a rapid, whole-body state where our sympathetic nervous system (part of the autonomic nervous system) primes us to run away or fight. Being in the state of fight-or-flight involves the sympathetic nervous system signalling the adrenal medulla (inner adrenal glands) to release catecholamines, including epinephrine (aka adrenalin) and norepinephrine. These hormones reinforce the fight-or-flight response, which involves:
Fight-or-flight is an ancient survival mechanism designed to prime the body to run from or fight bears, sabre-toothed cats, or attacking enemy tribes, for example. As most people no longer have to deal with bears, sabre-toothed cats and hand to hand combat, the state of fight-or-flight is nowadays usually induced by stress. And chronic stress can lead to being in a state of chronic fight-or-flight, where our stressors may be emotional but are reinforced by chemical responses in the body.
A note on stress. I have noticed people tend to associate stress with work, study, raising the kids, and money worries. And it’s true that all these things can be significant contributors to stress. However, stress can also be caused by things like a broken heart, bullying, neglect and abuse (past or recent), chronic noise in your neighbourhood, not getting enough time to yourself, not getting enough time in nature, environmental pollution, living with a chronic illness, accidents and injuries, grief in all its forms, substance abuse, having a lack of nurturing relationships in your life, and many other factors and events. In addition, sometimes a series of stressful happenings can occur in our lives and have a cumulative effect. Work stress on its own can be tough but imagine if in addition to this a person you are close to dies, a few weeks later you are told you will need to have a surgery, and then really loud construction starts on the block next to you. And perhaps in addition to all this, you have been living with an anxiety disorder or other mental health condition. Any of these events on their own would be tough to varying degrees, but when such events happen within a short space of time, we can feel threadbare and overwhelmed.
So, consider that stress comes in many forms, can be made worse by a series of stressful events, and some things that are stressful for one person (not getting enough time alone, or chronic noise in your neighbourhood, for example) may not be stressful or as stressful for another person.
Getting back to fight-or-flight. In the modern world, our body switches into this mode in response to stress rather than attacking bears.
But here’s the thing. Because fight-or-flight is an ancient mechanism, your body doesn’t know there is no bear (though your brain does). And the purpose of fight-or-flight is to prime your body to run…or fight.
This is where the punching bag comes in.
We can’t control the challenges life throws at us, or run away from our grief and trauma (not forever, anyway). But we can punch a punching bag, as hard as we like, and yell if we want to. Yelling can take the form of whichever words or sounds feel right for you. If we ‘fight’ intensely in this way for 5 minutes (remember, short duration is a key aspect of this tool), we ‘burn off’ (metabolise) the stress-induced hormones so they are no longer circulating in our bodies, and no longer affecting us so intensely physiologically, for the time being.
Typically, most people can punch hard and yell for only about five minutes, maybe ten, or something in between - listen to your body here. Then they experience a feeling of release and calm, even feelings of happiness. They no longer feel 'charged' with stress. Perhaps their panic attack has ceased. Their sadness and anger have eased for now. The ‘bear’ has been fought off. Sometimes, people even feel sleepy after punching.
Used daily or weekly during tough times in life, punching for short, intense periods can be an effective tool for releasing stress, burning up stress chemicals and reducing their effects.
Please note that LONG DURATION activities such as running and team sports may worsen feelings of stress and overwhelm, as exercise increases the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, which governs the release of epinephrine (adrenalin) and norepinephrine.
A garage is a great place to hang a punching bag. If you can’t get a punching bag, pillows make a good substitute. In addition, you can also find punching bags at most gyms if you already have a membership. You may not feel as able to yell if using a punching bag in public, but you can still hit strong and fast for a few minutes, and get the benefits of feeling calmer afterwards.
A final note. A friend who is an experienced martial artist offered this advice.
“If you're doing a lot of repetitive punching, skill and technique are also important to avoid repetitive stress-related injuries - keep the elbow tucked and the shoulders relaxed instead of hunched, and ensure your fist is correctly aligned to your forearm.”
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