In our fast-paced world, stress seems unavoidable. But are there healthy ways to manage stress before it gets the better of us? And can Christian counseling help? In this article, we will talk about ways to manage stress including how to cope better with common, everyday sources of stress such as overwork, job changes, relationship conflict, parenting struggles, or financial pressures.
What is stress?
Stress is what we feel when difficult life circumstances put us under pressure, often coming at us from different parts of our life at the same time. It is not only traumatic events that are stressful – ordinary life and responsibilities can accumulate and compound till they feel unmanageable.
Stress can also come from outside ourselves in the form of environmental or economic conditions. Wherever it comes from, stress leaves us fearing that we won’t cope, and have been abandoned to fend for ourselves. We think to ourselves “I can’t do this” or “No-one will help me, I’m all alone.”
When we sense there is too much pressure on us or danger is imminent, our bodies’ defenses kick into an automatic process known as the “fight-or-flight” reaction or “stress response.” Our nervous system releases a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which wake the body for emergency action.
When functioning well, the stress response helps us to stay focused, energetic, and alert and can save our life. However, if stress is prolonged, it can cause damage to our health, mood, productivity, and relationships.
Symptoms of stress
Stress is experienced both mentally and physically. Emotional symptoms can include feelings of overwhelm, fear, irritability, anger, sadness, burnout, insecurity, and restlessness. We might also suffer from concentration issues, forgetfulness, constant worrying, racing thoughts, and poor judgment, and focus only on the negative.
Physical symptoms can include sweating, fainting, headaches, nervous behavior such as nail-biting or pacing, back or chest pain, cramps, or muscle spasms.
Unhealthy ways to manage stress
People can develop different coping mechanisms when it comes to stress. Some of us experience food cravings for unhealthy food, overeat, or lose our appetite; some of us have difficulty remaining patient with others and have sudden angry outbursts. Some misuse alcohol or drugs to escape the stress, while others simply withdraw from social interactions and isolate themselves. Some of us procrastinate or neglect our responsibilities.
However, these ways of managing stress are unhealthy and do not solve the problem in the long term. Rather they cause even more problems, and stress levels rise instead of fall. If stress is not managed well, chronic conditions or illness can set in, such as anxiety, depression, heart disease, high blood pressure, sleeping difficulties, stomach upset, and loss of libido.
While difficult life circumstances and outside pressures are part of life in our broken world, there are healthier ways to manage the stress that will help improve our quality of life both now and in the future.
Healthy ways to manage stress
One of the wonderful things about being a Christian is that we can pray – we can talk to the Lord about anything, anytime, anywhere. We have a God who listens, who knows the deepest desires of our hearts, and who invites us to cast our burdens onto him because he cares for us (1 Peter 5:7).
If we are in a stressful situation or know that one is heading our way, prayer is essential to a more peaceful heart and mind. Asking God for help regularly throughout the day is probably the single most important and effective thing you can do to manage your stress. Prayer reminds you of God’s sovereignty and love and gives you the power to put your stressors into the right perspective.
Philippians 4:6-7 invites us and promises us: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Meditate on Scripture
Reading the Bible regularly is intricately linked to prayer in its importance. There is no real substitute for knowing God’s truth and trusting in his promises. A relevant Bible verse or “word in season” that you have memorized or jotted down or use as wallpaper on your smartphone, can be deep refreshment for the soul in times of stress.
This will help you to preach God’s promises back to yourself when stress levels begin to rise. Isaiah 41:10 is an especially encouraging verse for when you feel like you can’t cope and that you’re all alone. God says: “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
Gratitude is a wonderful antidote to stress. It shifts our perspective from merely focusing on the negative, to seeing the good things in our lives too. This reality check helps to balance our thoughts, put stressors back in perspective, and diminish that feeling of overwhelm or abandonment. In 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, Paul exhorts us to “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
Eliminate the non-essential, prioritize, and plan ahead
While daily stressors can’t completely be eliminated, we can take steps to minimize them. The first step is to take a look at your schedule and discern what is essential and what is extraneous. Be discerning here; remember that you may be able to do anything, but you won’t be able to do everything.
What are you involved in that can be dropped? Write out a to-do list and rank the items on it in terms of their urgency and importance. Delegate or outsource the less important items as far as you can and focus your attention on the items that are most important to you.
Then make a plan to attend to them. Planning ahead is critical to reducing stress! It helps to develop a nighttime routine in which you think through what is needed for the next day, and prepare your clothes, kids’ school bags, meeting notes, or whatever is necessary in a thoughtful and unrushed state of mind.
Finally, a secret habit of many highly productive people is to keep a notebook handy to “decant” any questions or to-do’s that come to mind at odd moments. Writing things down helps to reduce that low-level anxiety that occurs when your head is spinning with “I must remember to…!”
Pay attention to your body
God has made us embodied souls – He has created us to need nutritious food, exercise, and good sleep. Do not despise your body but recognize its needs and limits and take care of it as a gift from the Lord. A healthy body that isn’t tired is better at handling stress.
Spend time in nature
Studies have shown that regular time in nature reduces cortisol levels, the hormone released during a stress response. God has designed nature to be just the right amount of stimulation for our senses – there is enough detail to pique our interest, but not so much that we are overwhelmed. Spending time outdoors helps to clear our heads and get perspective.
Move toward others
It is often tempting to withdraw when we feel stressed. Perhaps we’ve just had enough of other people, or we want time to process what we are going through or want to escape. While spending some time alone is important and healthy, too long on our own can exacerbate self-absorption and worsen symptoms of stress.
Rather, God has designed us (both introverts and extroverts) to be part of our community and society and to need their support. Reaching out to others to give and receive help, assists us in reducing stress and building happiness.
Remember our hope
Finally, remember our ultimate hope is not in a stress-free life, but in a God who has triumphed over sin through the death and resurrection of his Son Jesus, who will one day end the brokenness of this world, transform us into his likeness and live with us in a renewed world of love, joy, and peace that lasts forever.
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