Stress 101 (part 1) stres/noun: the physiological response to a perceived threat or demand.

What is it?

Clenched teeth… sleepless nights… tight muscles… headaches… conflict… worry…. All of these are ways that Stress makes its appearance in our lives…. But WHAT IS IT?

Technically, stress is what our body does automatically when we think we are being threatened or a high demand is being placed on us. And often we don’t even realize this is what’s going on. Some definitions indicate that this response is triggered anytime we are faced with change. Stress is not the situation that causes the response, rather it is our response.

The threat may be a physical threat or it can happen when we feel threatened emotionally, relationally, in our authority, or even if our opinions or values are being threatened. The demand may come from a good situation as in important life events such as weddings or trips, as well as difficult situations, such as transitions or grief.

Stress is basically the body’s automatic Fight-or-Flight response and when it is triggered, a series of chain reactions take place in our body as a result of the release of specific chemicals and hormones into our brain and body. Among these, are cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline.

When these chemicals are released, there are some pretty amazing physical things that start to take place automatically:

  • Blood flow increases to our muscles
  • Heart rate increases
  • Blood sugar increases
  • Eye site and hearing initially become sharper and clearer
  • Metabolism slows down
  • Breathing increases
  • Physical capabilities and performance increase… temporarily.

This is The Stress Response.

Why does it matter?

The Stress Response is a God given system designed to help us handle dangerous or demanding situations. It allows us to perform better, be stronger and think more clearly in immediate demanding or threatening circumstances. We can think of the Stress Response as a kind of gas peddle allowing us to do what is needed when it is needed.

Fortunately, God also designed us with a brake peddle, or a Relaxation Response. In God’s design, we are made to stop the increase of these chemicals when the demand or threat is passed, allowing our body to return to a resting place for restoration. We were created to be at our best when we find the rhythm between this STRESS Response and the RELAXATION Response.

Unfortunately, we sometimes get out of rhythm and our gas peddle can get stuck, holding us in that high STRESS condition and resulting in Chronic Stress….and that’s not good.

How does this happen? Here are 4 ways we are especially vulnerable to getting ourselves stuck in a state of Chronic Stress:

  1. Perception: We may perceive a situation as threatening or we anticipate a threat or demand that is not actually threatening or demanding. The thing is, the stress response is triggered in our brain whether the threat is real or imagined. Think – worry, anxiety, anticipation, etc.
  2. Reality: Honestly, for many of us, the realities of our life keep us exposed to too much threat or too much demand, too much of the time. This can lead to BurnOut or Compassion Fatigue (watch for an article on this). There simply isn’t space or boundaries in our lives for the RELAXATION Response to be activated.
  3. Ruts: We’ve allowed habits and behavior patterns to form ‘ruts’ in our life so that we don’t even recognize the cues when our body is crying out for this RELAXATION Response. We train ourselves to get by on too little sleep or we develop an addiction to adrenaline so that we actually crave it and lean into stress and high level activity rather than finding the healthy rhythms we were created for.
  4. Passion: Finally, we tend to not recognize stress when it is flowing from the fulfillment of our passion. Often in ministry, we are so energized by the activity of our work, that we get lost in it. It doesn’t feel bad in the moment, so we don’t realize the negative impact of staying in the STRESS mode too much.

And the problem is that Chronic Stress is extremely harmful. Research in the US, indicates that 43% of all adults suffer adverse health effects from chronic stress and 75-90% of all doctor office visits can be traced to stress-related ailments and complaints. In addition, emotional disorders, more than 50% of the time, are due to chronic stress reactions that are not addressed.
And it’s not just physical. Here’s how Chronic Stress can show up in our lives:

  • Mental: Worry, Unclear thinking, Bad judgment, Nightmares, Indecision, Negativity, Bad decisions.
  • Behavioral: Accident Prone, Loss of appetite, Loss of sex drive, Sleeplessness, Restlessness.
  • Emotional: Loss of confidence, Fussiness, Irritability, Depression, Apathy, Loneliness, Worry, Anxiety.
  • Physical: Headaches, Weight Gain, Frequent sickness due to lowered immunity, Tight and sore muscles, Tiredness, Skin problems, Shortness of breath, Fatigue, High blood pressure.
  • Relational: Anger, Loss of Motivation, Moral Compromise, Increased Conflict
  • Spiritual: Doubt, Loss of Faith, Loss of Perspective

And then, we find that these very symptoms of Chronic Stress, will cause us to be MORE stressed!!

This matters to us because our ability to meet the demands of our calling will be compromised in a state of Chronic Stress. Also, our influence and testimony is at risk when we continue to try to function, especially in ministry, while under high stress. And finally, our ability to maintain integrity in our relationships is negatively effected by chronic stress.

What Can We Do About It?

There is help! Science has given us a HUGE amount of resources to help deal with what has been described as a Chronic Stress Epidemic. But even more relevant to us is that Christ offers us a cure. It’s not always easy or fast, but we are promised that we can be transformed by the renewal of our mind… and I don’t know about you, but sometimes, I can sure use some renewal!

In my next article, Stress 102, we’ll take a closer look at some of the physical and mental ways God has designed us to manage this dance between Stress and Relaxation. We’ll walk through the creation of a Personal Plan to Manage Stress. But between now and then, let’s soak in some of these Bible verses that have much to say to us about Stress:

Matthew 6:25-27, Matthew 6:34, Matthew 11:28-30, Luke 12:25, John 14:27, Colossians 3:15, II Thessalonians 3:16, Psalm 55:22, Proverbs 12:25, Philippians 4:6-7, I Peter 5:7, Psalm 23:4, Isaiah 43:1-3, Hebrews 13:6, Psalm 46:10, Psalm 56:3, Psalm 121:1-2, Proverbs 3:5-6

— Cindy Schmelzenbach, Regional Member Care Coordinator