Mental stress is a part of every day life. It has always been that way, but with a continual increase of media input into our lives we are now bombarded more than ever by stressful situations: we are living our own lives and the lives of others on the news, TV shows, movies, and video games. Some people are addicted to stressful situations: bungee jumping, roller coasters. We are over stimulated and constantly on the go with rarely any time to just “be”. We are a culture of human doings. We have a tendency to think we can handle anything that comes our way and because of our “self-sufficiency” we find ourselves drowning in our efforts more often than not.
This always “on –the-go” lifestyle leads to many health problems. Because we do not get adequate rest or take time to eat regularly and healthfully, drink plenty of water and exercise in the sunshine and fresh air, or take time to be with the Lord in His word and prayer, we are usually running on empty without sufficient mental, emotional and physical strength to handle relationships and deadlines. We further stress our bodies by feeding them chemically laden foods and drinks, refined sugars and flours, excessive alcohol and caffeine—all of which lead to chronic dehydration and more stress.
Because we have so little time to contemplate on God, creation, and life, we can easily become overwhelmed. Our eyes take in only the here and now, and it looks so large to our out of focus eyes. We forget that we have a God who made all things, and is powerful enough to handle every situation we face. He is the God who said, “Be still and know that I am God.” He is the one who invites us to remember, “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; His understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to Him who has no might He increases strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not weary; they shall walk and not faint” Isaiah 40:28-31. We would eliminate a lot of our stress by slowing down and waiting on God—refocusing on our situation in a way that admits that God is big and we are not.
Stress of any kind produces several reactions in our bodies:
Strong emotions affect digestion by slowing it down and enabling toxins and acids to develop and be reabsorbed by the body instead of being eliminated. When we are relaxed our bodies are able to focus on absorbing and utilizing nutrients from our foods. For example, a child who worries a lot will not grow properly. My son, who from a very young age has been prone to worry, has growth arrest lines on his bones and he has not grown as well as our other children. Along this same line, intense physical activity should be put off until at least 30 minutes after eating a meal. Digestion requires so much water and energy to properly break down the food and vigorous activity interrupts that process by drawing available water and energy elsewhere. Family meals aren’t just good for relationships–they benefit our health as well.
Cortisol is a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands which our bodies use to regulate blood pressure and cardiovascular function as well as regulate how we utilize carbohydrates, fats and proteins. Cortisol helps in stress to balance adrenalin by giving us the ability to stay calm, think clearly, remember exactly what to do and act quickly, for example when your child is about to get hit by a car or they just got their finger cut off in a door. Cortisol gives us strength in the face of danger—it is what makes it possible for us to lift a fallen tree off a loved one when ordinarily we wouldn’t be able to make it budge. Cortisol breaks down muscle protein, and puts the freed up amino acids into the blood stream so the liver can use them to make energy in the form of glucose, and it releases energy from fat cells for our muscles to use. These things give our brain and body energy to deal with the situation at hand.
God designed us this way and it is a good system. Unfortunately we tax it so much that we tend to live on adrenalin and cortisol. Chronic high cortisol levels cause decreased immunity, autoimmune diseases, inflammation, insomnia, weight gain, hypertension, depression, blood sugar problems such as diabetes and hypoglycemia, headache, adrenal fatigue (low levels of cortisol) and resulting hair loss, exhaustion, irritability, lack of concentration and skin problems.
We can artificially stress our bodies by feeding them junk and by allowing ourselves to stay in a state of dehydration. Stress itself causes dehydration and dehydration causes stress—it goes both ways. Both situations put our body into stress management mode and all the available water and nutrients are sent to where they are needed most—in other words, they are rationed. In the case of dehydration there is a shortage of water and so the water is sent where it is most needed and other parts of the body suffer. If this goes on long enough it can lead to irreversible harm in the form of disease.
Dehydration leads to the secretion of vasopressin which is the water rationing hormone. This in turn stimulates the release of cortisol. Because cortisol suppresses the immune system, chronic dehydration is a primary cause of disease—this would support the terrain theory. Dehydration also causes the breakdown of muscles, again because of the cortisol depleting amino acids from muscles for use as energy in stress. This obviously causes a weakening of the body. And it deprives the brain of oxygen and nutrients, which makes it that much harder to face actual stress situations and can even cause brain damage if the dehydration is severe for a long enough period of time.
Cortisol release is meant to be temporary, and in order to ensure that it is we need to follow some simple guidelines.
The Bible says that “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones” Proverbs 17:22. This is a literal drying up of the bones—as we saw, stress causes dehydration. Anytime we are faced with difficult circumstances we need to turn to the Lord and “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say Rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” Philippians 4:4-8.
These verses urge us to find our joy in the Lord, regardless of our problems, knowing that He is close at hand and able to help in our weakness when we pray with thankful hearts. His peace is what helps us to have a joyful spirit in trying times. Finally, speaking truth to ourselves keeps us from believing the lies of our flesh and of Satan, and keeps us trusting God. Other passages teach us to forgive and guard our hearts from bitterness which is rottenness to the bones. We certainly don’t forgive others merely to keep ourselves healthy, but it will have that effect.
I know that the temptation for most of us is to worry and try to solve the problems on our own, and we stress over making sure everyone and their brother does the “right” thing. But we have to stop trying to be God and go to God instead. He is everything and we are nothing. I think that when we realize this it relieves us from a lot of needless stress. Jesus said, “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 (humble), and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light” Matthew 11:28-30.
Drink plenty of water (minimum is about ½ your body weight in ounces but you will probably need somewhat more than that). When you face a stressful situation, drink extra water. It is important to replace the water lost during crying, for example. Even if you don’t cry, water loss is a problem that needs to be corrected.
Eat healthy meals of natural, whole complex and simple carbohydrates and healthy proteins and fats evenly spread throughout the day. Try to eat about 5 vegetables and 4 fruits per day. Include unrefined sea salt, such as grey celtic sea salt, in your diet. Everyone needs this mineral source, but those with adrenal fatigue need even more.
Get enough sleep for your body, about 7-9 hours typically. Take naps if you need to catch up. Sleep lowers cortisol levels. The deepest sleep generally occurs from 9p.m. – 12 a.m. so if you can get into the habit of going to bed around 9 every night your body will be healthier for it. However, everyone is different. I feel best if I go to bed around 9 and get up at 5:30 or 6:00. My husband prefers the hours from 11 to 8. Even small amounts of light increase cortisol levels, so make your bedroom as dark as possible.
Avoid excessive caffeine as this is a stress trigger to the adrenal glands and is dehydrating. Sugar, chemical additives and other refined products stimulate the adrenals unnecessarily. Spices and onions also stimulate the glands.
If you are healthy, spices, onions, and unrefined sugar can be used, but if you are dealing with a lot of fatigue, inflammation, or autoimmune disease caused by adrenal fatigue try limiting these and use herbs and very small amounts of honey instead, as they are more gentle to the body. Honey is still a sugar though so it is important to use it sparingly. You will probably find that avoiding juice and dried fruit is helpful also, as these concentrate natural sugars. When cortisol is functioning at normal levels it acts as an anti-inflammatory. When levels have been depleted from constant stress, inflammation and auto-immune diseases become a problem and can be aggravated by these stimulants because when you ingest them there is a greater need for cortisol than there is supply.
Alcohol is extremely dehydrating, so if you drink it, do so moderately and drink extra water with it.
Gentle to moderate exercise also reduces cortisol levels and evenly distributes water throughout the body (this is why joints tend to feel better after being moved around for a while). Walking is a great exercise that is low impact but which has many health benefits—stress relief being one of them. It also pumps the lymphatic system, which helps eliminate toxins in the body. Acid and toxin buildup is one result of chronic stress so this is very helpful. Avoid high impact and overly strenuous exercise as this actually increases cortisol levels and lowers immunity if carried on too frequently.
Avoid toxic chemicals as much as possible. Chemicals such as fluoride deplete the body of iodine which in turn leads to dehydration and stress for the body. Chlorine is closely related and ammonia can also be a problem. Synthetic fragrances put an immense amount of stress on the body. Chemicals also disrupt hormone production in the body.
Limit media exposure. Seriously. Don’t watch so much TV or stay on the computer all day or play video games so much. Besides the fact that there are many better things to be doing, these things do great harm to our brain and body. The worst thing to do when you feel like vegging is stare at a tv or computer screen—it will only further exhaust you. Get a glass of water and then go sit outside and watch the birds or lie down for a few minutes.
Take breaks throughout the day. Don’t work through lunch. Put your feet up and close your eyes for 10-15 minutes at intervals. Take a power nap if you can. Doing the same activity for long periods of time puts a strain on our mind and body. If you’ve been sitting still, get up and move. If you’ve been on your feet, sit down.
Spend time each day doing something enjoyable and relaxing. This isn’t an invitation to be lazy, of course, but in the midst of being diligent keepers of our homes as wives and moms we have to recharge or we won’t be much good. Some people take this too far, but I think we can find a balance. Most things can be done with your family such as listening to or playing music, reading stories together or everyone reading their own book but in the same room, taking nature walks, cuddling on the couch, working on a hobby together, playing games and laughing. This way you can recharge while you build relationships and create memories.
There is a time for withdrawing though, especially if you are really worn down from life. At those times a good nap is probably what you need most. A massage can be beneficial, as can a relaxing bath. If you’ve been under intense stress for a lengthy period of time you might have what is called adrenal fatigue. It will take several months to recover, but you can do so by following these guidelines consistently. The most important use of free time is to spend time with the Lord in prayer and in His word. We really can’t do anything apart from Him. Jesus was incredibly busy, but He began each day by spending time with His Father. Journaling helps me process daily events and the things the Lord is teaching me. I find that if I don’t have time to write I feel more overwhelmed. Usually if I don’t have time to sit and write I also am not taking time to sit and pray.
It would be helpful to maintain a daily schedule that helps you keep the clutter under control, and get the main things done such as cooking and laundry. Women are especially affected by their physical environment. Training your children to help you with these things makes it more enjoyable, keeps you from wearing yourself out and gives you more time to enjoy your family and friends.
Do not try to do every possible thing. It is good to remember that while a routine is good, only God gets His to-do list done each day. God has given us all different energy levels and “talents”. So prayerfully determine what it is He wants you to be involved in. If you have children you should teach them this as well. They don’t need to participate in a thousand different activities either. This only divides the family and makes mom crazy. And by involving our children in too many outside activities, we can contribute to their ill health by overloading them with stress. In our family we have found that it is best to schedule the work of the day mostly in the morning, as in chores and schoolwork, and then have down time in the afternoon for naps and special projects or interests. This keeps everyone emotionally, mentally and physically healthy and the work gets done too.
We cannot always control the stress that comes into our lives, but there are things we can do to minimize the health damaging effects of stress. If I could go back in time I would change a great many things. I am now dealing with the results of chronic stress and I hope to be able to reverse its effects in time.
God has healed me immediately from some of my health problems when I have asked Him to and I continue to ask for more healing. He truly is the Great Physician. Sometimes He allows us to wear ourselves out so that we will realize how dependent we are on Him for every breath, and when we turn to Him He blesses us with Himself. As much as I don’t like the health problems I’ve had and continue to have, I am thankful for them because the Lord has used them to teach me lessons I would not have learned without them. Most of all I have learned that I need Him desperately and He is all I want.
“Nevertheless, I am continually with You; You hold my right hand. You guide me with Your counsel, and afterward You will receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but You? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides You. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. For behold, those who are far from You shall perish; You put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to You. But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all Your works” Psalm 73:23-28.