Rule 4: Manage Stress by Finding Balance and Inner Peace
From Opening Hearts: Chapter 5 Five Cardinal Rules for Healthy Living
Excessive, chronic stress can literally kill you. Our emotional, mental, and physical response to actual or perceived threats triggers the adrenal glands to release a flood of hormones including cortisol and adrenaline.42 [Footnote 42: See a more in-depth explanation of the stress response in Chapter Six.]
Adrenaline makes your pulse quicken, your small arteries constrict, your heart beat faster, and your blood pressure rise. Cortisol releases glucose into the blood stream for a shot of energy and brain power, alters the immune response, and curbs other non-essential body functions such as digestion which could get in the way of responding to a life-threatening situation (fight or flight response).
When responding to actual dangers, these automatic responses might save your life. However, when the body maintains a constant state of stress, excess cortisol, adrenaline, and other stress hormones can rise to toxic levels and eventually cause a heart attack (more on this in Chapter Six).
Toxic levels of stress-induced chemicals can disrupt multiple body functions and lead to a state of hyper alertness and reactivity, feeling sluggish or fatigued, memory loss, anxiety, depression, headaches, digestive upset, disorientation, compromised immune function, an inability to handle social and intellectual tasks, sleeplessness, weight gain, and more. Weight gain is a particularly problematic stress consequence because excess weight exacerbates levels of cortisol since fat cells store and then release cortisol.
Any combination of these stress reactions can in turn create external dangers such as accidents or fights, or trigger (or deepen) chronic depression, or stimulate destructive activities like self-medicating with drugs or alcohol. They also reduce our immune response making us more susceptible to illnesses. Clearly, then, excessive stress is the enemy of optimal health.
It is staggering to consider the vast range of possibilities for aggravation inherent in our modern world. Add to that the conflict and turmoil we ingest vicariously as it is broadcast constantly through various media and the internet. Add again the speed at which new information and technology forces us to adapt and change.
Compound that with the thousands of people to contend with in cities, small nuclear family structures with inadequate extended family support, constant noise (aural and informational) from electronic devices, unrealistic work demands, traffic, and so much more. Modern stressors may not be life-threatening in the same way as in ancient times but our physiological response to stress remains the same.
To defuse potentially hazardous levels of stress, it is important to seek a sense of balance in your priorities. Spirituality and prayer are helpful in this process because you consciously and prayerfully discern the priorities for your life and then make choices based on them.
To discern your priorities, create a small yet realistic list of the most important people and things in your life. One way to discern the items for this list is assessing how you spend your time, talent, and money. Review this list and see if your intended priorities square with your actual priorities because how you actually spend your time, talent, and money reveals what you treasure most no matter what you intend. Practical considerations such as providing food, shelter, and care for loved ones as you attend to your own health are good candidates for top priorities.
These sound obvious but without intentionality they will remain unfocused ideals instead of concrete, actionable, choices that receive your focused energy. Then when faced with conflicting choices or demands, consciously act on your top priorities first (whenever possible) because stress results when you don’t act in harmony with them. After you identify your top priorities, make a second list of things that cause you more stress than they appear to be worth.
This list might include difficult avoidable people, unrealistic expectations others have for you, or activities you do but don’t enjoy. This list helps you work out a sort of “cost/benefit analysis” regarding your time and attention. You can then determine the best use of your internal and external resources as well as potential stressors to remove.
Whether we admit it or not, our personal resources are limited. We have only so many hours in a day and just so much attention or emotion we can invest in people or things around us. We feel stressed when we expend those resources on stressors that suck away our energy without offering anything to sustain us in return.
Therefore, when balancing your priorities, favor activities that nurture you rather than ones that abuse you (and when possible remove the latter entirely). Remember also that you are a human being not a human doing. Who you are and how you respond to life is more important than what you achieve.
The best defense against stress is joy. Play and laughter are essential. When you engage with people that make you happy or engage in activities that challenge you or give you a sense of purpose or joy, you’ll release more endorphins, the hormones that aid in supporting our immune system’s function.
Our final concept within the Five Cardinal Rules has to do with harmful substances we choose to abuse.