Life Balance Check, Part 6: Managing Stress
January 14, 2020
by Peter Amsterdam
Life Balance Check, Part 6: Managing Stress
Stress is something we’re all familiar with; it’s natural and unavoidable to have some stress in our lives. The problem arises when there is too much stress, especially when that stressful state continues for months on end. That has happened to me, and it was pretty miserable. Not only does it sap the joy out of your life and make you feel sad and hopeless, but it also interrupts your sleep, can strain your relationships, distract you from doing your best work, and cloud your times of communion with the Lord.
The following short excerpt pretty much nails the feeling of stress that I have experienced and have often heard others describe some variation of:
You probably have something in common with one of the nation’s leading heart surgeons, one of Microsoft’s top marketing executives, and one of Wall Street’s toughest deal-makers.
What’s their shared affliction? It’s what personal-productivity guru David Allen calls … a “gnawing sense of anxiety.” An overloaded in-basket here, hundreds of unanswered emails there—soon enough, life feels as if it’s spinning out of control.1
I’m not a heart surgeon, Microsoft executive, or Wall Street deal-maker, but that feeling that things are “spinning out of control” is familiar and is disconcerting, to say the least! And that “gnawing sense of anxiety” is terrible! I’m guessing I’m not the only one of us who has felt this way. There are many factors that can create stress in our lives—health issues, financial matters, an upcoming interview or event, concerns about your kids or grandkids, etc.
In this post on stress I’ll share some practical points which I know aren’t “new information.” In fact, the subject of stress is something Maria and I have written about many times. However, my own fairly recent health issues have caused me to review these points and do a bit more research, which was helpful in bringing to mind details I had forgotten as well as renewing my conviction to be more mindful of stress-inducing habits and stress-relieving practices.
We know that chronic stress can result in serious health problems. The Mayo Clinic posted an article that noted:
Stress symptoms may be affecting your health, even though you might not realize it. You may think illness is to blame for that irritating headache, your frequent insomnia or your decreased productivity at work. But stress may actually be the cause.
Indeed, stress symptoms can affect your body, your thoughts and feelings, and your behavior. Being able to recognize common stress symptoms can help you manage them. Stress that’s left unchecked can contribute to many health problems, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
Common effects of stress on your body
- Muscle tension or pain
- Chest pain
- Change in sex drive
- Stomach upset
- Sleep problems
Common effects of stress on your mood
- Lack of motivation or focus
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Irritability or anger
- Sadness or depression
Common effects of stress on your behavior
- Overeating or undereating
- Angry outbursts
- Drug or alcohol misuse
- Tobacco use
- Social withdrawal
- Exercising less often2
Stress can have other serious health consequences:
- Stress plays a major role in your immune system and can impact your blood pressure, cholesterol levels, brain chemistry, blood sugar levels, and hormonal balance.
- May cause heart disease and/or heart attack.
- Causes weight gain (specifically belly fat) and difficulty losing weight.
- Can impair cognitive skills and memory over time; may trigger the early onset of dementia or Alzheimer’s.
- Can affect a woman’s menstrual cycles and fertility.
- Can cause gastrointestinal disorders (inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, food allergies, GERD, and more).
The following excerpt provides us with a helpful word picture:
Imagine that your health and energy are a bucket of water.
In your day-to-day life, there are things that fill your bucket up. These are inputs like sleep, nutrition, meditation, stretching, laughter, and other forms of recovery.
There are also forces that drain the water from your bucket. These are outputs like … stress from work or school, relationship problems, or other forms of stress and anxiety.
These outputs are cumulative. Even a little leak can result in significant water loss over time. Once you hit empty, your body will force you to rest through injury and illness. You can either make time to rest and rejuvenate now or make time to be sick and injured later. Keep your bucket full.3
We can get used to wearing our stress like a badge of honor, a way to show that we are working hard and being “successful.” But our efforts to avoid stress and live a balanced life provide a more accurate representation of success, and are a better marker of how we’re doing well overall. The big question is, how do we move toward a more balanced life when it comes to managing stress?
Every individual has different stressors. Some people’s nature is such that they can manage stress in a certain realm very well, whereas something else is very stressful for them. It’s important that we each recognize what conditions bring stress for us, and not compare our lives with others or think we’re all going to be impacted the same way. Some people are very sensitive to stress; they get stressed more easily than other people. Who knows why? We’re not all created the same, and we can’t all carry the same loads. It’s not weakness to recognize our limits and needs and adjust our lifestyle accordingly.
It’s important to identify what helps you cope with stress and what helps you to let the stress seep out of your life so you don’t hold on to it and carry cumulative stress.
What relieves stress is different for each person. The article by the Mayo Clinic that I cited earlier suggests the following:
Act to manage stress
If you have stress symptoms, taking steps to manage your stress can have many health benefits. Explore stress management strategies, such as:
- Regular physical activity
- Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, meditation, yoga, tai chi or getting a massage
- Keeping a sense of humor
- Socializing with family and friends
- Setting aside time for hobbies, such as reading a book or listening to music
Aim to find active ways to manage your stress. Inactive ways you may use to manage stress—such as watching television, surfing the Internet or playing video games—may seem relaxing, but they may increase your stress over the long term.
And be sure to get plenty of sleep and eat a healthy, balanced diet. Avoid tobacco use, excess caffeine and alcohol, and the use of illegal substances.4
Those are some good practical suggestions.
Dr. Mercola writes:
When you dwell on negative emotions you internalize the stress, which can prevent you from coming up with constructive ways to address them. Stress can improve once you find more active methods of coping.
I did a little research on the subject of “how to relieve stress,” and there are a lot of possibilities for active methods of coping. Here are some ideas:
- Take a break and breathe deeply and slowly
- Write in a gratitude journal
- Count your blessings—make a list of ten things you’re grateful for
- Spend time with a pet
- Take a drive, have a change of scenery
- Have some fun and a few laughs
- Do a Sudoku or crossword puzzle
- Listen to music, sing, dance
- Ask someone to pray for you
- Take a walk or go for a run
- Call someone and tell them you love them
- Pray the Serenity Prayer
- Recall a great memory, relive it
- Write down three true, positive self-affirmations
- Write a thank-you note
- Have some fun with your kids
- Declutter your desk or workspace
- Take a hot shower or bath
- Enjoy a few minutes of your favorite hobby or some kind of “me time”
- Eat a healthy snack
- Squeeze a stress ball
- Reduce your caffeine intake
- Take a nap
You can probably come up with a few other ideas based on your personal preferences and circumstances. These are small things, but if done regularly, they can have a cumulative effect and help you be less stressed.
You will need to find what your individual relief points are. It’s well worth figuring out through experimentation what helps you to not just let go of the stress that is building up in your body, mind, and spirit, but also to fortify and bolster yourself so that when you are in a stressful situation, which is impossible to avoid entirely, you are better prepared to manage and handle it.
Here is a lighthearted story of one man’s approach:
The carpenter I hired to help me restore an old farmhouse had just finished a rough first day on the job. A flat tire made him lose an hour of work, his electric saw quit working, and now his ancient pick-up truck refused to start.
While I drove him home, he sat in stony silence. On arriving, he invited me in to meet the family. As we walked toward the front door, he paused briefly at a small tree, touching the tips of the branches with both hands.
After opening the door, he underwent an amazing transformation. His face was wreathed in smiles, and he hugged his two small children and then gave his wife a kiss.
Afterwards, he walked me to my car. We passed the tree, and my curiosity got the better of me. I asked him about what I had seen him do earlier. “Oh, that’s my worry tree,” he replied. “I know I can’t help having worries on the job, but one thing for sure, worries don’t belong in the house with my wife and children. So I just hang them up on the tree every night when I come home. Then in the morning, I pick them up again.” “Funny thing is,” he smiled, “when I come out in the morning to pick them up, there aren't nearly as many as I remember hanging up the night before.”—Author unknown
We know that we are going to face stressful situations, so we need to do what we can in advance to do our best to live balanced lives, so that we can better manage those times gracefully and with the least amount of damage to our health and relationships.
I’ve always enjoyed the writings of the late Zig Ziglar, American author, salesman, and motivational speaker. He wrote:
Approximately 75–90 percent of all doctors’ visits are the direct or indirect result of stress. So what do we do? First, we need to accept the fact that there are some things we can do and some things we cannot do. We cannot be everything to everybody, so priorities must be established. …
Next, make a gratitude list. I agree with Hans Selye, who said, “Gratitude is the healthiest of all human emotions.” When things don’t go your way, you can … remind yourself of the many things you have to be thankful for.
Take the opportunity to serve others. Karl Menninger of Menninger Clinic fame said that when you have a problem, find someone else who has one, and work with him or her to solve their problem. In the process, yours will disappear.
Work at developing a sense of humor. That doesn’t mean you have to learn how to tell jokes, but you will discover that a good laugh relieves tension and pressure, and makes you feel good all over. …
Finally, remember that failure is an event. It is not a person. And yesterday really did end last night—today is a brand-new day. When you have failed to do everything on your to-do list, just remember that you did the best you could. You followed your game plan to the best of your ability and that’s all anyone can do. Eat early and then relax by talking with someone who is positive and encouraging before you go to bed. Sleep well. Smile. Be grateful.5
These are good ideas, and I believe that as we work to implement them, as the Lord leads, our lives will be more peaceful and we’ll learn to minimize the stress in our lives. Of course, our best tool in the de-stress toolbox is to trust the Lord and cast all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.6
As we take time to meditate on His Word and reflect on our lives and how He’s come through for us time and time again, we will be able to enter into His peace that passes understanding.7 His peace doesn’t have to “make sense” in our present circumstances, because God’s Spirit can help us to rise above the tests, trials, and worries of our everyday lives, and look upward so we can enjoy His presence and the truth of His promises to us, His children.
Whether stress in our lives comes as a result of health issues, financial problems, concerns for our loved ones, our present job (or lack of a job), world conditions, or whatever else might be on our minds, we can be assured that God does all things well, and He will eventually cause even the difficulties we face to work together for our good. We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.8 That is a promise we can stand on!
Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.—Philippians 4:6–7 NLT
Casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.—1 Peter 5:7 ESV
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.—Matthew 11:28–30 ESV
Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous be shaken.—Psalm 55:22 NIV
1 David Beardsley, “Don’t Manage Time, Manage Yourself,” Fast Company, March 31, 1998, https://www.fastcompany.com/33961/dont-manage-time-manage-yourself.
2 “Stress symptoms: Effects on your body and behavior,” Mayo Clinic Staff, April 4, 2019,https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-symptoms/art-20050987.
3 James Clear, “The Theory of Cumulative Stress: How to Recover When Stress Builds Up,” https://jamesclear.com/cumulative-stress.
4 “Stress symptoms,” Mayo Clinic Staff.
5 Zig Ziglar, “De-Stressing Stress,” Creators Syndicate, 2001.
6 1 Peter 5:7 NKJV.
7 Philippians 4:7.
8 Romans 8:28 ESV.