You can never avoid all stress. But you can learn dangerous stress signals. And discover how to overcome the bad effects of distress.
THIS is an age of stress and anxiety. Stress is not new to human experience. But we live today in an especially fast moving world where rapid changes are taking place in every facet of society. The strains and pressures of daily living in the 20th century are steadily building up. Those who can't cope try escaping through the use of alcohol or tranquilizers. Some end it all in suicide. Stress affects everyone. It is a problem that concerns us all. We need to know what it is. How it affects our minds and bodies. How we can cope to survive.
What Is Stress?
Not all stress is bad. Think for a moment. Whenever the body is forced to respond to a demand exerted upon it, there is a corresponding reaction of strain and pressure. This stress cannot be avoided and is vitally necessary throughout our lives. Athletes use tension at the start of a race. Inventors and artists have attained their greatest achievements during periods of stress. Mountain climbers have reached the highest summits by straining their bodies to the peak of endurance. But when stress is not managed and used properly, it has a harmful effect on the body. Too much stress can damage the body. This unpleasant and destructive stress is actually distress. Disturbed by distress, the body will suffer in some way. The list of consequent mental and physical ailments aggravated by stress is already long and increasing. They include: gastric or peptic ulcers, hypertension, high blood pressure, heart disease, mental breakdown, migraine headaches, diabetes, allergies, colitis and temporary diarrhea. Stress can lead to heart attacks, nervous breakdowns and suicide. That's why it has been called the "twentieth century killer." Stress may even be linked with certain forms of cancer, according to recent evidence. The link between mental strain and physical health is well documented in medical journals. Uncurbed emotional stress increases muscle tension and biochemical changes in the body to the point that its defenses against disease are damaged. Researchers now believe stress creates conditions in which disease takes hold.
Are You Suffering from Stress?
People don't always know when they are under stress. Even though they don't feel tense and under pressure, their body nonetheless suffers from the effects stress produces. To determine if you're suffering from stress, Dr. Frank Finnerty some years ago listed the following questions to ask yourself: (From Family Health, Nov, 1974) • Do minor problems and disappointments throw you into a dither? • Do you find it difficult to get along with people, and are people having trouble getting along with you? • Do the small pleasures of life fail satisfy you? • Are you unable to stop thinking of your anxieties? • Do you fear people or situations that never used to trouble you? • Are you suspicious of people, mistrustful of your friends? • Do you have the feeling of being trapped? • Do you feel inadequate or suffer tortures of self-doubt? Dr. Finnerty then commented that if you answered yes to most of those questions, you may be on the road to illness unless you learn to cope better with those situations.
What Causes Stress?
Any situation that upsets our normal and peaceful life can be stressful. Economic crises, energy shortages, earthquakes, bad weather, crime problems in our neighborhood, race riots and other chaotic conditions in the world can increase stress on our lives. As the world falls apart around them, people worry about the future and wonder where the world is heading. Three major categories of situations in life can cause stress. One is where there is a loss — of someone or something. Losing a spouse through death, divorce or separation produces the greatest amount of stress. Losing a job, a source of income or a close friend also causes stress. Another situation is where there is a threat of some kind. It can be a threat to a person's status at work or in the community, a threat to security and health because of sickness or age. When a woman sees her beauty fade away and a man loses his strength and vitality, a stressful situation develops. If a man sees that his lifetime goals are not likely to be achieved, that threat could also become a big worry to him. The third situation involves a major change to a person's way of life. The change can involve marital status, health, type of work or responsibilities at work, or general living conditions. Drs. Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe have discovered that major changes in one's life, whether pleasant or unpleasant, all take a physical and mental toll. If several major changes take place in a short period of time, including loss and threat situations, there is a high risk of falling ill.
Learn to Live with Stress
Since we cannot avoid all stress, we need to learn to live with it. We need to learn how much stress our individual bodies can take. We need to learn to manage our lives so that the bad effects from overstress do not permanently harm our bodies. Improving our health is the first coping strategy we can use. It is an established fact that reasonable exercise relieves tension. Dr. Hans Selye, a leading expert on stress, found that under exercised mice withstood stress far worse than those in peak physical condition. Building up stamina is a way to survive during periods of stress. A few exercises in the morning are mentally stimulating. Exercise outdoors when you can to get more fresh air and sunshine. More outdoor living will counteract the tension of modern city life. Since stress burns up energy and causes fatigue, eat regular meals of nutritious food and get adequate rest. Sir Winston Churchill took naps during the day to reduce tension and refresh his body. Taking time out for relaxation is also important. When pressures mount up, our minds need a diversion — a change of pace or scenery. We can listen to good music, but it must be melodic and harmonious to serve as a tonic for jangled nerves. Much of the loud and raucous noise labeled as music today can only increase tension. The modern scene is vividly described by W. Phillip Keller in his book Taming Tension. "If we insist on filling our homes with mad music, if we turn up the volume until our heads throb, if we play discordant melodies with their provocative beat... we are bound to generate some terrible tensions. We need not be surprised if our surroundings become electric and charged with chaos, stress, and out right hostilities" Other forms of relaxation would include reading an inspiring book, or playing games with the family or friends. When a total change of environment is possible, take a trip to the park or an area of natural beauty where you can observe the creative handiwork of God. Whatever you enjoy doing and find relaxing can be an antidote to stress. The mind needs "quiet times" for a change of pace. Some use hobbies as a form of quiet diversion away from people and problems. Meditation and prayer in a private place are highly recommended in the Bible. King David of ancient Israel admitted his prayers were more effective when coupled with meditation. "My soul shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness; and my mouth shall praise thee with joyful lips: when I remember thee upon my bed, and meditate on thee in the night watches" (Psalm 63:56). Here's another important principle: Know your strengths and weaknesses and live within your means. Trying to be like someone else causes stress if your expectations are beyond your capability to achieve. Analyze your strengths, weaknesses and limitations. Don't take on more than you can comfortably handle. Be willing to say no when your time and energy are already in full demand. Struggling to "keep up with the Joneses" will also cause endless stress and strain. The modern misguided and misdirected "rat race" is not worth your effort, energy and economic resources. The apostle Paul's answer was, "Let your conduct be without covetousness, and be content with such things as you have" (Hebrews 13:5, New King James Version). He wrote to Timothy and said, "But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content" (1 Timothy 6:6-8). Paul learned that whatever state he was in — whether full or hungry — he could be content and satisfied with the thought that Christ was with him to provide the strength to see him through his problems (Philippians 4:11-13).
Change Your Thinking
The second coping strategy is to change your way of thinking. Learning to think good and uplifting thoughts is a key to mental stability. As the apostle Paul said, "Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things" (Philippians 4:8). In a world where there is so much negative thinking, we all need an uplifting mental outlook and attitude. Avoid gossip, degrading rumors and destructive criticism of others. Focus your mind on good qualities of others. Develop an outgoing, helpful concern for other people. Also avoid, whenever possible, personality conflicts and explosive situations that spark off stress. Attempt to understand how others feel and be willing to forgive their shortcomings. Intolerance of others often leads to frustration and needless anger. Keep yourself calm, cheerful and pleasant even if others can't. Learning the basic skills of getting along with other people will help reduce stressful living. Of course, there is a time to speak out in righteous indignation. Dr. Hans Selye says negative feelings "include hatred, distress, disdain, hostility, jealousy and the urge for revenge, in short every drive likely to endanger your security by inciting aggressiveness in others who are afraid that you may cause them harm." Positive feelings include "gratitude, respect, trust, and admiration for the excellence of outstanding achievements, all of which add up to goodwill and friendship" (Stress Without Distress, pp. 70-71). As negative emotions will produce damaging changes to the body's chemistry, as Dr. Selye explains in his book, the positive emotions of love, faith, hope, laughter and the determination to live produce beneficial changes in the body. Dr. John Schindler says such healthy emotions are "just as powerful in the direction of good health as the effect of the stressing emotions is toward bad health" (How to Live 365 Days a Year, p. 62). Centuries ago the Bible recorded that emotions have a direct effect on the body's health. Proverbs 14:30 says, "A sound heart [mind] is the life of the flesh [body]: but envy [a harmful emotion] the rottenness of the bones." A negative emotion such as envy will damage the physical body. On the other hand, positive and pleasant emotions benefit the body. "Pleasant words [or thoughts] are as an honeycomb, sweet to the soul, and health to the bones" (Proverbs 16:24). Further, "A merry heart [a cheerful attitude] doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones" (Proverbs 17:22). Also see Proverbs 15:13, 15. The contrast is clear. Good emotions benefit the body's health. Negative emotions and a depressed attitude damage the functions of the body. Emotional stress must therefore be avoided to retain good health.
Make Wise Decisions
A third coping strategy: Learn how to make right and wise decisions to solve problems. Making decisions is a trying experience for those under severe stress. The turmoil of indecision and confusion increases tension and frustration. But we must make decisions every day. Our entire life is made up of making decisions and choices. True, many decisions are routine and simple. They can be made quickly. But others are more difficult, especially if they concern changing jobs, moving house or resolving financial problems. Such important decisions should not be made hastily without going through the following three steps: 1. Get all relevant facts. This includes seeking counsel and gathering information from those who have wisdom and knowledge to advise you (Proverbs 11:14; 13:10; 19:20). Find what is causing your stress. What are your fears? Discuss them with someone — your spouse, a friend or a minister. Talking it over will relieve your bottled up tension, help you see the problem and what you possibly can do to solve it. 2. List the possible choices or courses of action. You can break stressful habits by proposing different choices. And there often are choices. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each choice? What does each course of action lead to? Select the choice that will be best for all concerned. 3. Make a decision. People sometimes avoid making decisions because they are afraid of making a mistake. But we must have courage to take the risk of being wrong. We can learn by our mistakes if a wrong decision is made. If you have gone through steps one and two, don't procrastinate. Make a decision. Once it is made, the tension caused by indecision will disappear.
Decisions for the future involve planning ahead. Planning one's life is an important coping strategy for dealing with stress, according to Dr. Roy W. Menninger. "Most of us are so caught up in the rapid pace of life," he said, "that we do not recognize the importance of sitting down and having a confidential conversation with one's self — to focus on our inner motivations and desires." Draw up a plan for the next five years, year, month or day. Important questions to answer first are: Where are you heading? How can you get where you want to go? What and who is most important to you? What is worth doing? What do you really want to do but never seem to get around to doing? What do you really want from life? Set both long and short-term goals. List the actions necessary to achieve those goals. Be flexible and willing to change your plans when circumstances change and dictate a new direction. Space out drastic changes if possible. Moving to a new town with a new job and buying a home at the same time will have a stressful impact. Here's a daily plan: Make a list of the tasks you want to accomplish the next day. Number them according to their importance. If possible, do the most disagreeable and difficult job first. Complete each task before going on to the next one. Wise planning helps make happen what you want to happen in your life. Besides helping you get more done, it relieves the stress of deciding what to do next.
Jesus Set Priorities
But didn't Jesus say something about not thinking of the future? When He said, "Take no thought for your life" (Matthew 6:25), He meant we shouldn't worry ourselves sick over what we will eat or put on our bodies. Modern translations render this statement, "Take no anxious thought about your life." There is no need to fret over food and clothing. God can provide you with the necessities of life just as He provides for the birds and the lilies of the field (verses 26-32). The world is very concerned about food, clothing and homes. And God knows that we need those material things to live. "But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness [the right way to live and think], and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble" (Matthew 6:33-34, NKJV). The Kingdom of God should be the most important goal in life. But it is not wrong to plan for the future. God Himself has a master plan of salvation. Because people don't know that plan they are unaware of the ultimate purpose for life — their very existence on this earth. Those who understand God's plan realize that He is in control of the circumstances surrounding their lives and His will is being done for them. No matter what kind of distressful situation they encounter, they believe God has a purpose for allowing it to happen — that character is being formed and tempered by the stresses of trials (Romans 5:35 and 8:28). The apostle Paul knew that the periods of stress he and other Christians had to endure were for this very purpose of producing and strengthening spiritual character. Notice his inspiring words to the Corinthians, "We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed;... For all things are for your sakes, that the abundant grace might through the thanksgiving of many redound to the glory of God. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory" (2 Corinthians 4:8, 9, 15, 17). Paul had applied coping strategy number four: Trust in God for strength and deliverance prom distress. Accept the stress that comes and respond to it, positively, with the help of God and power of the living Christ. Throughout Psalm 107 we read how the children of Israel cried out to God in their trouble and He saved them from their distress. He also can help you (1 Corinthians 10:13). God can provide refuge and strength in time of stress. Therefore there is no need to fear the earth shattering events that may befall us (Psalms 46:1, 2). God "gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint" (Isaiah 40:29-31, New International Version). That's why Paul was able to say, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:13, NKJV). With God's help we learn how to cope with fears, worries and stress. Living the revealed way of life will never be easy. Paul compared it to running a race (1 Corinthians 9:24 and Hebrews 12:1). But the race of life isn't on a clear and smooth track. It's more like a country run or obstacle race. There are hurdles to jump over and obstacles to run around before reaching the finish line. And so it will be that all who endure the stresses and strains of running this race to the end will be winners.