We generally think of stress as an inherently “bad” thing, but the truth is, stress itself can be both good and bad. By definition, “stress is a physiological response that is necessary for the survival of the species.”
Eustress is the good kind of stress—it motivates us to make a positive change to better stabilize in our environment. For example, when we’re hot, we start to sweat and maybe drink some cool water or move to stand in the shade. The stress put on our body from the temperature change motivates us to make changes that are beneficial to us.
Distress, on the other hand, is the type of stress that overwhelms us and exceeds our resources (meaning, we don’t know how to deal with it or we simply can’t deal with it). These types of stressors might be anything from the death of a family member, to a deadline at work, to a bad diagnosis, etc. I’m sure we can all think of a few more circumstances that could cause distress.
When we’re stressed, our sympathetic nervous system is activated, and, as I said before, this can be a good thing. It’s sometimes referred to as our fight-or-flight reflex. If a bear starts to chase you, you want to be able to divert all your blood and energy into your muscles and not waste time/energy on things like digesting that sandwich you ate for lunch that day.
But our bodies were not designed to have our sympathetic, fight-or-flight nervous system activated for long periods of time. Cortisol is a stress hormone that is released with heightened activation of our sympathetic nervous system; it can really wreak havoc on our bodies if left unchecked.
Increased levels of cortisol in your body can lead to atrophy (shrinking in the brain), premature brain aging and it can also speed up dementia diseases like Alzheimer’s.
The levels of stress hormone we have circulating around our bodies is also very dependent on diet. Our levels of cortisol can also be mediated by the foods and drinks that we consume. For example, high fat diets have been shown to increase our levels of cortisol—and, sometimes, when we’re stressed, we reach for those higher fat, higher sugar foods to comfort us—but really, they’re just making it worse.
Stress can also lead to food cravings, and make us feel less full than we actually are. So, when you’re stressed, you might eat more than your body actually needs, as your brain’s not wasting energy telling you that you’re full.
Reading all of that can be intimidating. It’s obvious that stress isn’t great for our brain or our bodies. So, what can we do about this?
Are we powerless to stop the cycle?
The answer is (and I hope you guessed it) no! There are lots of things we can do to combat stress, and practicing what psychologists call “mindfulness” can be a big one. Mindfulness just means we’re focusing on the present moment, and not wasting all our time and efforts and energy on the past—which we can’t change—or on the future—which we can’t predict.
Decreasing our workload can also help greatly with stress. If we’re honest with ourselves, we have the power to say “no” 100% of the time; however, we don’t often say this. You’re not a bad Christian or mother if you can’t help out and be a part of every little thing your Church or child does, so give yourself some grace and practice the ancient art of saying “no.” Obviously, eating a balanced diet is a good thing. Eating a balanced diet will do wonders for your body, brain and stress levels; additionally, try to get in some form of physical activity each day.
And, of course, Jesus! Jesus is our greatest friend, comforter and caretaker. Spending time with Him and keeping our minds focused on His Kingdom will do wonders for all types of stress.