Let the Word Speak!

What Is Stress?

Stress is an unavoidable part of life, inherent in how we respond to our environment based on our individual physiology and experiences. As common as it is, however, stress remains one of those vague and poorly defined terms, in part because the interpretation of and reaction to stress varies so much by individuals.

We can start to “build a fence” around the concepts of stress, and this will help us identify, recognize, and deal with stress better. To start, psycologists often use two different terms to describe stress. The first word, eustress, is stress that has a positive influence. Eustress can be the thrill of riding a roller coaster, the joy of winning a prize, or the challenge and anticipation of accomplishment from a favorite hobby. We like these kinds of things, and while it results in the same increased heart rate as other forms of stress, eustress is a positive and essential part of a fulfilling life, providing the drive to accomplish and grow.

Paul certainly experienced stress in his ministry, but he was able to experience it as useful eustress rather than letting the stress use him. You can sense that fulfillment when he looked back on his life in 2 Timothy 4:7-8:

I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.

The other word for stress is distress, and it represents the stress that we don’t like. Distress can come from losing, from failing or being afraid of failure, or from feeling out of control. Most of the time, the stress that we experience for longer periods of time, and so that can be more damaging, is this negative distress.

The difference between eustress and distress is a matter of individual perception—both show the same physiological responses in the body, including an adrenaline “rush”, raised heart rate, tensed muscles, sharper vision and hearing, and quicker, shallower breathing. This is the same kind of physical response in other mammals, called the “fight or flight” syndrome. When confronted by a perceived threat or challenge, whether from a hungry tiger or from an automobile repair bill, our bodies get ready to either attack and defeat the stressor or run away from the stressor, so we can get back to what is comfortable and healthy. If we can neither fight nor flee, we’re stuck with this “red alert” condition in our bodies and a tremendous feeling of anxiety.

While later portions of this study will go into more detail, there are two keys in the description above to coping with stress. The first key is regaining conscious control over our physical state of alert. When the body responds to distress by activating energy resources, it actually diverts resources from the brain! Instinct will respond much faster to a threat than can cognitive reasoning, so the body instinctively prepares for fight or flight. As our thinking catches up with the “red alert” status—and determines that we’re not going to be eaten by a hungry tiger—we can consciously step down the alert by consciously changing our breathing and forcing our muscles to relax.

The second key is to remember that a stressor cause stress only because we perceive it as a threat. In some cases, like that hungry tiger, our perceptions might be very accurate! In the case of an automobile repair bill, we can and should consciously decide if it is a threat, what the nature of the threat is, and how to respond to the threat productively, so we can greatly limit our distress. Fighting a large bill because our financial security is threatened is less effective than fighting a large bill because the work should have been covered under warranty!

A wonderful example of this change in perceptions is found in Psalm 57. The poet expresses how serious his problems are, as in verse 4:

My soul is among lions: and I lie even among them that are set on fire, even the sons of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows, and their tongue a sharp sword.

But his response is to praise God, as in verses 5 and 9:

Be thou exalted, O God, above the heavens; let thy glory be above all the earth.
I will praise thee, O Lord, among the people: I will sing unto thee among the nations.

References:
Stress and Stress Management article from StressTips

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