Feeling Stressed Out?

by César De León PhD LMFT, Ministerial Director for the North Pacific Union Conference

Well, after eight months of Covid monitoring, and social isolation, one of the most contentious election seasons in American history, on-going racial tensions and equities, an increasing number of people we know, getting sick or being laid off . . . Feeling stressed out seems to be part of a developing “new normal.”

The most important question we must ask ourselves isn’t “what stressors are impacting my life?”  Rather, How am I responding to or managing the stressors in my life?”   

HOW we respond to life stressors—real or imagined—is a life or death matter.

If we tend to respond to our changing life circumstances with a mostly positive, optimistic attitude and are experiencing a growing faith and confidence in a loving God, even in the midst of growing unknowns, then, our positive mindset is aiding our immune system so that it will optimally and efficiently fight threatening invaders.   

If, on the other hand, we are one of the tens of millions of people who were imprinted (in their earliest years) to respond to unpleasant events and circumstances with negative or pessimistic thoughts (for example: “Only bad things happen to me;” “I’ve always been unlucky and I’ll never be happy”), or if our default emotions in uncertain circumstances are debilitating fear, generalized anxiety, or uncontrollable worry, then it is urgent that we take a few minutes to ponder upon the very pivotal relationship that exists between experiencing chronic stress and dis-eases leading to early death.

As a result of the sin originating in the garden of Eden, many of us grew in homes where fear, anxiety, and worry reigned freely. Without realizing it, our thought patterns, although we are now adults, follow the same patterns with which they were stamped during our early brain and emotional response development.  Now, whenever we are faced with a new (or chronic) stressors, our habitually pessimistic thoughts and responses ignite a process in the hypothalamus, that instructs our adrenal glands to secrete a cocktail of substances (including adrenaline and cortisol) that will activate the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system to equip us fight against any circumstance, event or person we perceive as a threat to our existence.

Cortisol and adrenaline are the substances that prepare the body to respond in immediate action to a threat (real or imagined) and are intended to help us with an immediate solution so that we can immediately change or modify our current conditions to preserve our life. This immediate reaction is referred to as acute stress.  These two substances are our friends as long as they remain in our bloodstream for a short time.  They are designed to help us find immediate solutions to our acute problems.

The problem begins when cortisol and adrenaline begin to have an enduring presence in our bloodstream and instead of clearing out, hang around for an indefinite amount of time.  This experience is called chronic stress.

When we have learned—often in our childhood—to react to any change or situation over which we have no control with fear, anxiety, or chronic worry, cortisol and adrenaline levels in the blood actually disrupt almost every system in our body. 

The hippocampus attempts to defend against increased levels of cortisol and secretes a substance that begins to affect our cognition, our ability to reason and think clearly, including our ability to have good judgment and make good decisions.  Cortisol actually has the ability to change the composition and functioning of our brain due to the chronic stress that interferes with the growth and development of dendrites. 

But cortisol doesn’t stop there, it also destroys the function of our cardiovascular system by hardening the arteries, decreasing or increasing the rhythm of our heart, and by creating muscle tension in the neck, face or shoulders. The delicate endocrine system that has to do with regulating the functioning of all organs is gravely affected. Increased levels of cortisol also affect the gastrointestinal system, contributing to ulcers, heartburn, and changes in bowel habits common to Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), colitis, Crohn’s disease and other autoimmune diseases. 

In the end, chronic stress kills! An overtaxed immune system is exhausted and vulnerable because T cells and other cells that defend against attacks by microbes and viruses begin to die, leaving our bodies exposed to all kinds of diseases, including various types of cancers.

It is almost unbelievable to realize that the deadly phenomenon of chronic stress begins with a learned thought pattern. Indeed, each of us holds the power to determine the quality of the thoughts (pessimistic or optimistic) that we will have in reaction to the adverse events or circumstances that will invade our lives—sooner or later. Once we understand this, we can begin to monitor and change our learned pattern of responding to life stressors.

How we choose to respond to the “irregularities” (large or small) in our environment over which we have no control, really does matter!   

If we can determine in our hearts to respond to the challenges in our lives with positivism, with confidence in God, with a cheerful courage and we choose to believe that whatever happens to us can be recycled by an all-loving God into an eternal blessing, then we can begin to live the abundant life that Jesus came to exemplify.

No wonder Paul’s words, inspired by the Author of our nervous system, continue to resonate over the centuries: “Be anxious for NOTHING, but byprayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God (Philippians 4:6; NKJ). 

Jesus Himself emphasized the directive that we shouldn’t worry about ANYTHING. As our consummate Creator, God programmed our bodies perfectly so that we can respond to life’s crises without having to suffer the harmful aftermath of chronic stress.  Because God knew that living with chronic stress—manifested in chronic states of worry, fear, and anxieties—destroys the human system in installments. No doubt that is why He uttered instructive phrases that protect the obedient disciple: “Therefore I say to you, DO NOT WORRY about your life. . .” (Matt. 6:25) “Do NOT WORRY about tomorrow…” (Matt. 6:33).

What a relief! We do NOT have to worry!  What hope and health (mental, emotional, physical and spiritual) is ours when every cell in our bodies assimilate that Christ has already overcome death—one of humanity’s primary, universal fears.

Christ promises to travel with us through every stage of our earthly journey and offers us just the perfect amount of grace, courage, faith, and trust that will open the floodgate of His incomprehensible peace; even in the midst of the increasingly common vicissitudes and crucibles that are part of our earthly sojourn.

It is my prayer that each reader will continue to investigate and study the issue of stress and God’s antidote. May He aid us in identifying and shattering patterns of thoughts and emotions that may be undermining our physical, emotional, and spiritual health. When Jesus spoke, “My peace I leave you, my peace I give you…” (John 14:27; NKJ), He was speaking to you and to me.

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