STRESS—even the mention of the word may cause your muscles to stiffen and your heart to beat faster. Few women escape completely from the stresses of balancing the demands of running a home, giving their best effort at work, and nurturing their relationships. But trying to keep everything running smoothly takes its toll, doesn’t it? As a result, you, like many other women, may experience unhealthy levels of stress that affect your health in very harmful ways.
As a Christian woman seeking to do God’s will, I pray frequently for the ability to cope better with the life God has given me, but I still find that handling stress is a daily battle. Some days I am wise and I implement all the things that I know will reduce my stress, and it works well! Other days it seems like stress has me by the collar and drags me along, and I cannot seem to remember what I am supposed to do to tame it. Like many of you, I am still learning how to deﬂect more stress than I absorb. I confess that at times I feel like I am not a ‘‘good enough’’ Christian when I cannot rebound from being skewered by the swordlike blows that stress inﬂicts on me. Add to that the guilt I feel about letting God down when I am so unraveled by the stress in my life, and you come up with an unholy mess. No, some days the battle against stress does not go well. Does this experience with stress sound familiar? If it does, you are not alone, my friend. But the good news for both of us is that even when we feel defeated by stress and guilty for not handling it better, God understands and wants to help. He is the master key that will help each of us access the right solutions for stress reduction and an abundant life.
Yes, the war on stress can be fought well and even won! There are choices you can make and guidelines you can follow that will greatly decrease your stress load. Stress reduction is probably the most important change you can make in the name of a healthy lifestyle, so it is well worth the fight. Plus once you are handling stress effectively, you will find it much easier to make other healthy lifestyle changes. But before I outline the De-Stress Before Distress stress reduction ‘‘battle’’ plan, let’s first learn more about how our opponent operates.
What exactly is stress? The stress reaction is a whole body response that is triggered by the brain when your body or mind perceives a threat to the safety of you or your loved ones.
Did you know that there are ‘‘his’’ and ‘‘hers’’ stress responses? Stress triggers our primitive response to danger, also known as the fight-or-ﬂight response. Researchers have long believed that this response is fairly similar in men and women. Stressful thoughts send their messages to the brain, which in turn causes the body to trigger the release of chemicals from the brain and adrenal glands. These chemicals help the body do physical battle with or swiftly run away from whatever is causing the body stress.
But new research at UCLA on women and stress suggests that the combination of chemicals released when a woman is stressed are uniquely female. In fact, as a group, women have a different psychological response to stress than men do. Rather than fighting or running away from stress stimulators, many women react to stress by running to their children, husband, and friends.1 This may be because when under stress women release more of a chemical called oxytocin that interacts with female hormones, which perhaps make us want to nurture. Oxytocin is well known because it is released during breastfeeding and is also connected with childbirth. Perhaps this is why women are generally nurturing by nature and need to be heard when under stress—the tend-or-befriend response—while many men react to a stressful situation with the need to fix it or leave it, demonstrating the fight-or-ﬂight response.2
Throughout our lives our bodies and minds are exposed to many types of stress. Amazingly, we react quite specifically depending on which type of stress it is and whether we are coping well with the stress.
Physical stress, such as jogging a mile for exercise, causes the release of chemicals to make the heart pump faster and stronger, increases blood ﬂow to the muscles in the arms and legs, and calls for the extra energy needed to be released into your bloodstream. So you might say, the brain sends a message to your body for an order of healthy fast food. If you are in good shape, this useful stress reaction will be cleared by physical exercise, but if this is your first jog after being a couch potato for two years, your body will respond with a stress reaction that is more taxing to your system.
When you get great news and feel butterﬂies frolicking in your stomach or are preparing for an event you are excited about, this is a different kind of stress—though also a good stress. Biochemically, it is a slightly different body reaction than occurs with a mile run.3
Emotional stress causes a worrisome mix of brain and body chemicals to be released. This is the most taxing combination of all. If emotional stress comes and is not accompanied by physical exercise to clear some of the effects of the stress chemicals, several negative things may happen— especially if this happens over and over again. Equally important is the fact that how well a person is coping with an emotional stress affects whether the most damaging combination of chemicals is released repeatedly into her sys-tem.4 If the stress and reaction to it are chronic and do not change, the results can be devastating, leading to major health problems that can kill.
The combination of released epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol (the stress hormone) leads to havoc in the body if these two chemicals overstay their welcome. The top twelve bad things these chemicals do to stressed bodies are.
This dirty dozen is a gang of reactions you don’t want to have a showdown with. They are the deadly dozen! The release of adrenaline and cortisol into a stressed body is meant to save the day, but these chemicals are only helpful when the stress is short term. In light of this information, it is not surprising that a study done at Harvard Medical School found that patients who cope poorly with stress end up ill four times as often as those with good coping skills.5 It is also estimated that nearly 150 million ‘‘sick days’’ per year are stress related in the U.S.
So where does all this stress come from? Simply put, ‘‘pressure and stress come from two main sources: from the outside world and from within oneself.’’6 From the outside come unexpected life events such as the illness of a family member or a national tragedy, or the strain of ongoing bad circumstances—an unhappy work situation or stressful marriage, for example. We suffer internal pressure and stress when our bodies are ill or not well cared for. We also suffer from faulty and irrational thinking such as ‘‘since this happened everything is horrible and nothing will ever be good again!’’7 It all takes its toll.
Is there such a thing as good stress? Yes! Big events in our life—getting married, falling in love, receiving a promotion, or having a baby—are all good stress. But they, too, take their toll. You may be one of those women who works great under pressure and loves moving steadily forward toward a goal, like a streamlined locomotive. But even locomotives need downtime and refueling.
It doesn’t matter whether it is good stress or bad stress, it all adds up! Scientists have found that the effects of all types of stress are cumulative, especially when many stressful events occur in a relatively short period of time, such as within a year. Certain life events carry greater effect than others—the loss of a parent or child, divorce, or even happy events including getting married or having a baby. Below is a well-known test that chronicles each life stress—from the catastrophic to the little stresses.8 Each stress is assigned a point value. Take time to see where you fall on the chart in terms of your stress level this past year.
. ● < 150 points in one year = 37 percent risk of serious illness in next two years
. ● 150–300 points in one year = 51 percent risk of serious illness in next two years
. ● > 300 points in one year = 80 percent risk of serious illness in next two years
Used by permission
It was found that when a person experiences over three hundred stress points in one year, that person has an estimated 80 percent risk of developing a serious health problem within the next two years. If your score placed you in a high-risk zone, it is time for some serious stress reduction.
I have always stood in awe, fascinated by those rare women who seem to ﬂoat effortlessly above the stress in their lives. Many of them have children, easily handle the complications of a busy household, some work outside the home, and despite having many of the same life stressors that you and I have to deal with, they are peaceful and well!
What makes these women different? One such woman is my friend Jenny. She is the mother of four very active boys, ranging in age from fourteen years to five years. Just recently their family was able to move back into their San Diego home after a plumbing problem ﬂooded the entire ground ﬂoor of their two-story house, forcing them to live in a motel for nine weeks. Can you imagine caring for four active, healthy boys in those close quarters for nine weeks? Then just a few weeks ago her husband was transferred from San Diego to a new permanent position in Los Angeles. When all their best school and housing prospects fell through, she committed to keeping the boys in their San Diego schools for an additional year. Now Jenny functions during the week as a single parent to four busy boys, is selling her home, and is looking for a suitable rental in San Diego, while also trying to find housing and schools in L.A. And to top it off, Jenny is still grieving the loss of her father, who died with little warning from pancreatic cancer just nine months ago. What amazes me is that Jenny does not appear stressed at all.
I asked her why she thinks that she handles stressful situations without feeling stressed. She answered with a smile, ‘‘I have always been very resilient. It’s probably because I grew up with very optimistic parents—who always looked at the world through rose-colored glasses. I just believe it is all going to be all right.’’ I just believe it is all going to be all right. There is an important key to less-stress living packed in that sentence. She has HOPE. That little word sums up the single most important ingredient to successful coping. Women who cope well hope well and believe that everything will turn out all right.
What we think and believe directly affects what and how we feel. Even in the midst of the hardest emotional stress, if we can change our perspective to the belief that we are coping well—to the belief that ‘‘it is going to be all right,’’—then our bodies will not respond as harshly to the stress. Our thoughts are profoundly powerful! In fact, nearly all of the stress each of us experiences is not caused by direct threats to our physical bodies but rather is connected to how we think about situations. We may not be able to change the situation we are faced with, but we can choose how we think about it.
Dr. Norman Vincent Peale knew this and spent a lifetime encouraging people with his concept of the power of positive thinking. He suggested that we should believe and accept that God’s hand is at work in every situation—no matter what outcome results—and believe all will go as well as possible. Throughout his over fifty years of ministry, he emphasized our ability to overcome problems and seize opportunities through faith in God and belief in oneself. He reminded people that there is great power in prayer as Jesus taught: ‘‘Therefore I tell you whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours’’ (Mark 11:24).
Dr. Peale also recommended a three-part approach to practice positive thinking:9
With this plan, the first step is to pray about any situation of concern, talking to God as if to a close friend, and ask for what we want and for God’s will to be done. We should pray throughout the day and night, in the midst of our activities—‘‘pray without ceasing.’’
The second step means we are to create a picture in our minds of a desirable outcome, and then commit the picture to God’s care, asking again for His will to be done. Peale taught that we should practice believing that there will be a desirable outcome.
The last part, actualize, means that as we continue this process, we will likely see our desired outcome happen. But even if the outcome is not the one we desired, by focusing on God and trusting in His will, we can better accept whatever the outcome.
Using positive thinking is not living in denial about your difficult circumstances. Sometimes I meet men and women faced with dire circumstances who say, ‘‘I’m thinking positive!’’ Yet when I dig deeper into their thinking I find that they are in full denial that there could be any bad outcome from the situation. The truth is, God sometimes
From a Christian perspective, there is a balance between positive thinking and looking at a situation truthfully in order to assess it. I call such a balance realistic thinking. With this approach, you tell yourself the truth about your situation, then put God in control and leave the outcome in His capable hands, believing His will is best. However, you still pray for the outcome that you want and express thanksgiving for whatever you can find to be grateful for. You could also call this approach realistic thinking and thanking.
I discovered this concept when I had already been very ill every day for well over a year with an inner ear problem called Me´nie`re’s disease. I was housebound—and usually bed bound—because of the severity of my condition. Despite my countless fervent prayers and those of many others, my health was not improving. I believed I would be healed, but it wasn’t happening. I found myself disappointed over and over again, and frankly, I started to lose faith. I didn’t want to talk to God anymore. And I didn’t want to ‘‘think positive’’ anymore, because I was afraid of more crushing disappointments.
Finally I took a realistic look at the situation. I told myself the truth: I might have to deal with this the rest of my life; there is no guarantee that I will get better. I told myself that it was also true that this illness would not kill me—that was something to be grateful for. It also became clear to me that because of this illness I now had a much better understanding and appreciation for what was truly important in life (but that is another book). Then I remembered that God always has a plan and always works everything together for good for those who love Him (Romans 8:28). I chose to trust His will in a new and bold way. So I started talking to God again, thanking Him for what I could while praying for what I wanted and trusting in His plan. And I finally found peace in the midst of the situation.
Did I invent this concept? No, the apostle Paul laid it out for us long ago in the book of Philippians: ‘‘Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God’’ (Philippians 4:6). Here is our permission slip NOT to be anxious but instead to lay everything out at God’s feet. We are instructed to bring all our concerns and requests to God in prayer, while also giving thanks.
It is as if God built an attitude-of-gratitude circuit into each of our brains. Our brains work better when that circuit is switched on. When we find something to be thankful for and express it, even if we are very stressed, peace makes its way in: ‘‘And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus’’ (Philippians 4:7).
As long as we are alive we will face frustrations, the unexpected, and often chaos. In fact, one of the few things we can count on is that the unexpected will happen. But that doesn’t change the fact that God is the one in control and will work all things together for good for those who love Him. Our only reliable hope of coping better with a stressful situation is to bring all the facts and our hopes and fears before God in prayer. He is the real reason we can believe everything will be all right!