The Science of Stress


I awoke abruptly this morning, my first conscious sense one of annoyance that I wasn't able to sleep in on a "vacation day." My next thoughts were of an unfinished work task that was encroaching on my supposed day off--plus a conversation from yesterday that continued to trouble me. Within an hour, two other unexpected and unavoidable realities intruded on my plans for the day--one would cost me 2 hours today, the other an hour tomorrow.

It was decision time. A day filled with the joyful potential of welcoming my two college daughters home for Thanksgiving celebration was threatened to be hijacked right off the bat by stress. Or not. My choice.

It's helpful to distinguish between pressure and stress. Pressure is a reality we experience many days of our lives. Work deadlines. Relational rubs. Unexpected interruptions. This is the stuff of life that we all relate to. Stress, on the other hand, occurs when we react to pressure with resistance...usually flagged by anger or grief. In its more severe forms, it manifests as rage or depression. Usually we just call it frustration and either internalize it self-destructively or externalize it to the injury of others.


Let's pull back the curtain and take a look at what's happening in the body when this occurs. We all have two parts of our autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic, which controls our arousal and activation, and the parasympathetic, which controls our rest and renewal. One is the "gas" while the other is the "brake," and both occur without conscious thought.

In our western world that priorities activation over renewal, we tend to be over-activated and under-renewed, causing the waveform of our autonomic cycle to be compressed--as shown in the Frustration graph. In contrast, the Appreciation graph shows an extended cycle...that corresponds to our breathing and heart rate.

What does that mean for us practically?

It means what we said earlier--that we have a choice in how to respond to pressures. The alternative to stress is to engage a positive, welcoming mindset that accepts the gift of obstacles, that lets go of the need to control our circumstances, and to embrace physical rest so that our bodies can also recover and get back in the game.

One very simple way to practice this anti-stress strategy is to take a five minute time-out, sit down, close our eyes, and consciously slow our breathing. As our bodies stabilize, we remind ourselves of the larger truths of Who is in control and the freedom we've been given.

Today, I'm deciding to opt out of stress and fully occupy each beautiful moment I've been given. Want to join me?

Posted on November 27, 2013 .