I’ve just had a year of simplifying, a year of doing less to recover from years of trying to do too much. Part of this was my choice and part of it, I believe, was God helping me shift my values and perspective. Even though I was trying to do less, I nevertheless found myself still creating lists of jobs to do around the house and setting deadlines for my “projects”. I had to catch myself when I was beginning to feel stressed about being behind on my self-imposed deadlines. I was creating “stressful” situations to feel like I was accomplishing things.
You might be surprised to know, though, that we perform best under moderate stress. Studies show that if there’s too little stress, performance is generally lower; if there’s too much stress it can lead to poor health and breakdown. Like Goldilocks’ porridge, there’s a level of stress that’s just right.
On top of this, it turns out that two unhealthy responses to stress are first of all, avoiding it and, second, believing it is always bad for you. Our bodies need stress, but they also need to deal with it in a healthy way and for us to recognise stress is not necessarily unhealthy.
In a 2013 TED talk, psychologist Kelly McGonigal shared some conclusions from an experiment that contradicted everything she’d ever told her clients about stress. She found that people who experienced a lot of stress had an increased risk of premature death only if they viewed stress as harmful! Those who believed stress was not harmful to them had a lower risk than even those who experienced relatively little stress. Further, she also discovered that avoiding stress altogether caused atrophy, the degeneration of cells, in the body.
So if it’s unhealthy to avoid stress and unhealthy to think it’s unhealthy, what do we do with stress?
The physiology of stress
Our bodies have built-in stress resilience. It is well known that oxytocin is released during physical contact and connection with others, but oxytocin is also released as part of our stress response.
This hormone (a word that seems to have attracted a negative connotation but actually just describes natural regulatory substances in our bodies) prompts us to seek connection with others.
So stress prompts us to seek comfort from other people and, when we do connect, more oxytocin is released, reinforcing our positive response to stress.
Further, oxytocin also physically repairs cells in the heart that may have been damaged during heightened activity as part of the body’s fight or flight response to stress. Oxytocin operates as a natural anti-inflammatory and helps blood vessels remain relaxed rather than constricted during stress, which allows the body to regulate blood flow. By having social contact after stress and triggering the release of oxytocin, we can recover faster.
So a “healing touch” is more than merely a sentimental notion; we were designed to reach out to people.
"Our bodies need stress, but they also need to deal with it in a healthy way."
Our pounding heart, tight muscles, rise in blood pressure, heightened senses and quicker breathing are giving us energy and preparing us to take on the necessary challenges and overcome the stress we face.
Our body isn’t shutting down on us or giving up. Rather, it’s helping us by showing us we can handle the challenge and prompting us towards others to remind us we do not have to go through it alone. The body’s built-in mechanism drives us toward connection, not just away from discomfort.
Introverts like me will question whether we really do feel prompted to seek out other people when we’re stressed. Sometimes all we want is to be left alone to sort it out for ourselves. But, inconveniently, it appears our bodies were designed to function most healthily when, at some stage in our response to stress, we find empathy and support from others.
And this altered paradigm got me thinking. About the Bible’s Beatitudes (recorded in Matthew 5) in particular.
The theology of stress
The Beatitudes (or blessings) are among the better known of Jesus’ words, and deal with many situations, people, attitudes and responses that the people of His time—and we today—take for granted. But they too, in Jesus’ explanation, require an altered paradigm.
Consider this one: “God blesses those who are poor and realise their need for Him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs” (Matthew 5:3, NLT*). A quick Google search of the most stressful life experiences reveals a variety of lists, but most include the loss of a job or situations with negative financial repercussions. The Bible is saying that we can be blessed when faced with one of these most stressful situations, if we realise our need for God. This is compatible with psychological research that tells us we need to reach out to others in order to receive the healthy benefits of stress.
Another Beatitude is: “God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (verse 4). The lists of most stressful life experiences always include the death of a spouse or loved one, and divorce or marital separation. These experiences usually result in a sense of loss, which leads to grief. Mourning is when we feel and show our sadness in response to loss. But Jesus is telling us that when we find ourself in that situation we will be comforted, if we allow ourselves to feel and show our grief. Similarly, research tells us to seek comfort from others when experiencing stress in order to recover mentally and physically from stress sooner.
God designed us to be blessed when stressed; it’s part of the whole upside-down approach Jesus’ Beatitude blessings take on life.
These snippets of timeless advice, given thousands of years ago, directly address the most stressful experiences we can face. And there’s more, if you care to read the whole chapter.
So next time you’re feeling overwhelmed and stressed, take the time to reflect on how you are thinking about the stress and reach out to someone. Or Someone.
* New Living Translation, © 2015, Tyndale House Publishers. Used by permission.