You have just received a letter informing you that you are way behind on your taxes, and as you’re reading that letter, the phone rings and a coworker tells you that you’re expected to make a big presentation tomorrow that you didn’t know about. Your wife is having surgery and the kids are running wild through the house. Suddenly you feel a knot in the pit of your stomach. A cold sweat starts to form between your eyebrows and you can feel every inch of your body tighten up. Your mind begins to race. What are you going to do? You have to do something!
Stress is a giant problem, and one that can be a real killer.
Recent statistics show that stress levels are on the rise around the world. Maybe it has something to do with longer hours, leaner staffing, and a non-stop global appetite for productivity. Or maybe it has something to do with the fact that both parents work to make ends meet and the demands from their kids are much bigger than they were a generation ago. Or maybe it has something to do with the technological age, which instead of saving us time has given us e-mail and cell phones and pushes us to work every minute of the day.
Job, health, financial, or relational issues—whatever it may be, the stress problem appears to have grown over the last few decades, leaving some of us wishing we could just run away from it all! However, this is generally not a rational option; we need a positive way to relate to it.
What is Stress?
Let’s define what stress is: It’s the impact on us of the wear and tear of everyday living. We all experience it. I think it was first scientifically identified many years ago when a biologist was sitting on his veranda watching his favorite cat out in the yard. The cat was relaxing in the sun when a strange dog walked into the yard. As he was watching the cat’s reaction to that strange dog, he wondered what was going on inside the cat. And that led to the beginning of research on stress.
The cat’s hair stood up and it hissed at the dog. This was its emergency response to its canine stressor. When the dog left, the cat relaxed and went about its regular activities. This also happens to us as human beings. When we experience emergencies, like the car in front of us that slams on its brakes and forces us to make a sudden stop in order to avoid an accident. Our heart rate rises, our respiration goes up—all kinds of things happen within us that prepare us for the unexpected crisis. This type of stress may feel intense, but it is short-lived.
What about the “everyday” kind of stress? The day-in and day-out kind that we all face at work or at home? These situations elicit the same type of physiological response as the sudden unexpected ones do. The effects may not be quite as intense but over a long period of time these “minor” stressors can nonetheless exact a huge toll on us.
One of the important things for us to recognize about stress is that it is a very individual thing. What bothers you may not bother me. My circumstances may feel overwhelming to me, but would be no problem for someone else. And we can respond differently to the same set of circumstances from one occasion to another. Thus stress can be a rather relative and dynamic experience.
Many people like to blame their stress, as they perceive it, on what’s happening in the world “out there.” Yet in reality our stress is largely caused by our response to what is happening. Realizing this can help us to cope more effectively.
Stress is the sum total of all our stress reactions to life. So if we react stressfully to this situation and that situation and yet another situation, we’re going to feel more stressed than if we would change our responses to some of those circumstances.
The Bears of Life
Many years ago I was camping in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California and in the middle of the night I was awakened by some noise. I crawled to the tent door, which had not been zipped up. It was a beautiful night and as I looked out, I saw a bear. I could smell its halitosis! There was a lot of stress at that moment! I had that fight-or-flight response, and was ready to run through the other side of the tent (even thought there was no exit there) and I probably would have left my wife behind! But then I realized the bear wasn’t moving toward me. Instead it backed up and lumbered off and out of the campground. When I was sure he was gone, I finally moved again, went back to my sleeping bag, and a few minutes later fell asleep.
Now, that experience probably didn’t do me any harm. The big problem is that we encounter “bears” in life all the time! We live with bears and work with bears. When they are always with us, when we’re always responding in a stressful fashion, we wear ourselves out.
This natural adrenaline-pumping response designed by the Creator to help us deal with the emergencies of life, when experienced continually, can kill us. The energy we expend to deal with our stress reactions eventually wears us out.
The Good and the Bad
Is all stress bad? We might readily think so, but believe it or not, there actually is such a thing as “good stress!” Scientists call it eustress, which means that it is healthful, helpful, and productive. Indeed, there are many good kinds of stress that can benefit us. When the alarm rings in the morning, that’s a form of stress. Most of us would like to just ignore it and sleep another 10, 20 minutes. But heeding this little stressor helps assure that everything else in our day might be less stressful! Positively reacting to that alarm will help us stick to our schedule, be more productive, get to our appointments on time, and hopefully make us less of a stress to others as well!
The harmful stress is scientifically referred to as distress. It results in weakening rather than helping us.
The Damage of Distress
Current medical research recognized that uncontrolled, prolonged stress inflicts much harm. It weakens our immune system and makes us more susceptible to illness. It is not uncommon for someone to get sick after a big stress. Even something considered as good as vigorous exercise, when overdone, can prove adversely stressful. Long distance runners have been found to be more subject to common colds and the flu after running marathons.
Recent research suggests that stress may actually be a contributor to the obesity epidemic in this country. As levels of cortisol, which is sometimes called the stress hormone, go up, it increases our desire to eat. And not only to eat, but perhaps to eat in an uncontrolled fashion. In fact, cortisol may actually influence the desire to eat more calorically dense food, which contributes further to the overweight problem.
Maybe that is why some people who have a bad day at work come home and binge on “comfort food.” I know someone who says that four big scoops of ice cream are good for any bad day! Meanwhile she wondered why she was gaining weight!
Distress can produce headaches, increase the risk of backaches, disturb sleep patterns, cause fatigue, exacerbate allergies, impair digestion, and encourage hypertension. Stressed people tend to exhibit worry and anxiety, and we certainly see a lot of that today. High distress decreases productivity all around and contributes to burnout and breakdown.
How Are We Coping?
Unfortunately, many people today are dealing with stress in negative ways. It is often denied and just accepted as normal. Apathy is another common reaction. And all too often people succumb to ineffective Band-Aid therapies such as the use of alcohol, tranquilizers, or antidepressants to find temporary relief.
People may turn to overeating or shopping or a host of other diversions. They may stay up later than they should or seek entertainment—something, anything to distract them from the things that are really causing their stress. Still others feel sorry for themselves and become very emotional about it. But such reactions generally do not help us to find positive solutions to our stress problems. Instead these ineffective behavioral responses often end up further confounding and controlling our lives.
What we need to remember is that we have the ability to choose how we respond to the various circumstances of life. Circumstances do not need to control our attitude and decisions. We do not need to feel trapped. The God-given power of choice is ours to exercise. How will we relate? Many inspiring true stories teach us that people who experienced tremendous stresses actually grew stronger because of their trials!
Tips for Taming Those Bears
What positive steps can we take to control or change our negative responses to stress? Remember, stress is not caused by all the bears we meet in life, but rather by our reactions to those bears! This may be easier said than done, but we trust that the following steps will help equip you with practical tools to meet the challenges life brings.
- Differentiate between good and bad stressors. Good stress does not need to be avoided. Distress, on the other hand, needs to be recognized, and, whenever possible, eliminated, or managed in the best possible way.
- Adopt a healthful lifestyle. Compromised health, as already suggested, weakens our ability to deal positively with the stresses that occur in life. Lifestyle practices such as sticking to a regular schedule will help greatly.
We can too easily slip into a crazy routine trying to adjust and accommodate to all the demands and desires of our lives. Yet regularity, especially in waking up, mealtimes, and retirement at night, is vital for good health. Unavoidable circumstances may occasionally push us off schedule, but this should be the exception, not the norm.
Adequate nightly sleep is also essential. The hours before midnight are especially valuable in repairing the body from daily wear and tear. During that time the valuable growth hormone is being produced. This hormone improves protein synthesis in the brain so that the mind is brighter. Adequate, good quality sleep helps to sustain the functioning of the immune system. Chronic sleep loss is a risk factor for immune system impairment. Severe sleep loss jolts the immune system into action, reflecting the same type of immediate response shown during exposure to stress.1 Indeed, loss of sleep, even for a few short hours during the night, increases inflammation! 2
Daily exercise is another winner. Note, however, that while moderate physical activity helps lower elevated cortisol levels, excessive and over-strenuous exercise tends to raise them. Too much cortisol inhibits protein synthesis in the brain and elsewhere in the body. Balance is the key!
A nutritious and temperate diet is very important, as well as the avoidance of all harmful substances, and regular exposure to fresh air and sunshine.
Judicious use of water both inside and out, in the form of drinking water and wise hydrotherapy, also goes a long way in promoting health. A good shower or other appropriate water treatment can do wonders for frayed nerves.
- Do not over-commit. Many of us struggle with this. Yet it is essential to learn not to make promises that we cannot fulfill. When we overload ourselves, we often become negative and over-reactive because we feel under so much pressure.
- Simplify our lives. This can also be a tough practice to implement. My wife and I have been working on this recently. We decided that we didn’t need as many flower beds, even though we love flowers, because they take so much time and care. Just a little change like this has made a difference in our ability to do other things we enjoy and find very beneficial.
- Master only one (or two) big changes at a time. Some people want to overhaul everything at once. That can become very stressful. A friend of mine has the following saying on her stationery. “Inch by inch, it’s a cinch.” How true! We never reach the top of the mountain in one giant leap. But the culmination of many small steps will accomplish the goal.
- Take time to relax. Many of us have to learn what it feels like to be relaxed! We need to slow down and smell the roses. If you are a runner, try walking and enjoying the scenery. Find a wholesome book and read it before you collapse into bed. Take a few short breaks during the day and enjoy a walk outside. Spend time in prayer and Bible study. These mini-breaks require a little time but the payoff is enormous! We were not designed to be Energizer batteries that just keep going! We need positive recharging!
- Get some physical activity every day. We’ve already mentioned this, but the value of this point bears repeating. Positive exercise seems to be one of the most effective effacers of stress’ harmful effects. A good workout in the yard or garden, or otherwise, can ease away tension wonderfully! Compared with exercising indoors, exercising in natural environments has been associated with greater feelings of revitalization, increased energy and positive engagement, and decreases in tension, confusion, anger and depression.3
- Learn to resolve conflicts positively. Conflicts—conflicts at home, conflicts with the children, conflicts at work, — are some of the most potent stressors humans experiences. To find peace of mind, we need to learn to resolve such issues positively. Don’t just stew about things in your mind. Take positive action to resolve the conflict by praying, listening carefully, exploring alternatives, processing anger, and maintaining a gracious forgiving spirit.
- Trust in God. The Bible says, “A merry heart does good like medicine.” For me, maintaining that cheerful heart in a world filled with bad news would be impossible without trusting in God! The Apostle Paul recognized that without trusting God, he was helpless to change when he wrote: “The things I want to do, I cannot do, and the things I do not want to do, that is what I do.” Our actions, our emotions, our reactions to life events all fit that description. Later he was able to testify, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” Without this trust in God, our hearts and minds become frayed and filled with distress. Jesus promised, “I will keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on me.”
Spend time every day studying the Bible and talking to the Lord. From that life-giving connection, you will find strength to apply each of these steps to your life. Remember the promise found in Romans 8:28: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God.” God promises to bring good out of every situation that comes into our lives. He will give you a life filled with happiness—in spite of the bumps along the way!
- American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “Sleep deprivation effect on the immune system mirrors physical stress.” ScienceDaily. 1 July 2012. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/07/120701191638.htm
- Elsevier. “Loss of Sleep, Even For a Single Night, Increases Inflammation in the Body.” ScienceDaily., 4 September 2008. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/09/080902075211.htm
- The Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry. “Benefits of outdoor exercise confirmed.” ScienceDaily, 5 February 2011. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/02/110204130607.htm