by Archibald Hart
The American Psychological Association (APA) annual report from their Stress in America survey looks at the way people manage stress and the impact it has on their lives. According to recent results, we are more stressed out than we even realize, and many of us are not coping with this stress effectively. We pay for it in both physical and emotional ill-health. Too much stress can also be destructive to our spiritual lives and marital relationships. These are some of the key findings of the APA stress survey:
One third of parents reported that their stress level was extremely high.
69% of participants in the study said that managing stress was either â€œveryâ€ or â€œextremelyâ€ important.
Only 32% felt that they were doing an adequate job of controlling stress.
86% of children said that their parentsâ€™ stress affected them also, but most parents didnâ€™t realize this at all.
Stress can put people at risk for developing chronic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, and depression. Chronic stress contributes significantly to some of the leading causes of death.
What is really troubling is that most people, including Christians, have difficulty implementing the changes they know they need to make to decrease the effects of stress and improve their health. Our health-care system does not provide the behavioral health treatment strategies necessary to reduce the effects of chronic stress. We also fail to realize that we have to drastically change our lifestyle and set boundaries to our use of computers, the Internet, cell phones, and other digital gadgets that have sped up our lives and intensified our stress levels.
What Is Stress?
To assess the extent to which stress is disrupting a clientâ€™s life, counselors must understand what modern stress is all about (see Hart, 1995). Unfortunately, many mistakenly believe that stress is associated only with the bad or troubling things of life, such as losing a job or having difficulties at home or at school. Over-engagement in an interesting project can also cause adrenal hyperarousal. In an ideal world, we could get away from stressful situations or change them. But too often we canâ€™t do that, so we must learn to control our responses to those situations.
The two major stress hormones are adrenaline and cortisol. They mobilize our cardiac and other systems, the heart beats faster, blood pressure risesâ€¦all to deal with what the brain perceives to be an emergency. Prolonged cortisol arousal can cause depression, panic anxiety, and anhedonia (see Hart, 2007). Modern lifestyle, with its frenetic pace, has pushed this arousal system over the edge. This problem is compounded by the loss of recovery time because computers and cell phones demand our attention throughout the day. In essence, stress is hyperarousal of our adrenal system, and our lifestyle does not provide adequate recovery time. This leads us to the importance of the relaxation response.
Understanding the Relaxation Re-sponse.
What can we Christians do to prevent or even cure our stress and anxiety problems? One of the simplest, cheapest, and most effective antidotes is to utilize what God has built into us: relaxation. By mastering several relaxation techniques, we can significantly reduce the effects of stress on our mental, physical, and spiritual health. All counselors need to master several relaxation techniques that can create the relaxation response so they can teach these to their clients.
The scientific evidence supporting the power of relaxation to counter the ravaging effects of stress diseases is overwhelming (Smith, 2007). Relaxation, intentionally and regularly practiced, is a powerful healing agent because it goes right to the root of the problem. It helps our body shut down its stress hormones and provides the right environment for the healing of the damage done by too much stress. A close companion of relaxation is Christian meditation (I am not a fan of other forms, such as Eastern varieties), which is a powerful antidote for stress. When relaxation (which is primarily the lowering of arousal in the body) is combined with meditation (which is primarily a lowering of arousal in the mind), one has a powerful cure for both stress and anxiety. Relaxation techniques can reduce stress symptoms byâ€¦
slowing your heart rate
lowering your blood pressure
slowing your breathing rate
increasing your blood flow to major muscles
reducing your muscle tension and chronic pain
improving your concentration
reducing your anger and frustration
boosting your confidence to handle problems
(A complete Relaxation and Christian Meditation audio CD with an accompanying booklet that can be used by counselors and clients is available through my website, www.hartinstitute.com. On this CD, I provide a series of relaxation and meditation exercises that are thoroughly Christian in content and direction.)
Offering your client a more natural way for treating anxiety and stress problems provides a long-term solution. Relaxation and meditation exercises are good not only for the personâ€™s body and mind but also for the spiritual life. In our rapid, always-on culture, we are rapidly losing our capacity for contemplation, but relaxation can help restore our sense of Godâ€™s presence. We need to follow Godâ€™s injunction to the psalmist: â€œBe still, and know that I am Godâ€ (Ps. 46:10). For many of us, life is a little too hurried and hassled for our own good.
Hart, A. (1995). The Hidden Link between Adrenaline and Stress. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
Hart, A. (2007). Thrilled to Death. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
Smith, C. (2007). A randomized comparative trial of relaxation to reduce stress and anxiety. Complementary Therapies in Medicine 2007, 15-77.