In our last article, we noted that there are basically two ways of combating stress:
To strengthen oneself as a person in order to more readily resist the destructive effects of stress.
To resolve the actual cause of stress at its source.
Bearing in mind that there are many different causes of stress, it may be that a person’s stress problem will not be dealt with by simply dropping it into just one of the above areas. There may well be considerable overlapping. It is hoped, however, that a person of average intelligence should be able to prayerfully evaluate his situation and determine what measures need to be adopted to meet his case.
Previously we began to explore the first aspect of strengthening oneself as a person in order to better handle the stressors of life. In so doing, we dwell at length upon the importance of getting an adequate amount of rest and not overworking. To continue, we now need to consider several other modalities that relate to stress control and life-style in general:
It has been rightly said that action is the law of our being. We all need to be physically active, but the sedentary type person who is under stress needs to be especially sure that he makes time for physical activity at some time in his day. Those in need of exercise should bear in mind that while stretching and twisting exercises and some form of moderate weight lifting may have their place, the best exercise for stress is aerobic activity, such as walking, swimming, or cycling. In addition to helping to dissipate stress and tension, this type of exercise also strengthens the heart and lungs and tones up the body’s oxygen delivery system. An efficient circulatory system is much better able to convey waste materials and impurities from the cells to the excretory organs. This will not only result in a clearer mind but, in conjunction with other factors, contributes to an increased energy level, which is helpful in combating stress.
The cells of the body contain minute structures called mitochondria, which produce a special energy substance called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). People who exercise regularly and sufficiently have been shown to have more mitochondria in their muscle cells than people who do not exercise. Often a person who feels chronically tired wrongly supposes that exercise will further deplete his energy level. This is not true. The best way to increase his vitality is to get up and start working out! The more he does, the more he will increase the number of mitochondria producing the ATP, turning his yawns and sluggishness into pep and energy.
It is not unusual for an overworked, under-exercised, and stressed-out individual to suffer from hypertonic muscle tension. This is a condition in which certain muscle groups become tense and wound up like a clockwork spring. Even when a person in this state tries to relax, his muscles in the scalp, neck, and shoulders, for example, remains taut and unable to fully relax. The best remedy for this situation is to go outside and engage in some physical activity, followed by a relaxing, warm bath. Another type of maneuver for dealing with muscle tension is to lie flat on the bed and physically contract the muscles in the arms and legs and then let them relax. Though this procedure is never as good as engaging in a more complete body exercise, it may be of benefit for someone who is trying to relax in bed before going to sleep.
The best and safest type of exercise is brisk walking, several times per week, for about thirty minutes per session. Gardening, weather permitting, is an excellent form of exercise and stress alleviator. These forms of exercise are very helpful as mood elevators, helping to overcome depressions.
Fresh air is a vital weapon in overcoming stress. Deep, rhythmic breathing has a calming effect upon jittery and shattered nerves. People in the stressful throws of quitting cigarettes have often been advised to begin deep, rhythmic breathing when the craving starts hitting them hard. Coupled with prayer, this is a powerful means of getting them through an intense peak of craving. It has been shown that brain cells require about five times more oxygen than cells elsewhere in the body. A nervous system deficient in the vital element of oxygen is more vulnerable to the onslaughts of stress.
By far the best kind of diet for anyone, and especially those who seek to increase their stress resistance, is that which is prescribed in Counsels on Diet and Foods, 92; “grains, fruits, vegetables, and nuts.” Such a diet will provide all of the nutritional elements necessary for life and the challenges of living. Unfortunately, many subsist today on highly refined junk foods that do not provide the vital nutrition that their bodies require.
In addition to a deficient diet, the majority of people do not eat at the times best suited to meet the stressors of each day. For example, the most challenging part of the work day has been shown to be the morning, up until lunch time. Many individuals, however, go off to work in the morning with very little, if any, breakfast and with the false expectation that they will produce at their optimum. Regardless of how well they my think they have done, it is a fact that people who go to work on a good breakfast generally do better than those who do not. In the case of school children, it was shown in the now classic, Iowa breakfast studies of several years ago, that children who face school after an adequate breakfast did better academically and emotionally than those who ate little or no breakfast. Adults who eat breakfast have been shown to have better concentration and dexterity and are less accident prone than those who skip breakfast. It goes without saying that those who ate breakfast had much better resistance to stress.
One of the key factors in all of this is the blood glucose level. People who eat little or no breakfast, other than possibly some other type of sugary junk food, may have difficulty maintaining an adequate level of glucose in their bloodstream throughout the morning. Because junk foods are highly refined and usually contain a lot of sugar, they are very quickly digested. Their carbohydrate content is rapidly converted into glucose and released into the blood stream. This quick source of energy is soon spent, often leaving the individual as deficient in vitality as before. The rapid surge of large amounts of sugar into the circulation can cause an overreaction in some people as their bodies seek to restore homeostasis. The pancreas becomes over stimulated because of the sudden, rapid rise in circulating glucose and responds by secreting an excess of insulin, in turn causing the blood sugar to rapidly drop below its normal range. Such episodes of low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) leave a person feeling weak, nervous, jittery, and hollow inside. Apart from all of the other classical symptoms associated with hypoglycemia, the person is rendered much less capable of handling stress.
A number of years ago a study was conducted among a group of young women who had been placed on a diet deficient in vitamin B-1. The experiment finally had to be abandoned because they became nervous, irritable, intolerant to noise, and started having a hard time getting along with one another. While a person’s low stress threshold may not be due to a nutritional deficiency, it certainly does no harm to examine one’s dietary practices and especially ensure that he starts each day with a hearty breakfast.
Chemical stimulants never serve to strengthen the nervous system and fortify it against stress, even though they may give the impression of being beneficial. A degree of stimulation may come as a consequence of eating a flesh diet or ingesting a large amount of sugar, as is sometimes seen in hyperactive children. The greatest culprit by far, however, is caffeine. This chemical rapidly whips up the nervous system, only to produce greater debilitation once its stimulation has worn off. The usual response to this ultimate “let down” is to ingest more caffeine, continuing the vicious cycle of addiction and depletion of vital energy reserves. A physician friend of mine once described a very nervous and stressed out lady who visited his office. No significant cause could be found for her severe agitation until the doctor discovered that she was drinking a very large amount of coffee every day. His prescription was for her to go home and get rid of the coffee pot! She returned home doubting the credibility of his advice; but under the admonition of her husband, whom she had almost driven to despair, she quit the caffeine. Several weeks later she returned to the doctor’s office so completely relaxed and unwound that he hardly recognized her!
Not all stress problems, however, are related to lifestyle.
Some of the worst kinds of stress are the result of strained relationships. In such cases, efforts must be made to facilitate communication between both parties in as unconfrontational way as possible in order to address the underlying issues. It may even be necessary to involve a neutral party to mediate between them.
During these types of situation, when discouragement threatens to break one’s hold upon God, it is crucial to cling tenaciously to the divine promises, believing that all things can work together for good to them that love Him and that God will not permit us to endure more than we are able to bear. (See Romans 8:18; I Corinthians 10:13.) If it yields nothing else, being locked into a stressful, hostile relationship is an opportunity for spiritual growth that may not have been possible on the sunny side of the street.
When subject to the stress of relationship problems, we should prayerfully search our hearts and honestly ask if the problem is not of our own creating. We may have to search our hearts to ensure that what we have said or done for the right has been done properly. It is also appropriate to ask if we are causing stress because of our lack of necessary action.
Quietly stewing inside over what others may have said or done to us is not healthy. This is not said to encourage anyone to passionately rise up in anger and defend a selfish interest. It is said, however, within the context of what Jesus Himself said, “If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.” Matthew 18:15. If we are genuine Christians, we will not treat such occasions as opportunities to get things “off our chest” in an attempt to dissipate our stress; but we will ask God to give us the courage and compassion to not only redeem our relationship with the individual and resolve the stress, but to redeem them from a wrong course of action which can affect their eternal interests.
A lot of unnecessary stress and anguish might be resolved if such individuals were willing to honestly enquire as did the psalmist: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my thoughts, and see if there be any wicked way in me.” Psalm 139:23, 24. In the book, Early Writings, 113, Ellen White states that, “Many who profess the name of Christ . . . are not subdued by grace, and they are not dead to self, as is often shown in various ways. At the same time they are talking of having trials. But the principal cause of their trials is an unsubdued heart, which makes self so sensitive it is often crossed.” Individuals in this category experience tremendous stress which could be decidedly resolved if they were broken upon the Rock and were dead to self.
Learning To Be Content
While we should strive to do our best in life to the glory of God, the good of others, and the wholesome betterment of ourselves, we should ever remain thankful for what we have and for who we are and not allow covetousness to dictate our actions. Many people have pierced themselves through with many sorrows and burdened themselves with stress because they begin coveting the possessions and achievements of others. They get into the rat race of keeping up with the Jones’s and soon find themselves living beyond their means. The only way to resolve the stress that often overwhelms those who have trod this well-worn path is to stop seeking that which God has not called them to seek. Depending on the circumstances, it may require them to change their job, or to be content with less.
When we choose to cut from our lives the things contrary to God’s will that have stressed them out and robbed them of happiness, we may do so with God’s help. He understands each situation far better than we know it ourselves. “’Come unto Me,’ is His invitation. Whatever your anxieties and trials, spread out your case before the Lord. Your spirit will be braced for endurance. The way will be opened for you to disentangle yourself from embarrassment and difficulty. The weaker and more helpless you know yourself to be, the stronger will you become in His strength. The heavier your burdens, the more blessed the rest in casting them upon the Burden-bearer. The rest that Christ offers depends upon conditions, but these conditions are plainly specified. They are those with which all can comply.” The Desire of Ages, 329. We need never fear of doing the right and accepting God’s plan for our lives. “In every difficulty He has His way prepared to bring relief. Our Heavenly Father has a thousand ways to provide for us, of which we now nothing. Those who accept the one principle of making the service and honor of God supreme will find perplexities vanish and a plain path before their feet.” Ibid., 330. As we make whatever changes are necessary in accepting that plan, we can become joyfully content with such things as we have (see Hebrews 13:5) and by faith rest in the assurance that all things needful will be ours. (See Matthew 6:25–34.)
Resolving the Stress of Guilt
In conclusion, we must never overlook the fact that many are stressed with a burden of guilt which they never can resolve in themselves. To all, Jesus extends the hand of mercy, presenting Himself as the only One able to lift the burden from their shoulders and their anxious minds. He alone is able to resolve the stress and inner turmoil caused by sin and exchange it for heaven’s sweet and lovely peace. Those who submit their lives into His keeping may know, even in the midst of a troubled world, the peace of God that passes all understanding. They can also rejoice in the sure hope of one day dwelling with Christ in glory, never again to know the distress of stress!