Stress – who needs it!

Stress – who needs it!

Stress – who needs it? Well, actually we do, at least the right kind of stress, at the right time, and in the right amount. We are wired by the Lord with physiological mechanisms to handle stress. Remember the “Fight or flight” response? The hormone adrenalin is released by our body to help us get through some of the challenges of daily living. It helps us breathe and pump our blood more efficiently and think in a more intense focused way. Like the times when we need to perform at our best, maybe as part of an athletic competition or in response to someone in need of help. But this same system can hurt us when it remains chronically activated. When stress is prolonged and intense the fight or flight hormone adrenalin is overtaken by the long-term response hormone cortisol. High levels of cortisol over a long period of time can weaken out immune system, weaken bone and muscle, and even impair our brain’s function, leading to confusion, loss of memory and poor judgement.

So what is stress anyway? Well a good working definition is the inability to respond adequately to a situation, or the feeling one gets when he or she senses a lack of control to an adverse situation. Psychologists break down stress into two basic categories, eustress – the kind of happy stress we feel in anticipation of a joyful event like a wedding, and distress – the overwhelming feeling of anxiety we feel over situations that are overwhelming us. I’m sure you can tell which the potentially harmful one is.

A good example of the impact of stress comes from a British study done long ago in which the death rate of people in government was followed across several years. What they found, unexpectedly, was that the people who were at the top of the hierarchy (administrators) actually lived longer than people who were at the lower rungs of the organization (clerics). The study investigators proposed that this inverted relationship between level in the organization and likelihood of dying was related to the participants’ ability to control their circumstances. Those at the top had a lot of control while those at the bottom had little. Many other studies went on to support this concept.

Death rates among British civil servants by job level

It seems a bit like the Goldilocks fairy tale the best stress is that which is not too hot, not too cold but just right. Again, we were created to have the ability to deal with adversity. But it’s one thing to activate our stress response to help run away when being chased by a tiger, and another thing altogether to sit on the couch all day and fret about paying our overextended credit-card! And not only does chronic stress have an adverse effect on us as individuals, it has an effect on those around us. One surprising example of this is the effect that stress has on mothers-to-be may have on their children. Studies show that pregnant animals who are stressed tend to their offspring less than pregnant animals who are not stressed. But what’s interesting is that the offspring of stressed mothers grow up to be less attentive to their offspring than offspring of non-stressed mothers. Talk about the sins of the fathers (or in this case the mothers) being passed on to the children!

Of course the fact that we have to deal with stressful situation is no surprise to people of faith. Jesus himself tells us we will have trouble in this world. But he also provides the comfort of knowing that he has overcome the world. Question is, how do we tap into that comfort when the world seems to be falling apart around us?

Here’s my list of “Top 10” suggestions, in no particular order.

  1. Respond in faith. As Paul advises us, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus”. In other words be confident in knowing that the Lord has your back. He is in control.
  2. Avoid getting into the trap of persistent worrying or fretting. It only gets in the way of responding to the situation. Consider setting aside a period of time, maybe one hour a day, to “worry” if you find it just can’t be avoided. As Jesus says, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?”
  3. Get a pet. Animals like cats and dogs are ‘nephesh’, or soulish, creatures, created to have a relationship with people. They love unconditionally. Take advantage of that gift from God. Studies show that having a pet near your side lowers your blood pressure and the level of stress hormones in your body
  4. Downsize and delegate. In many cases, worry results from trying to balance too many responsibilities. Get rid of those things you don’t “have to do” or find someone else to do them. Better yet, leverage your activities by combining them. For example, use cooking time as a time to be with the children giving them a small part of the meal preparation.
  5. Get organized. Tame the chaos by putting your activities in order. Set aside one day of the week, perhaps early in the morning, to make your plans for the coming week. Schedule activities and goals on the calendar. Review your plans each morning or evening. Then do what you planned to do, follow through.
  6. Carve our time for recreation, or more properly “Re-creation”. Maybe for you that’s a half-hour each night watching your favorite show, or it may be going out for a jog, or working in the garden or shed. The key is that the activity is intentional, a reward of sorts, and something that brings you a sense of peace.
  7. Find support. “Plans fail for lack of advisors” is a worthwhile proverb to consider. Find a small group of close friends and share your concerns. You may find that you have solutions for each other’s problems.
  8. Get your rest. Start by setting your wake-up alarm for the same time each day, no matter what. In time that will force you to go to bed at a decent hour and help lay the foundation for a tranquil life.
  9. Count your blessings. Yes, it sounds trite and a bit corny, but just living in the USA where we have laws and basic freedoms and having food, shelter, and clothing are realities of our day-to-day lives that most people in the world can only hope for.
  10. And, of course, no de-stressing plan can be complete without prayer and reflection. Consider setting aside times to do what I call PRINK, that is to “PRayerfully thINK”. Maybe on your way to work or your walk home from the store, PRINK over specific issues you face under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

On a personal note, I am reluctant to even post this blog entry. Stress is something that plagues me from time to time and I don’t pretend to have the final answer. And much of the advice listed here is based on personal experience and not hard scientific findings. I would love to hear from you if you have any thoughts or suggestions on coping with stress, particularly from a faith perspective. My final word of encouragement in dealing with stress is from God’s Word, “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity (anxiety, stress) but one of power, love, and self-discipline.” God Bless, Jim

Save the heartbeats!

Save the heartbeats!

Take a look at the chart. What is the one common characteristic among all animal species represented?

Not weight, heartrate, or longevity. The one common feature is that all among this diverse listing of species, including humans, live until their heart beats about 1 billion times and then – they die. The reason for this heart beat phenomenon is unknown. One theory is that the heart rate is a measure of general intermediary metabolism. In other words, how fast a creature “burns” food. The burning (oxidation) involves the generation of nasty oxygen radicals which damage cells, and this may well be an inevitable part of living. Or maybe, like an elastic band, there are only so many times you can stretch out the walls of the heart before something snaps.

So what can we learn from this? Is this limitation fate, something we are stuck with and can’t do anything about? Well in a sense yes, the book of Hebrews tells us “it is appointed unto men once to die”. And despite all the hype about immortality being just around the corner with advances in biology and genetics, this is simply a pipe dream.

Yet Proverbs tells us “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life”. So how do we guard our heart, in practical terms, especially when their’s an almost universal limit on its ability to function? Well, the answer is save those heartbeats! In other words, slow down your heartrate and live longer.

How to do this? Well one obvious way is to chill out. Find ways to deal with the everyday stress of life. As Jesus says, “Do not let your heart be troubled”. Yes, the occasional stressful situation is going to be there and we have to deal with that, it’s what our “fight or flight” hormones, most notably adrenalin are meant for. But constant stress is a killer. It accelerates our heart and steals those precious beats a little each day. And for anyone looking for a quick fix to weight loss, stimulants that are “metabolism boosters”, increase the heart rate much the same as our own adrenalin. This is potentially a high price to pay for the loss of a few pounds.

And what about exercise? Clearly it increases heart rate, which would be entirely the opposite of what we are striving for. But there’s an interesting twist to the exercise story, a paradox really. While our heart rate indeed goes up during exercise, two maybe even three times the normal rate, our heart rate while we are not exercising, the “resting” heart rate, goes down in a way that more than compensates for the short increase during exercise.

For example, consider a 50 year old “nonexerciser” (I’ve been told to keep away from the couch-potato term, but you know what I mean!) vs. a person who exercises vigorously a half-hour a day. Let’s assume the nonexerciser experiences a heart rate of 80 beats per minute (BPM) through the day for a total of 115,2000 beats in 24 hours. And let’s assume the exerciser experiences a heart rate 140 BPM during a half-hour of exercise and 60 beats per minute for the remaining 23.5 hour in the day for a total of 88,000 beats. That’s about 25% less beats in the day for our exerciser. Of course this does not translate directly into 25% longer life, but that is the general direction. And of course, the bigger value, which is harder to quantify, is the better quality of life, especially in the later years, for the exerciser. But more on that in another post.

So think of those heartbeats as a treasure to be guarded (by exercise and tranquility) and spent (by living) wisely. Remember – the objective is to serve the Lord, and you have to be here to do that!