Stress — in many ways an unavoidable effect of living — could be the very thing that is slowly killing you. We hear about it all the time, and we experience its detrimental effects. In some cases we may even be unknowingly looking for it. Yet, few really understand it, and even fewer know how to control it. Stress management could save your life.
What Is Stress?
Stress is not the tension or the anxiety that we feel (these are only symptoms of stress). Rather, we experience it when the body responds to a situation or a stimulus by producing a higher amount of adrenaline than is normally needed. Adrenaline is a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands. It causes a marked increase in the heart rate, blood flow, frequency of breathing and carbohydrate metabolism. We can define stress, then, as the overworking of our adrenal system.
The added adrenaline in our system gives us extra energy and the ability to respond to particularly demanding situations. At the same time, however, it also wears out our bodies. The higher the stress level, the higher is the wear and tear we are subject to. In a sense, the phrase “burning the candle from both ends” is not far from what happens in our bodies.
Most of us are quite familiar with the painful aspects of stress. What many don’t know, however, is that it can also be exciting, pleasurable and physically empowering. In fact, it may very well be that the most dangerous type of stress is what we commonly call the “good” stress. The danger derives from the fact that many people enjoy its temporary effects and tend to desire more of it.
More and more activities today are designed to generate this type of “adrenaline rush.” It may surprise you to know that some experts are beginning to look at this type of stress as a form of addiction. Even though at first we may find it pleasurable, it causes us to want more of it and to overextend ourselves until we get sick.
Stress — the excessive production of adrenaline — is an extremely common problem. Millions of people suffer from it without even knowing it. Its damaging effects, as we shall see, range from headaches and migraines to hypertension and cardiovascular diseases. It is very important for us to know more about it, and especially to understand some basic principles of stress management.
Sources of Stress
Today stress derives primarily from the fast pace of our lives. In a way, it is like running the engine of your car on maximum all the time. An engine is designed to operate at a certain number of turns per minute. Running it on maximum for a long time generates excessive heat and mechanical stress, causing the engine to break down, often irreparably. Stress affects our bodies in a similar way. We were designed to experience a surge of adrenaline in order to face an emergency, a danger, or a sudden need. But we are not made to live in a state of hyper-stimulation of the adrenal system as if we were always in danger. Just like an overworked engine, our bodies will also start to break down very fast if we don’t manage our stress levels.
Besides the excessively fast pace of life in general, here are some of the most common sources of stress:
- Work environment
- Finding the job not satisfying
- Receiving increased responsibility
- Excessive or contradictory expectations
- A competitive environment
- A sense of inadequacy for the job
- Negative relationship with coworkers or supervisors
- Excessive haste and struggling with insufficient time
- Very high and sustained levels of noise
- Problems in personal relationships
- Physical or emotional loss
- Financial problems
- Unmet expectations
- Major changes in life
- Dangerous or “stimulating” activities
- Living in a constant state of “emergency”
- Negative self-talk
- Injuries or poor physical health
Effects of Stress
A prolonged overstimulation of the adrenal system causes many of the health problems that are typical of our modern society. Among them:
- Irritability and anger
- Increase in blood pressure
- Digestive problems leading to acute erosive gastritis (stress ulcers)
- Higher levels of cholesterol in our blood
- Greater release of fatty deposit in our arteries
- Narrowing of the capillaries
- Aches and pains (our natural endorphins will drop, and with them our protection from pain as well as our ability to enjoy life and “feel good”)
- Illnesses like colds and flues (our immune system will no longer function adequately to protect us from illness)
- Affective disorders
- Anxiety and inability to face and deal with our daily challenges
Symptoms of Stress
Here is a list of symptoms that should help you recognize the level of stress you are exposed to. As you look at them and evaluate them, look at how many of these symptoms you have, as well as how intensely and how frequently you experience them.
- Headaches and migraines
- Neck and shoulder tension, often associated with pain
- Unexplained backaches and other aches and pains
- Irregular heart beat (skipping beats)
- Difficulty breathing, often associated with tightness in the chest
- Dizziness and lightheadedness
- High blood pressure
- Tiredness and fatigue
- Frequent colds and flu
- Indigestion, nausea, frequent heartburn, colitis or ulcers
- Insomnia (difficulty falling asleep or remaining asleep)
- Cold hands (due to the blood flow being redirected elsewhere)
- Muscular tension in the face, and especially in the jaws
- Clenching and/or grinding the teeth
- Irritability and lack of patience
- Apathy, boredom, introversion
- Worry, anxiety and restlessness
- Memory problems
- Unusual tendency to errors
In addition to the above, you may wish to consider your “personality predisposition” to stress as well. Those individuals who are generally referred to as “Type A,” for example, find themselves particularly predisposed to stress — much more than those generally referred to as “Type B.” They tend to live a hurried lifestyle, always concerned about their time, and often lacking the patience they need to unwind. They can hardly tolerate a delay and will tend to sleep less at night. If you are this type of person, then you need to pay special attention to your stress management. You should concentrate on your need to detect and recognize excessive stress by monitoring the level of adrenaline in your system.
Here are some points of advice in stress management. From a physical perspective, the main objective is to be able to slow down enough to reduce the production of adrenaline and provide your body with the opportunity to recover from stressful or intense situations.
Do You Really Need an Adrenaline Rush?
This may seem a bit strange, but in a way you can actually choose whether you need a burst of adrenaline or not. Ask yourself if the situation you are in is an emergency, if there is some real danger. What is needed? Extra energy for the fight? Extraordinarily prompt reflexes to avoid some real danger? Or rather a calm disposition and the ability to think things through more clearly?
Learn to Lower Your Adrenaline Level
Although you cannot directly control your body’s production of adrenaline, there are ways in which you can help your body lower its level. Here are some:
High stress situations in particular call for our attention and tend to absorb our thoughts as well as our physical energy. Sometimes this absorption and involvement can be so intense that it is all we can see. This can be true not only for negative or unpleasant stressors, but for the positive or pleasant ones as well. For example, have you ever been so involved in a hobby that you ended up neglecting something else you should have paid attention to instead?
Detaching yourself from your situation by taking a fresh look at it as if from outside can be very helpful. It can enable you to be more objective and help you respond in a way that is more proportional to the need of the situation at hand. Detaching yourself from the immediate situation also enables you to see the whole forest, as the saying goes, and not just the immediate tree in front of you. Seeing the whole picture can prove invaluable in re-framing our thinking and consequently lower our stress level.
Relaxation is very important in reducing our adrenaline production. Excitement or intense performance needs to be preceded and followed by a period of relaxation. Relaxing grants the body the time to shift from “emergency” and high performance mode to a more normal state. Although the production of extra adrenaline can be very fast, relaxation and the consequent reduction in adrenaline level takes considerably longer. Proper and regular sleep in particular, as we shall see, is very important. Have you ever said to someone that you need to sleep over something in order to get a new and clearer perspective the next day? It is true in terms of stress as well.
There are many effective ways of relaxing, and most of us know a few. It can be a relaxation session, in which you devote some time specifically to that. Or it could be the result of a pleasurable and soothing activity. Whatever method you may use, the objective is to lower muscular tension, be able to breathe with deep cleansing breaths, and lower the heart rate to a rest level.
With self-talk we mean that process by which we evaluate our thoughts and then re-frame them in a new and more accurate context. As we detach ourselves from the stressors and gain a new perspective, and as we clear our thinking with adequate relaxation, it will be much easier to re-frame our thinking and therefore modify our negative or stress-inducing self-talk. We should replace our negative way of thinking with an objective look at the truth and the real circumstances. In so doing, we also need to adopt more adequate or realistic expectations. Here are some examples of negative or stress-inducing self-talk that we need to change:
- Something bad will happen
- Things will get worse
- I can’t deal with it
- I’ll never be able to do that
- Things will never change
- I’ll never learn
- I can’t do that
- I’m so stressed out, I can’t take it any more
- I’m the only one who can take care of (or can do) all these things
As you check your self-talk, ask yourself if what you are handling is really an emergency. Can you handle it differently, perhaps without so much “hype?” Here are some example of how our self-talk can make a difference. The idea is to replace the negative and stress-inducing thoughts listed above with the following ones:
- Focus on the reality of the present and do not worry about tomorrow. Jesus said, “Don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will care for itself.” (Matthew 6:34)
- Acknowledge your limitations and remember that it is all right to live within one’s own limits. If you are facing a specific challenge, remember that you “can do all things through Him who strengthens” you. (Philippians 4:13)
- Review you past changes and improvements, and remember that “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6)
- Instead of focusing on the fact that you are really stressed out (which will cause an increase of stress), plan how you can lower your level of stress and then monitor your progress.
- Instead of thinking that you are the only one who can deal with things and giving in to perfectionist thoughts, learn to delegate. Tell yourself that it is all right to let others learn, too. Check the standards you have set for yourself, and if needed lower them.
Alternate High Mountain Times with Low Valleys
No one in their right mind would prepare themselves for a high mountain climb by exhausting their energies with all sorts of strenuous activities. Yet, it seems as if in life we tend to do just that. As soon as we complete some highly stressful task, we plunge ourselves immediately in another one, just as stressful.
Good stress management calls for planning ahead, just as you would for a mountain climb. As much as we can, we should prepare for stressful times. For example, if we know that next week is going to be very stressful at work, we should prepare by making sure that during the weekend we can relax and refresh ourselves sufficiently. Then, we can plan for additional time of relaxation and “unwinding” after the period of stress.
Just as there are mountains in life that must be climbed, there must also be periods spent in quiet, restful valleys. Jesus often practiced this by isolating himself from the crowds and spending time alone with the Father in prayer and fellowship. In order to be able to do this, however, we must first learn our limits, accept them, and then live within them. Our valleys represent the recovery time we need after a highly stressful situation or task. This is a time for rest and relaxation, to spend in a hobby, for example, that engages our mind enough to distract us, but not so much as to cause additional stress.
Check Your Sleep Habits
God created us with a marvelous and extremely complex internal clock, which regulates many of our physiological functions. A proper pattern of activity, followed by adequate sleep at the same time every day, will help both our ability to function well in our awake time as well as our quality of sleep.
Perhaps the best way to find out the importance of sleep is to look at what happens in our bodies when we don’t sleep enough. Sleep deprivation can cause fatigue, inability to concentrate, irritability, blurred vision, slurred speech, memory problems, disorientation and confusion, hallucinations and bizarre behavior, and short term personality problems.
Good sleep, therefore, is very important for our bodies and minds to function at their best and be protected from the damaging effects of stress. All too often, however, people who experience an excessive level of stress will also have problems sleeping, thus creating a vicious cycle that makes things worse. Insomnia and other sleep disorders can greatly limit our bodies’ ability to cope with stress and excessive adrenaline.
Promoting Good Sleep
Here is some common sense advice to promote good sleep. First of all, train your body and your mind for sleep. Pete was a student who had a great deal of difficulty falling asleep. After a few questions, it became apparent that one of the reasons for his difficulty was that he had developed the habit of studying for his classes while laying on his bed. This built in him a clear association which actually caused him to be stimulated and basically “wake up” when he would lay on his bed. Using only his desk for studying and laying down on the bed only for sleeping helped him recondition his responses, and helped him fall asleep shortly after he went to bed.
Going to bed at the same time, as stated, will help our internal “clock” to prepare us for sleep. This enables us to fall asleep faster, and enjoy a better quality of sleep. Darkening the environment and spending a little time in the dark before going to bed can also be very helpful. The body will trigger the natural production of melatonin, a hormone which regulates our sleep cycle, and facilitates our sleep. Keep your bedroom as quiet as you can. Silence not only favors our falling asleep, but it also affects the depth and quality of sleep. If you have missed some sleep, make sure to make it up at your earliest opportunity. Some think that you can make up lost sleep if you do so within the span of a week.
In their strategies for stress management, many people would stop here. They may experience some success in controlling the level of adrenaline in their system, but often fail to implement a permanent solution. More stress, worry, anxiety, and in some cases even panic attacks may ensue after some time has passed. This may be in addition to the disappointment one may experience at the thought that all these remedies and all the effort spent in stress management seemed to fail. Most of the time this is due to a missing factor, which is actually the most important of all.
The Most Important Factor
So far we have seen some physical things we can do to help reduce our levels of adrenaline. This is certainly fine, and it will undoubtedly help, but it may not ultimately resolve the problem. Stress and anxiety, as we have seen, are considered the be the most common emotional problem in America today. However, there is a deeper dimension to this problem, a factor that most often goes unmentioned. What we are dealing with, in fact, is often rooted in deeper, spiritual causes. You may be surprised to know that the Holy Bible has a great deal to say about stress and anxiety, and gives us vital keys and principles to address this problem at the very root.
Stress, tension, worry and anxiety can be fearful obstacles to overcome. But there is good news. God has promised that if we seek Him, He will never leave us nor forsake us. Notice it in His own words,
Make sure that your character is free from the love of money, being content with what you have; for He Himself has said, “I WILL NEVER DESERT YOU, NOR WILL I EVER FORSAKE YOU,” so that we confidently say, “THE LORD IS MY HELPER, I WILL NOT BE AFRAID. WHAT WILL MAN DO TO ME?” (Hebrews 13:5-6)
Notice carefully these words. Much of today’s stress and anxiety comes from our rush to earn more and to be able to afford more. Although we need money to survive, God here is warning us against the dangers of the love of money. But in doing so, He also points to a most important key: trust. God has made a promise to us, a promise never to desert us or forsake us. We can count on that, and confidently trust Him to provide what we need.
We don’t need to continue to stress ourselves to secure our future, for He will take care of it. Stress is not necessary to find meaning and fulfillment, because God gives them to us freely. It is when we don’t trust God and take it upon ourselves to either secure our future or create a sense of fulfillment, meaning and purpose for our life that we experience the worst stress and anxiety.
Look at the Way God Provides for Us
Matthew 6:25-34 records the teaching of Jesus which repeatedly mandates for us not to be anxious, and gives us a reason for it. He tells us to take the time to look around and notice how God provides for us.
Jesus told us to look carefully at the birds of the fields. On the one hand, they don’t toil and labor stacking their food for tomorrow, and yet God provides for them. On the other hand, you don’t see them idle while they are waiting for their food. The lesson is that they use what God has given them to go out and procure their food, but they don’t need to stress themselves out and be anxious, for the Lord continues to provide for them. Their work is done, but not overdone.
Let’s take a candid look at ourselves. When we behave as workaholics and wear ourselves out, does it really improve things? Does the job become more satisfying when we go to work already tired and drained? Do we feel more competent and fulfilled if we take more responsibility than we can handle, or if we load ourselves with impossible expectations? And what about our work relationships? Do they improve when we go to work already irritable because of our stress level? Yet all these things will contribute more stress, which in turn will make things worse. In the words of the Ecclesiastes, “One handful of peace and quiet is better than two handfuls of hard work and of trying to catch the wind.” (Ecclesiastes 4:6, GW)
Now, what if we listened to Jesus, instead, and observed the way God cares for us? We would not be lazy or remain idle, but would not need to be overworked, either. As we acknowledge His sovereignty and loving care, we would offer our life to Him and live it for Him, not for ourselves. In turn, He would give us fullness of life and of days, a life that is truly satisfying and fulfilling, lived for the glory of God. Each day would be full enough, yet not overbearing, and life would acquire deep meaning.
A Matter of Faith
The key, as Jesus said, is faith (Mat. 6:30). Lack of faith, in essence, is lack of trust in God. It is as if we are saying to God that He does not deserve our trust. So, instead of trusting Him, we choose to worry about our circumstances and in so doing we end up being caught in a fight for control. We stress ourselves out in the futile attempt to control the circumstances, and in so doing we end up in bondage to the very circumstances we attempt to control.
This, however, has an even more important consequence. As we choose not to trust God, our relationship with Him is also affected, and through that, our relationship with everyone else. You can see that described in Scripture from the very beginning. When we don’t trust God, somehow we need to replace Him with something or someone else. Usually that replacement is ourselves.
As we begin to trust only in ourselves, we become the ultimate authority in terms of what is right or wrong, and barriers begin to arise between us and the others around us. Our personal relationships deteriorate, and so we isolate ourselves even more. Soon, we become our own idol, but we are unable to deliver what we expect of ourselves. We are unable to always be right, to perform perfectly, and deep inside we know it. So, we begin to rationalize, and as we learn to lie to ourselves, our stress level continues to rise, together with our anxiety.
Most often, we don’t trust what we don’t know. So, it may be possible that one of the reasons we don’t trust God is that we really don’t know Him. In this case, perhaps the best advice is to begin to read the Bible, which is His letter to us. Through His words, we will learn to know Him better, and the more we know Him, the more we will learn to trust Him. We will learn to talk to Him in prayer, and will begin to see His love and care in the way He answers and leads us. Soon, this will become a true relationship, one that will affect every other relationship around us for the better. We will begin to experience true peace and His love will flow through us to be a blessing for many others around us.
The Way We Think
Philippians 4:6-9 teaches us,
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
Notice again that the result of this relationship with God is true peace. Not just a human peace, which at best tends to be the absence of conflict, but the peace of God, which is a blessed disposition of the spirit within us, the ultimate well being which derives from our assurance of reconciliation with God and salvation. It is freedom from stress and fear, a profound sense of security and of joy which transcends the very circumstances in which we find ourselves. It is, in fact, a result of the presence of the Holy Spirit in us.
What will that peace do in us? It will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, protecting us from anxiety and stress. It will help us look at life in the right way, and experience it to the fullest. The key is for us to acknowledge the wonderful ways in which God provides for us, and give Him thanks. This, again, is a matter of trust. It is trust (or better, faith) in God that enables us to acknowledge His providence, and then bring our requests to Him in thanksgiving.
Learning to trust God will also free our minds from most of the damaging stressors of life. We will be free, as this passage states, to focus on the good things the Lord brings to us. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute…” these are the things we can fill our minds with.
The apostle Peter wrote,
All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you. (1 Peter 5:5-7)
When we learn to trust God, we don’t need to think of ourselves higher than we should. We no longer have to live up to impossible expectations, nor do we have to “play god” with ourselves. Rather, we can have a “healthy” opinion of ourselves, and in true humility we can serve one another in Christ without competing and without the added pressure of showing ourselves for what we are not. The grace of God will fill that emptiness we so desperately seek to satisfy with our own performance, and our future will be secure in His glory. In full trust, knowing that He loves us and truly cares for us, we are then able to cast our stress and our anxiety on Him and finally live a life of true peace.
The Bottom Line
Excessive stress in this life is not only a physical matter, but a spiritual one as well. In many cases it may be a sign of spiritual issues that need to be resolved. Together with anxiety and worry, it may denote a lack of faith or trust in God, often due to the fact that we have not built a true relationship with Him.
God cares for us, and has created us to experience His peace and fullness of life. In fact, He wants to share all things with us, including eternity. However, we find ourselves separated from Him because of our sins and our guilt. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” is truthfully stated in Romans 3:23, and as such we are separated from God, living empty and meaningless lives.
However, there is good news. In John 3:16 it is written that “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” Yes, God Himself came to live as one of us to carry upon Himself the penalty of our sins and pay for it in our place. “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.” (1 Peter 2:24)
We no longer need to stress ourselves out to fix something we can never make right. Our guilt is not something we can take away by ourselves. The good news is that Jesus has already done that for us. He has already paid our penalty, and has lifted the burden that held us down. If we accept His gift of salvation, and receive Him as our personal Savior and Lord, we can learn to live in true peace and reassurance that all will be well. “As many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name.” (John 1:12)
You can, too. The Lord is calling you to experience His peace as never before. If you have not yet accepted Jesus as your Savior, right now would be the best time to do so. Admit your spiritual need for Him by confessing that you are a sinner. Repent and be willing to turn from your sins. Believe that Jesus Christ died for you on the cross and has already done all that is necessary for you to be reconciled to God and to experience His peace. Then, receive Jesus Christ into your heart and life as your Savior and Lord.
Remember: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me,” (Rev. 3:20) and “whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Rom. 10:13)
If you have already accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Savior and Lord, remember that you are a child of God. He cares about you enough to die for you. It is in Him, not in your own efforts, that you are saved. Trust Him. Get to know Him more through His Word, and rest reassured in His promises.
You, too, can experience “the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension” and which “will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:7)
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