What Happens To Our Bodies Under Stress?

You are driving down the interstate highway on a rainy evening.  Visibility is very poor and you are being more cautions than usual.  You are a few minutes late for youth group and are a bit preoccupied with getting there on time.  Suddenly the car in front of you skids out of control!  It smashes into the guard-rail and flips over into your lane.  You slam on your brakes and jerk the steering wheel to the left to avoid a crash.  The front of your car catches the rear bumper of the disabled vehicle and you feel yourself thrown violently toward your windshield.  Your seatbelt and shoulder strap pull forcefully on your body, and then your car comes to a jolting halt.  You and the other driver bolt from your automobiles and run to the shoulder of the road to avoid oncoming traffic.  Then you breathe a sigh of relief and you feel legs trembling.  You have survived!

This is a clear-cut stressor.  It has a definite beginning and ending, and the body’s reaction to it is very predictable.  To handle a crisis like the one above, our bodies are programmed to do several things which give us adder strength and alertness.  Some of these bodily reactions are:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased blood sugar levels
  • Increased muscle tension
  • Increased brain activity
  • Digestion slows or stops
  • Peripheral blood vessels constrict

Healthy Stress Response

The idea here is that the body is now ready for an emergency.  There is more blood available to the brain and muscles, and unimportant functions like digestion are slowed or stopped.  The last reaction on the list, constriction of peripheral blood vessels, allows more blood to go to the muscles and brain and reduces the risk of severe blood loss should the person be cut during the emergency.

Under normal circumstances the body will return to its baseline state after the event is over.  This is what happens when we are able to keep the stressors clear in our own minds.  When stressors are too vague, and when our bodily mechanisms have gotten out of control, then something else happens.

Unhealthy Stress Response

When our bodies get use to high levels of stress, when our lifestyle has taught us that the only way to survive is to stay mobilized or stay vigilant, we get escalating stress.  The stress accumulates like an unhealthy negative bank balance until we can no longer maintain the physical roller-coaster that we are on.  At this point, some sort of physical or emotional collapse likely occurs.

Hypertension, tension headaches, colds and flu, migraine headaches, ulcers, colitis, depression, anxiety, loss of interest in sex, heart disease, irritability, fatigue, substance abuse, apathy, lack of interest in people, isolation, family conflicts, and spiritual bankruptcy.  There are others, but the picture should be clear.  One of the most insidious things about stress and burnout is that by the time we develop some of the more serious effects on the list, we have become so out of touch with our Creator and ourselves we haven’t the foggiest idea how we got there. 

Example of Stressors

This is a list of typical stressors.  You may find that you have some or all of these:

Career

  • Conflict with superiors, subordinates or co-workers (these may be philosophical, methodological, theological, ecclesiological, missiological, etc.)
  • Inefficient use of time
  • Problems delegating
  • Too heavy a workload
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Lack of training
  • Having too few challenges; being bored

 

Partner

  • Not enough time together
  • Too much time together
  • Power struggles
  • Differences in values or expectations
  • Sexual concerns

 

Kids (if you have them)

  • Discipline problems
  • Finding enough time to do things with them
  • Sibling rivalry
  • Interference from relatives
  • Attaching our value to their behavior/accomplishments

 

Friends

  • Not enough
  • Too many acquaintances, not enough close friends
  • Demanding too much of my time
  • Take but don’t give
  • Competitive or critical

 

Spiritual

  • Undisciplined devotional life
  • Too rigid devotional life
  • Too inward focused
  • Too outward focused
  • Not enough solitude
  • No meaningful prayer time
  • Spending time in the Word for teaching purposes only and not for communion with God

 

Other

  • Too many outside activities (spread too thin)
  • All work and no play
  • All play and no work
  • Trying to be “successful” and not faithful

In looking at stressors in your life, remember that this is subjective.  What may be negative stressors to you may be energizing, positive stressors for others.  God has wired you a very specific way for a very specific reason.  Spend some time this fall contemplating that and allow God to “trim away the fat” that may be causing you to be over-stressed.

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