Los Angeles Christian Counseling
Life in the 21st century is not the slow-paced idyll promised by the commercials and gadget manufacturers of the 1960s. Supposedly, having modern conveniences was meant to free us of menial tasks so that we enjoy our leisure all the more. The dream, however, hasn’t lived up to the reality. The pace of modern life has only increased, and more is demanded of us in every arena.
Modern conveniences mean that we can cook faster, communicate instantly, travel more efficiently, and instead of creating more space for leisure, it has often meant more is expected of us by our colleagues, families, spiritual communities, and society. It’s a frenetic, fast paced, and relentlessly active way of life.
Considering all this, it makes sense that stress is the natural result. While many of us have low-grade stress that we carry with us every day, others carry much more severe stress.
What is stress, and what causes it?
Stress is caused when a situation triggers a cascade of hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol that produce physiological changes. A stressful incident can make your heart pound fast and your breathing quicken.
Your muscles tense and sweat drips as your body prepares itself for a ‘fight-or-flight’ scenario. This stress response is helpful for a variety of situations, including when you’re in physical danger.
It can give you the focus and drive you need to help you concentrate on studying for an exam; gives you an edge while performing a task; enables you to slam the brakes and avoid an accident; it can also provide you the strength you need to run or defend yourself if you’re in danger.
While this mechanism was designed to help us in situations where we feel physically threatened, say, by a wild animal, our bodies also react this way to non-life-threatening stressors such as family and financial difficulties, traffic jams, looming work deadlines, and pressure. This physical response and the stress hormones the body produces during such times can have side-effects on our bodies and minds in the long-term.
Conditions such as high blood pressure, the development of brain changes that may lead to anxiety and depression, the formation of artery-clogging deposits leading to heart attacks or strokes, suppression of your immune system, and upsetting your digestive system are a few of the consequences of chronic stress.
Stress can be triggered by our perception of a situation or even by positive events that demand a lot of us such as going to college, starting a new job, getting married, or moving to a new house.
Dealing with stress
Each of us has different things that cause us stress. Your stress may stem from particular relationships, from work, or maybe from grief and loss. How then, do we deal with stress in a positive, healthy way? Here are a few tips for dealing with stress.
Exercise. While it’s not a cure-all, exercise gives your body an outlet for pent-up energy and something else to focus on. Exercise also releases endorphins and other hormones that can lift your mood. Whatever works for you, be it riding a bike, going for a swim, or a run, go for it.
Eat and sleep well. Some foods which are high in sugar or highly processed can affect your mood considerably and exacerbate the symptoms of stress. Eating healthier food such as fresh fruit and vegetables, foods rich in omega3 fatty acids provide your body with what it needs to cope better with the ups and downs of life.
Muscle and other relaxation techniques. As stress affects the body (muscles tensing and so forth), having techniques on hand such as progressive muscle relaxation and practices such as yoga and meditation can help to reduce the physiological impact of stress.
Talk to others. One way to relieve stress is to share your burdens with others. Sharing with others helps to give your perspective, and it removes the burden of isolation. “Cast your cares upon God, because He cares for you”, says 1 Peter 5:7. Taking our concerns to God in prayer avails us of the peace and joy that God has in store for us.
Set boundaries. Learn to say “no” to tasks and situations that just add to your stress levels. It is healthy to know our limits and to set boundaries accordingly. That way, you’re not scrambling to fulfill a task you’re not equipped or have the capacity for.
Positive self-talk. Part of changing our perceptions about situations is giving ourselves some positive self-talk. Instead of being pessimistic and doubting ourselves and our God-given talents, reinforcing the positives in yourself and the situation helps you to feel up to the task and more willing to tackle it.
Accept what you can’t change. Some situations are beyond our control. If you’ve taken a test and are waiting for the results, there’s little you can do at that stage. Worrying about it adds to your stress, but it doesn’t change the outcome. “Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?” Jesus asked his followers in Matthew 6:27. Since we can’t add anything to our lives by worrying, Jesus told us no to worry.
Take a break. Our culture sometimes seems to value overworking and being busy. A full schedule means you’re productive and doing something meaningful. The quiet spaces when we’re doing “nothing” thus seem wasteful.
Not so. Taking time away from things, be it work, school, or other responsibilities, helps us to recharge and avoid idolizing our work, roles, or ourselves. The world will not fall apart without us at the helm. God is in control.
Have some “me time,” time when you relax whether through art, scrapbooking, taking in a musical performance, taking a walk, or working in the garden. The whole concept of taking a sabbath is meant for us to take a beat and gain perspective on what matters and relieve the pressure of feeling like things will fall apart if we take our eyes off them.
Ask for help. Being out of your depth is a very human thing. We can’t handle everything, and we don’t have all the answers. Far from being a sign of weakness, asking for help is a healthy sign of confidence and a humble acknowledgment of human limitations.
If we can ask for help when we need it, we can mitigate the stressful feelings that we must handle every situation by ourselves. Whether it’s from a colleague, from your spouse or sibling, or by going to a therapist, asking for help is a great way to share a burden and garner the resources necessary to get things done.
Don’t cope through substance abuse or compulsive behaviors. Some coping mechanisms are more helpful than others. Others may seem helpful now, but in the long term, they are more trouble than they are worth. Taking drugs, using cigarettes, alcohol and caffeine is making use of crutches which may cause problems now and in the future. The health and other issues caused by these substances can themselves become a cause for more stress down the line.
Help others. Shifting the focus away from yourself to help others through volunteering can also reduce stress levels by taking your mind off your problems and giving you perspective. Loving and helping others to overcome their own challenges is healthy for our souls.
Work smart. Sometimes our stress levels are high due to work deadlines or not coping with your workload. Whatever circumstance you’re in, working smarter can help you reduce stress.
If you streamline your workflow, prioritize what you need to focus on, and efficiently address your tasks, that can allow you to meet your deadlines better and do your work without it encroaching on other areas of your life. If you can’t get to the least important items on your to-do list, that is easier to cope with than not completing the high-priority tasks.
Our bodies are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139). They are complicated and delicate gifts that enable us to experience this world in all its variety. In a fast-paced world with many demands on us, taking the time to take care of yourself can go a long way toward preventing the ravages of stress affecting your quality of life.
“Rain on an Apple”, Courtesy of Dmitry Bayer, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “The Bride Wore Combat Boots”, Courtesy of Owen Young, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Dog Time”, Courtesy of Anton Darius, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Windy Words”, Courtesy of Annie Spratt, Unsplash.com, CC0 License