Stress is a normal part of everyday life. Bad traffic, a big deadline, a fight at home—hundreds of things can stress us out. When the event passes, so does the stress, and we can breathe a big sigh of relief. With chronic stress, however, there is no relief. Stemming from things like family discord, financial hardships, health issues, work conflicts, or school trouble, chronic stress is unrelenting. And it affects far too many of us. In a poll by the American Psychological Association, a whopping 80 percent of Americans say they feel significant stress. That spells trouble for your brain and body.
Don’t get us wrong—a little stress can be a good thing. When stress hits, the brain tells your body to start pumping out adrenaline (epinephrine) and cortisol, two hormones released by the adrenal glands. Within seconds your heart starts to pound faster, your breathing quickens, your blood courses faster through your veins, and your mind is on heightened alert. You’re ready for anything—running away from a would-be mugger, giving a speech in front of a roomful of peers, or taking an exam.
These stress hormones are the primary chemicals of the fight-or-flight response. They are especially useful when you face an immediate threat, such as a rattlesnake in your front yard. The human brain is so advanced that merely imagining a stressful event will cause the body to react to the perceived threat as if it were actually happening. You can literally scare your body into a stress response. The brain is one powerful organ.
Brief surges of stress hormones are normal and beneficial. They motivate you to do a good job at work, study hard, or pay your bills on time. Those short bursts of adrenaline and cortisol are not the problem with stress. The problem is that for many of us, the stress reactions never stop; Traffic, bills, work, school, family conflict, not enough sleep, health issues, and jam-packed schedules keep us in a constant state of stress. Take note that it isn’t just the bad stuff in life that causes stress. Even happy events, such as having a baby or getting a promotion, can be major stressors.
EVENTS THAT CAUSE STRESS
Death of a loved one
Chronic stress harms the brain. It constricts blood flow, which lowers overall brain function and prematurely ages your brain. A series of studies looked at long-term exposure to stress hormones, especially cortisol, and its effect on brain function in varying age groups. The older adults with continuously high levels of cortisol performed worse on memory tests than older adults with moderate-to-low cortisol levels. The older adults with high cortisol levels also had a 14 percent smaller hippocampus, the area involved with memory. The hippocampus is part of the stress response system and sends out signals to halt the production of cortisol once a threat has vanished. But when the number of brain cells in the hippocampus is depleted, it no longer sends out this signal, which results in the release of even greater amounts of cortisol.
Excessive amounts of cortisol affect other areas of the brain, too. Canadian researchers used functional brain imaging studies to show that exposure to stress hormones is associated with decreased activity, not only in the hippocampus, but also in the parts of the brain that control cognitive function and emotional balance.
When stress hurts your brain, it can also ravage your body. Your body responds to the way you think, feel, and act. Because of this brain-body connection, whenever you feel stressed, your body tries to tell you that something isn’t right. For example, high blood pressure or a stomach ulcer might develop after a particularly stressful event, such as the death of a loved one. Chronic stress weakens your body’s immune system, making you more likely to get colds, flu bugs, and other infections during emotionally difficult times. Stress has also been implicated in heart disease, hypertension, and even cancer.
Your boss is handing out pink slips. You just had a fight with your teenage daughter. You are late for an appointment. How do you react? You may try to calm your nerves with chocolate, ice cream, French fries, or potato chips (or all of the above). And there’s a scientific reason why. Stress and cortisol are linked to increases in appetite and cravings for carbs and sweet stuff that can make you fat.
Living with stress on a daily basis makes you more likely to have issues with your weight for a number of other reasons. For example, chronic stress usually goes hand in hand with a lack of sleep. That pumps up cortisol production and throws your appetite-control hormones out of balance. That should explain why you feel as if health flies out the window during stressful situations. So it’s no surprise if you overeat, crave sugary treats, and store more fat.
Since chronic stress can make you feel tired and achy, you are less inclined to exercise. Of course, you can’t blame stress for all your poor health and weight gain, but you can see how easily it happens.
Chronic stress drains your emotional well-being and is associated with anxiety, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease, all of which can affect your body. If you experience some form of emotional trauma—say you’re involved in a car accident—your emotional system becomes very active, which can make you more upset and depressed. Then the battle of the bulge and unhappiness with your body can feel overwhelming.
Common Signs and Symptoms of Stress
|Frequent headaches or migraines
Gritting or grinding teeth
Stammering or tremors
Neck ache, back pain, or muscle spasms
Dry mouth or problems swallowing
Frequent colds, infections, or herpes sores
Stomach pain or nausea
Difficulty breathing or sighing
Chest pain or heart palpitations
Poor sexual desire or performance
Increased anger, frustration, or irritability
Depression, frequent, or wild mood swings
Increased or decreased appetite
|Insomnia, nightmares, or disturbing dreams
Difficulty concentrating, racing thoughts
Trouble learning new information
Overreaction to petty annoyances
Reduced work efficiency or productivity
Excessive defensiveness or suspiciousness
Constant fatigue or weakness
Frequent use of over-the-counter drugs
Excessive gambling or impulse buying
Chronic stress can attack you at any stage of your life. When chronic stress hits you or someone in your circle, everyone suffers. You’ve heard of the trickle-down economic theory; there’s also a trickle-down stress theory. When the boss is stressed out, everyone at work is stressed out. When your spouse is stressed out, everyone in the family is stressed out.
Stop the trickle-down effect and calm stress. Here are a few strategies that will boost your mood and your decision making.
1. Pray on a regular basis. Decades of research have shown that prayer calms stress and enhances brain function. Dr. Andrew Newberg at Thomas Jefferson University used brain SPECT imaging to study the neurobiology of prayer and meditation in those that dedicated time to those disciplines regularly. He found distinctive changes in brain activity as the mind went into a prayerful or meditative state. Specifically, activity decreased in the parts of the brain involved in generating a sense of three-dimensional orientation in space.
They also found increased activity in the prefrontal cortex associated with attention span and thoughtfulness. Prayer tunes people in, not out.
The benefits of prayer go far beyond stress relief. Studies have shown that it also improves attention and planning, reduces depression and anxiety, decreases sleepiness, and protects the brain from cognitive decline associated with normal aging.
As we mentioned in chapter 3, King David practiced biblical meditation and prayer. You can too, just about anywhere anytime. If you’re at work, you can simply close the door to your office, sit in your chair, close your eyes, and pray. At home, you can sit on the edge of your bed and spend a couple minutes calming your mind and focusing on God.
God wants us to think deeply on his goodness and loveliness. This is biblical meditation. The Bible says, “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength” (Isaiah 30:15). You need to regularly, repeatedly set time aside to quiet yourself and refocus your thoughts on the greatness and power of God.
Ten Names of God to Dwell On
1. Jehovah Rapha—the God who heals, who makes healthful
2. El Roiy–the God who sees me
3. Jehovah Jirah—the Lord who provides
4. El Shadai—All sufficient one, Lord God Almighty
5. Jehovah Nissi—the Lord our banner of loving protection
6. Jehovah Oz—the Lord my strength
7. Adonai—the Sovereign Lord God
8. Jehovah Shammah—the Lord is there
9. Jehovah Shalom—Our perfect peace
10. Jehovah Raah—the Lord my shepherd
Besides growing your relationship with God and building a foundation for spiritual health, prayer offers many health and stress-relief benefits. Physicians Larry Dossey (Healing Words), Dale Matthews (The Faith Factor), and others have written books outlining the scientific evidence of the medical benefits of prayer and other meditation. Some of these benefits include reduced feelings of stress, lower cholesterol levels, improved sleep, reduced anxiety and depression, fewer headaches, relaxed muscles, and longer life spans. People who pray or read the Bible every day are 40 percent less likely to suffer from hypertension than others.
A 1998 Duke University study of 577 men and women hospitalized for physical illness showed that the more patients used positive spiritual coping strategies (seeking spiritual support from friends and religious leaders, having faith in God, praying), the lower their level of depressive symptoms and the higher their quality of life.
A 1996 survey of 269 family physicians found that 99 percent believed prayer, meditation, or other spiritual nd religious practices can be helpful in medical treatment; more than half said they currently incorporate these practices into treatment of patients.
2. Learn to delegate. It seems as if being busy is a sort of badge of honor. Ask anyone what they have planned for the day, and it’s likely they will respond by telling you how incredibly busy they are. “I’m finishing a project for work, hosting a dinner party, making the kids’ costumes for the school play, volunteering at church, and going to my book group.” Phew! It can stress you out just thinking about all that.
News flash! You don’t have to accept every invitation, take on every project, or volunteer for every activity that comes your way. Two of the greatest life skills you can learn are the art of delegation and the ability to say no. When someone asks you to do something, a good first response would be, “Let me think about it.” Then you can take the time to process the request to see if it fits with your schedule, desires, and goals. When you have too much on your plate, delegate.
3. Listen to soothing music. Music has healing power that can bring peace to a stressful mind. Of course, it depends on the type of music you listen to. Listening to uplifting music that reminds you of God’s truth can have a calming effect and reduce stress and calm anxiety.
4. Consider calming scents. The scent of lavender has been used since ancient times for its calming, stress-relieving properties. This popular aroma has been the subject of countless research studies, which show that it reduces cortisol levels and promotes relaxation and stress reduction. Add a few drops of lavender oil to your bath or set dried lavender in your bedroom. Many other scents, such as geranium, rose, cardamon, sandalwood, and chamomile, are considered to have a calming effect that reduces stress.
5. Take a calming supplement. Some supplements may be helpful in soothing stress, but take these under the supervision of a healthcare professional.
B vitamins help the brain affect mood and thinking.
L-Theanine is an amino acid mainly found naturally in the green tea plant. It penetrates the brain and produces significant increases in the anti-depressant neurotransmitters serotonin and/or dopamine concentrations. Note: Pregnant women and nursing mothers should avoid L-theanine supplements.
GABA: Gama-aminobutyric acid (GABA) works in much the same way as anti-anxiety drugs and anticonvulsants. This means it has a calming effect for people who struggle with temper, irritability, and anxiety, whether these symptoms relate to anxiety.
4. Laugh more. There is a growing body of scientific literature suggesting that laughter counteracts stress and is good for the immune system. It’s no joke! One study of cancer patients found that laughter reduced stress and improved cell activity associated with increased resistance to the disease. According to University of California–Irvine’s Professor Lee Berk, “If we took what we know about the medical benefits of laughter and bottled it up, it would require FDA approval.” Laughter lowers the flow of dangerous stress hormones.
Laughter also eases digestion and soothes stomachaches, a common symptom of chronic stress. Plus, a good rollicking guffaw increases the release of endorphins, which make you feel better and more relaxed. Laughter truly may be the best medicine when it comes to stress relief.
The average child laughs hundreds of times a day. The average adult laughs only a dozen times a day. Inject more humor into your everyday life. Watch comedies (which could be a helpful form of TV), go to humorous plays, read joke books, and swap funny stories with your friends and family.
We can’t stress enough (pun intended) how important it is to learn to laugh at yourself too. When you drop the milk jug and it goes splashing across the kitchen floor, when you call a business associate by the wrong name, or when you stumble over your words while teaching a class, be the first to chuckle. When you stop taking yourself so seriously, your stress levels will subside.