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“What words to your mind when you think of the word ‘stress’?” I asked this question at a women’s devotional the other night (because obviously I was going to write a post about it!).
The women didn’t have a clue about what I was going to talk about, and here are the answers they gave me:
- Under the gun
I had to laugh as the answers got increasingly violent! What words come to your mind? Without knowing in advance what anyone would say, however, I wasn’t all that surprised that the answers were generally negative.
We are conditioned in thinking this way, are we not? Stress is bad for you; it causes all sorts of health problems; you need to decrease its presence in your life if you are to be a happy and healthy person.
This had been my mindset until very recently. If you’ve followed me at all regularly (especially in my newsletter updates), you might be aware that the last several months have been “stressful” for me. I’ve broken down a few times; I’ve talked about being in survival mode; I’ve worked hard to get a better grip on my schedule so I could have more sense of control in my life.
In the midst of all of this, I came across this book at the library:
I was intrigued. Very intrigued. (Yes, I am the type of person who picks up psychology research and reads it in their spare time for pleasure.)
The book, The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It, completely transformed the way I view stress in everyday life. The author, Kelly McGonigal, is a professor of psychology at Stanford, so she kind of knows her stuff. I had a hard time believing its message at first, but the many case studies cited in this book can’t be ignored.
It’s a broad term; I get stressed out when I have to pick out paint colors for my basement remodel. Other people get stressed out when they are forced to flee their homes and live in refugee camps. Can we even define these experiences under the same umbrella?
Yes, says McGonigal. While stressful experiences can vary widely in their extremity, they can all be beneficial in some way. So, broadly and simply defined, “Stress is what arises when something you care about is at stake” (p. xxi). Whether it’s something silly like paint colors or something life-altering, it counts because it affects your state of being.
Have you ever been to a stress management workshop? I have once, when I was working fulltime before I had kids. We learned all sorts of stress management techniques like deep breathing and setting limits, learning how to unwind, blah blah blah. Many workplaces offer similar trainings with the underlying assumption that stress is bad and it must be managed in order for workers to maintain high productivity.
Well guess what? You know what the biggest factor is when it comes to handling your stress successfully? Your perception of stress itself!
One of the case studies in the book examined employees at a company undergoing major changes, including massive layoffs. All of the workers were in a stressful situation, fearing for their job security as well as taking on larger workloads with the cutback in the workforce.
Most of the employees observed went through stress management workshops. Some of them were told that stress is bad and that they needed to keep it under control. Others were told that stress is good and was helping them stay motivated and grow in their skills. A control group did not undergo any stress management training.
So who do you think handled stress the best? All of the employees were under the same amount of stress. But in follow-up surveys, the ones who had received the positive view of stress did markedly better than the ones who had received the negative view. In fact, the employees with negative training did worse than the employees with no training at all!
Why is this? When you believe that stress is bad for you, here’s what can happen:
- You’re more likely to seek distraction instead of dealing with the sources of your stress head-on. You avoid your feelings.
- You’re more likely to turn to addictive behavior to help you cope (alcohol, food, excessive spending, etc.)
- You’re more likely to withdraw from the relationship or the problem that is causing the stress.
But when you believe that stress is good for you:
- You’re more accepting about the stressful situation being your unavoidable reality.
- You’re more likely to plan a strategy to help you deal with the stress instead of just avoiding it.
- You’re more likely to seek help and advice from others.
- You’re more likely to look at the situation in a positive light and see how it can help you grow.
So…Why is Stress Good for You?
Okay, this all sounds well and good, but what about all of those studies that claim that stress is bad for you? Which view is correct?
McGonigal explains the fascinating history of the science of stress management. It all started in the 1930s with a Hungarian endocrinologist (hormones specialist) named Hans Selye. In short, he tortured a bunch of rats and observed that they died. So he drew the conclusion that “stress” was very harmful to your health. It was a little more complicated than that, but not much. So yes—extreme stress can obviously be harmful. Selye went on to be nominated for the Nobel prize and authored the first official guide to stress management. Interestingly, however, by the end of his career he tried to clarify that stress in itself actually isn’t bad; it is more complicated than that. But it was too little, too late. The field of “stress management” has been flourishing for decades.
In truth, the way your body responds to stressful situations is quite a marvel. While the book itself isn’t spiritual in any way, I think there are myriad spiritual implications. There’s a reason God created us with stress responses! They are healthy and they are GOOD.
Pretty much everyone has heard of our bodies going into a “fight or flight” response. And that is true; anyone who has every been in a car wreck can tell you how time seems to stand still and your senses are immensely heightened—so that you can focus all your energy on handling the situation.
But stress response is more complicated than that. What about ongoing situations? What about the aftermath of an emergency situation? Our brains go absolutely wild with hormones in different stress scenarios. McGonigal narrows them down to three types of responses:
- Rise to the challenge: you focus your attention on the situation; your heart is pumping; your senses are heightened; you mobilize your energy; you’re more motivated; you sweat; you might be anxious or excited.
- Connect with others: your “prosocial” instincts are ignited; your inhibitions and fears are dampened; courage increases; you reach out to connect with others; you become more sensitive; you have a strong desire to support, protect and defend people (parents, can you relate?).
- Learn and grow: after a heightened response, your body strives to restore balance; it processes and integrates the experience and your brain literally grows; you replay the experience in your mind over and over to better understand it; you have a mix of emotions.
Hmmm. And we wonder why God made us this way?
McGonical points out that people who embrace stress well have more meaning and purpose in their lives. Even those who have been through severely traumatic circumstances can emerge as incredibly strong and even heroic people. That doesn’t mean that we need to seek out our own personal torture, but it does mean we shouldn’t be stressed out about…being stressed out. Stress is the way we exercise our brains and become stronger people.
Just having this perception and knowing what is going on with your brain and body can make a huge difference in how you process the stressful experiences in your life.
God Said It First
As I was reading this book, it dawned on me that—hello—this is not shocking information. Because it was in the Bible all along. For starters:
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (James 1:2–4)
In other words,
Trials (i.e. stress)–>Perseverance–>Maturity
Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. (Romans 3:3–5)
In other words,
Suffering (i.e. stress)–>Perseverance–>Character–>Hope
You know who probably understood this best? Jesus. He was pretty stressed out in the Garden of Gethsemane before he was crucified, praying and crying and sweating like a maniac. In fact, he was probably pretty stressed out his entire ministry (the only times he could get a moment to breathe by himself was out in the wilderness or on a mountain top!). And yet, he endured it all, so that we might follow his example:
…Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12:1–3)
When he calls people to take up their crosses and follow him (Luke 9:23), he doesn’t promise that it will be easy, or that it will be pleasant. A stressful life is a godly life. In fact, a stressful life is just life, period. We can try to run from it, or we can embrace it. And now even science says we should do the latter!
Ever since I first discovered this stress theory, I haven’t had less stress, but the perception of how stress is helping me grow has helped a lot. I hope that it also helps you.
How are you going to respond to stress, now that you’re equipped with this information? Do you think it’s accurate?
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