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.
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.
- 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.
- 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?”
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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