We often hear the phrase “life is stressful” or “I’m stressed out.” The term “stress” has become a kind of catchword to encapsulate our hurried, busy lives and gives us a quasi-excuse for impulsive outbursts, forgetfulness, or whatever other shortcoming we have exhibited that particular day. Stress is an inevitable part of life. Andrew Bernstein, an American philosopher, once said, “The truth about stress is that it doesn’t come from your boss, your kids, your spouse, traffic jams, health challenges, or other circumstances. It comes from your thoughts about these circumstances.” This is largely true: it’s how we deal with stress that often determines health outcomes.
Stress has numerous faces. The mechanisms are largely the same, the outcomes and effects on the body slightly different. The main hormone usually associated with stress is called cortisol which is released in response to some catalyst, or stressor. The textbook example often used is the proverbial tiger in the jungle and what happens physiologically when we suddenly confront this tiger on an evening walk. Immediately our heart rate and blood pressure soar, arteries narrow, pupils dilate, and blood is shunted to vital organs. We turn and run. If we have the fortune to outrun this tiger and find safety, everything returns to normal. We go from “flight or fight” to “rest and digest.” This is a normal stress response; our bodies are designed for this.
The problem with stress is that it can often become a chronic issue for us who live in a fast-paced high-expectation society. Cortisol is excreted continually in response to this demand. Since almost every cell in our body possesses receptors specific to cortisol, this hormone affects metabolic processes, blood sugar regulation, growth and development, and mood, to name just a few mechanisms. This is good and a requirement for normal function. However, when the levels are too high, the stress response continual, we begin to see a breakdown in healthy function.
The causes of stress are many and varied. Starting a new job on Monday and we find ourselves unable to sleep and slightly nervous. He proposed, she said yes, and there are a thousand things to do before the big day. A new baby in the home, remodeling the kitchen, moving a parent to a nursing home. All stressful situations. Add to these life events difficult relationships, financial obligations, and challenges with employers/employees. Maybe you are called upon to bring a presentation or speak in church, or perhaps you have an exam of some sort coming up. Stress in these situations is inevitable.
Consider our lifestyle for a minute. The constant communication that multiple chat groups demand. The peer pressure to perform—to present a well-manicured yard, make sure the vehicle is washed for Sunday, and find the perfect recipe on Pinterest. We are also not immune to the forces that drive our neighbors and friends to attain the American dream—the desire for affluence and wealth can be a hard taskmaster. What about spiritual maladies such as unforgiveness and living in an offended state? These can be significant causes of chronic stress and their effects are much more profound on the body than we may think.
Another, rather abstract side of stress, is that we can also feel a certain pressure to actually have stress—if we say we have no stress and are not perceived as hitting the ground running, people think something is wrong. We feel obligated to be stressed. Stress then can become a way of life, almost a requirement. From a health standpoint, both emotional and physical, this is a dangerous place to be.
Acute stress is a normal response. We face a circumstance, we deal with it, the issue is resolved—the deadline is met, the exam passed, the accident averted. In these situations stress is a good thing: it narrows our focus to meet a work deadline and motivates us to study for that difficult exam. Chronic stress, on the other hand, is harmful. Stress at this level often feels like it is out of our control, and in many cases it is. Relationship issues and financial problems can be longstanding. Cortisol is then released on a continual basis and, as mentioned, it courses through the blood to touch every cell in the body. This can lead to a myriad of emotional and physical symptoms, many of which can be mistaken for other causes. Chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure, headaches, weight gain or loss, and even infertility. Heartburn is common, as is irritable bowel syndrome, an upset stomach, and constipation. Research shows that even arthritis and asthma flare-ups can be the result of stress, as well as eczema and psoriasis exacerbations. Blood sugars can soar. Sleeping and concentration suffer. To those who live under a lot of stress, some of these symptoms may ring bells in your head. If the bells are ringing loudly, that is probably cortisol, sounding the alarm.
So what can we do about all this chronic stress? First of all, we need to be honest about a few things. Chronic stress may not be entirely out of our control. There may be things we could come to terms with, issues we could resolve, if we desired. But aside from that, there are measures we can take to reduce the effects of stress. Recall the quote by Bernstein: it is not what happens to us, it’s how we think about it. The Bible also holds out hope for the chronically stressed: cast your cares upon Him, worry less, trust more.
Sometimes the most effective first step in stress management is simply becoming aware that we are stressed. Strangely enough, this awareness is uncommon: in-spite of our stressed-out society, we are often not aware of our bodies and don’t realize they are, in fact, suffering from a chronically pedal-to-the-metal metabolism. Take a minute to relax: start at the top of your head and deliberately relax every muscle that you can, one at a time down to the tips of your toes. You will find your forehead ease, your shoulders drop, your jaw unclench, and your stomach muscles release. Do this on the way to work, to church, or to a high-stress meeting with your employer. Become aware of your body and work with it. This is called biofeedback and can be very effective.
Learn to practice another facet of biofeedback called heart-math which you can do before a stressful event or at the end of a stressful day. No equipment needed; just sit still, consciously relax, and then breathe deeply in through your nose. Five seconds in, hold for a second or two, and then a five to eight second exhalation through your mouth. Do this for five minutes at a time, taking a two-minute break in-between to breath normally. This will decrease your heart rate and ease your blood pressure. You will find this has a way of calming you down and bringing a sense of peace.
Are we able to say no? We need a healthy understanding of what we are capable of, or are able to achieve for others. We absolutely must give of ourselves but we all have our limits. In our busy society it is okay to refuse or decline occasionally—it is not imperative that we are at every social gathering or feel responsible to be the one in charge every time we are asked.
Of course we cannot talk about combatting stress without a lecture about exercise. Exercise is a first line treatment for any and all kinds of stress. In short, exercise “burns off” stress hormones and brings about homeostasis, which is defined as a steady state of metabolic equilibrium. Back to the tiger in the jungle: we see, we fear, and we run. The issue is resolved and our bodies return to normal, the running having helped reduce the levels of cortisol. What happens we ask, when the tiger is always around, always in your head, something you face at work every day or in that certain relationship? Even though this tiger/situation may be inevitable and unavoidable, a good brisk walk, bike-ride, or run can help us maintain healthy function. If we cannot afford a fifteen to twenty-minute walk at some point of the day, then we are too busy and, by likely definition, too stressed.
Prayer and meditation have a way of calming the mind and the heart, as those of us who are Christians realize. What is interesting is that this effect is also recognized by scientists and is recommended as a stress reducer. To think of a great God standing before and behind us, leading us through life’s tangled jungle, shouldgive us a sense that someone much greater than us is in control of our stressful situations. In the end, this is our best defense: take a deep breath, actively relax, and allow God to take control. Even though He is moved by our afflictions, He is not affected by stress, cortisol, or tigers. His shoulders are broader and stronger than ours, which means we can relax. He never sleeps, which means that we can.
This article first appeared in the Business Bulletin.