The Bible’s call for us to “be anxious for nothing” (Philippians 4:6) is quoted often, but do we understand the depth of wisdom that this verse carries? Spiritually, we are well aware of God’s call for us not to worry or to be stressed out and the spiritual reasons why this makes sense, but have we thought about the physical reasons why worrying is not good for us either?
Anxiety is a form of stress, and it can cause more issues in our lives than just spiritual or psychological strain and pain. Anxiety can cause, contribute to, and worsen underlying medical conditions.
When we’re stressed, our bodies go into a tailspin. The human body is made so magnificently that when it experiences stress, it will try to relieve the stress. In attempting to do so, the body releases a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol controls blood pressure, heart rate, metabolism, blood glucose levels, and a slew of other chemical and physical properties in the body.
Stress can cause hypertension, or high blood pressure. A person who is stressed may find it hard to control his or her blood pressure, even while on medication for hypertension. Many cases of hard-to-control hypertension treated by physicians are not due to genetics, or inherited traits. Instead, these cases are due to preventable causes such as high-stress jobs, family situations, and unhealthy lifestyles (illegal drug use, lack of sleep, poor diets, inactivity). Fortunately, these causes are reversible.
In addition, stress has the same effect on blood glucose as it does on blood pressure. And those persons with diabetes are also at increased risk of having various medical complications. When blood glucose is not controlled, eventually the kidneys, the immune system, and the vascular system (blood vessels) are affected, leading to kidney failure. Uncontrolled diabetes is the number one cause of end-stage kidney failure and need for dialysis. A compromised vascular system leads to strokes and heart attacks. Stress can also weaken the immune system, which leads to increased risk of contracting infections more easily. Even if a person is not diabetic, stress can still cause these same issues through other hormonal and metabolic disruptions to the body.
Most people associate stress with the bad things that happen in life, such as the deaths of friends and family members, divorce, and job loss. But did you know that the good things in life can also cause the same types of stress responses? Buying a house, starting a new job, getting married, and giving birth are considered to be joyous events that call for celebration; but they are forms of stress that are on the stress scale, too. These could be called silent stressors. The human body is not able to differentiate between good and bad stress, so we are at risk for the same physical ailments as bad stress, even if we don’t feel stressed.
So what can we do about the stress in our lives, good and bad? There is no magic pill or a one-size-fits-all cure. Neither does it take a fancy retreat or a vacation to improve life’s stresses, but there are tried-and-true steps we can take and make a part of our self-care plans that can be implemented immediately. These steps will get us on the road to de-stressing our bodies and stopping the physical damage that we might have done.
1. Get enough sleep, at least 7-9 hours a day. According to the National Sleep Foundation, yes, that much sleep is needed.1 So the majority of people need 7-9 hours to function well, though there are some outliers who can function off fewer hours. (Most people think they can but are actually living in stressed bodies of sleep deprivation and don’t know it.) We do not put enough value on resting. During our times of sleep, the body has an opportunity to recover and reset itself. The stress hormones drop significantly during this time, allowing the body to heal.
2. Eat better. Include more vegetables and protein in your diet instead of more carbohydrates, which means more sugar. Some foods cause inflammation in the body, and an inflamed body stimulates stress hormone release. Fried, fatty, and sugary foods contribute to weight gain and sluggishness due to increased calories and the inflammation they cause. No fancy diet is necessary. Just increase what is good for the body, and decrease what is not good. It’s hard to do, but it’s just that simple.2
3. Drink more water. The human body is approximately 60-70 percent water. (The brain and the heart are 73 percent water; lungs, 83 percent; skin, 64 percent; kidneys and muscles, 79 percent; and bones, 31 percent.) So it’s stressful for the body to operate effectively everyday without the adequate amount of water it needs, causing the stress hormones to flow freely. You should drink 1–1.5 fluid ounces of water per pound that you weigh (one regular-sized bottled water is 16.9 fluid ounces). But for those who don’t love water, you will be happy to know that all liquid (except alcohol) counts toward your daily tally (milk, tea, and coffee are best). But if they are high in calories (soft drinks and juices), that can go against their hydrating benefits. Also, we get water from food, so food counts, too, especially all melons (watermelon is 90 percent water) and vegetables. If this is all too much math to keep up with, simply drink enough to make clear yellow urine every two to four hours, and that will signify you are drinking enough!3
4. Exercise. Get at least 30 minutes of activity five days a week. Walk, bike, swim, dance, skate, or run daily during the length of one of your favorite TV shows. If you do not like gyms, get creative, make being active fun, and mix it up. Try something new such as golfing, bowling, playing basketball, trying yoga or Pilates, mall walking, or walking a new greenway path each week. Get off the couch, and meet your friends at places other than restaurants. When your heart rate increases and your lungs expand, your body is happy on a molecular level (even though physically it doesn’t always feel that way at the time). You release a hormone (endorphins) that is responsible for the uplifting feeling you experience when you are overjoyed.4 It is the same hormone that decreases feelings of depression and anxiety, so you are actually decreasing your stress hormone and giving yourself an extra boost––a two-for-one!
5. Meditate. This doesn’t mean you need to sit in a dark room for hours and chant. Meditation can be as simple as disconnecting from this busy and noisy world and being with yourself. Spend time with you, thinking about the things that make you happy, focusing on the good things in your life with gratitude (because we know all too well what we don’t have, but what about what we do have?), being still, praying, allowing room for God’s Spirit to speak to you, and making it just silent enough for you to hear Him, too. At first, it can be difficult for some people to sit still. If you struggle with this, start out by doing 30 seconds to a minute a day, and then increase the time until you are able to be in the moment for longer. Remember to breathe deeply as you meditate. (Try the 4-7-8 technique: Inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds, exhale 8 for seconds.5) Deep breathing promotes relaxation and decreases stress hormone levels. Also, you can do this deep breathing exercise anywhere, even at times when you can’t be alone. Meditation and deep breathing have been shown to decrease depression, post-traumatic stress syndrome, anxiety, and chronic pain.6
6. Learn to say no. No is considered an answer, too. Evaluate your schedule, prioritize it, and clean it up. That just means it is okay to do less. It is a sign of wisdom and maturity, not failure, to know when to slow down. Make time for downtime to do something relaxing, indulge in a hobby, and spend quality times with friends and family.
There are many ways to decrease stress that are not on this list, but start small, keep it simple, choose one of these, build from there, and feel your stress slowly slip away! If you’d like to see where you are on the stress scale, take the stress test, see where you are on the stress scale, and get more stress relief tips at the websites below:
Take an online stress test here.
Print the test, and take the paper version here.
by Dr. Jalila Hudson
2 ”25 Life Hacks to Eat Better,” myfitnesspal.com.
3 ”What Counts as Water? Stay Hydrated and Healthy,” webmd.com.
4 Healthy Lifestyle, Stress Management, mayoclinic.org.
6 National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, Meditation: In Depth, mccih nih.gov.