Finding Peace

The quick answer:  We need a little stress to get out of bed in the morning, but too much stress can put us back into bed, maybe a hospital bed. 


Ever feel like you’re in an endless war; never finding real peace?  Welcome to the scary world of chronic stress.

Some years ago, our local hospital put on a series of six lectures about stress.  (Notice how just putting the work stress in boldface gives you a little adrenaline bump?)  Each week the docs discussed the effects of stress on their area of specialty, and told what they could do about it.  A cardiologist explained the role of stress in heart disease and then explained a relatively new procedure, coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG).  Because CABG starts with the surgeon cutting your chest apart with a power saw, it made a big impression.  A rheumatologist told how stress-related rheumatoid arthritis ravages the joints and explained how those hips and knees could now be replaced.  Ouch!—another operation with a saw.  A G.I. guy told how stress affected the digestive system, and so on.  It was plenty scary and each week the audience grew. 

The last lecture was by a psychologist who gave us some ideas about how to manage our stress.  I’ve never seen an audience so eager to hear a message.  I learned three lessons from the seminar:

  1. In each stress-related disease, prevention was way better than the treatment.
  2. Prevention translated to stress management.
  3. Stress management requires a new discipline.  You can’t just do the old stuff faster or more efficiently; you have to step out of the cycle. 

Hans Selye (1907-1982)

Selye made the first modern connection between stress and disease (the ancient doctors had figured it out also).  Selve identified the stages of protracted stress—how we can go from alarm, to resistance (fight or flight), to exhaustion.  Though stress came in many forms, Selye recognized there was a common response in the body (involving the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal glands, or HPA, axis).  From this common response, a variety of diseases could result, unique to the person.  One person gets ulcers, another rheumatoid arthritis; here is high blood pressure, over there, heart disease; this person gets an allergy, while her friend gets an aggressive form of breast cancer.  Beware the pathology of chronic stress.

Here’s another—more scary—effect of stress:  It accelerates aging.  Cortisol is the body’s primary stress hormone and while it makes you run faster, it also causes you to age faster.  We’ve talked about other aging factors before: like elevated blood glucose and insulin from too much sugar, or an excess of free radicals from too little natural food containing antioxidants.  Today we focus on controlling our cortisol, the stress hormone.

Stress and Cancer

Stress increases the risk of cancer, though the pathway remains unknown.  A 2010 study led by Yale’s Dr. Tian Xu found a genetic mechanism for stress-induced cancers.  The risk of cancer in a cell rises if several genes are simultaneously defective.  Working with fruit flies Xu demonstrated that even if the genetic defects were in different cells, stress (caused by wounds) drove intercellular signaling that joined the effects and increased the risk of cancer.  So, though the mechanism is genetic, stress is a factor in cancer.

 The stress of life is a factor in aggressive breast cancers.  Previous studies had shown higher breast cancer rates among socially isolated laboratory rats.  Now a study of cancer patients, just reported, finds tumor aggressiveness in humans linked to stress levels.  More stress means more aggressive cancers.

Stress and Heart Disease

For a generation we wrongly blamed coronary heart disease (CHD) on dietary cholesterol and saturated fat, even though these foods had been part of our diet for generations before the rise of CHD.  Scientists are now recognizing that CHD is multi-factorial—that a variety of ills contribute.  One cause was given more attention by Dr. Malcolm Kendrick in his book, The Great Cholesterol Con.  Kendrick theorizes that stress, perhaps more than poor diet or lack of exercise, is a main cause of CHD.

The World of Stress

Cycles:  There are cycles to stress—daily (like getting to work on time), weekly (Sunday night worry about undone homework), monthly (bill payment), and even annually (tax deadlines, or Holiday worries).  The laws of Nature do not restrict stress: it can be created out of thin air, and in unlimited quantity.  Stress can have a “ratchet effect”, meaning it rises higher and higher, but doesn’t necessarily decrease.   

Ownership:  To manage stress we must take ownership.  If we blame our stress on events, like the economy, or other people, we are also saying it’s out of our control.  For stress management, control is everything.  The stress process is unconscious, but it is not above management.  Stress can be internal—we cause it ourselves, for example, by failing to plan and then being overrun by events.  Stress is also external, a subconscious response to events or people.  An underlying cause of external stress is fear.  Fear has many forms: fear of authority figures, fear of failure, fear of the unknown.  I’ve lived a few years and had my share of worries and I say this with authority:  Our fears rarely happen but can be disabling. 

Fear:  President F. D. Roosevelt spoke of fear in a wise and calming way, saying the only thing to fear was fear itself.  There is a promise in the scriptures that preparation protects from fear.  I remember a proverb from El Salvador where life could be uncertain:  “The prepared man is worth two men.”  In our uncertain economy many worry about their job.  Making the preparations that improve one’s ability to get another job will reduce stress.  Money in the bank reduces stress also.

Planning:  Procrastination, I think, is the most common cause of stress.  The cure lies in planning.  Just making a “to do” list reduces stress.  Ranking the items by importance, A, B, or C, and resolving to do—today—the most important first (often they’re the hardest so get put off) will take a big load off your shoulders.  The good we can do in life is reduced by every procrastination. 

Managing Stress

The key is not to run faster but to step out of the stress cycle.   Here are seven ways:

  1. Family: The supporting love of family can be a great comfort.  Who hasn’t come home from work, carrying all the troubles of the day on their shoulders, and found instant relief by getting down and wrestling with the kids?
  2. Best friends:  A study of English children found being with their best friend gave the best relief from stress.  Cortisol, the stress hormone produced by the adrenal glands, was most effectively relieved for children by best friends. 
  3. Music: The beautiful wife just saw a bumper sticker for the classical music station:  “Less stress, more Strauss.”
  4. Exercise:  Strengthening the body helps it to relax and stimulates a similar process for the mind.
  5. Worship:  Don’t you find, in the rhythm of church ritual, clarification of what’s really important?  Whatever your faith, the God who orders the universe knows your name and proffers His peace. 
  6. Meditation:  Thinking more deeply about whatever troubles you can lead to new insights, and better paths to follow. 
  7. Laugh:  Remember Ferris Bueller?  Life goes by pretty fast; if you don’t stop and have a little fun, you just might miss out.

Healthy Change

The 52 Healthy Changes can be unsettling, even add to your stress.  To counter this, we suggested writing weekly menus and shopping lists to protect you from the last minute panic over what to have for dinner. 

Please comment:  Ever been worried sick?  How do you manage the stress in your life?   

Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.

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Reader Comments (9)

Ok Skip -- another great entry. Here's my question -- church callings often create undo stress in our lives. I love that worship can lessen our stress and that belief can give us peace but major projects (conferences, treks, camps) seem to take that away.

September 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterShelly

Within the last month, I started taking classes at a local yoga studio. At the end of class, as we lay there resting in "corpse" pose, I have a conversation with myself in which I think of affirmations (sometimes they really come out of nowhere). It has become a welcome relief for my stress and a better way to manage it. It's easily the best part of my day, and I can tell a difference when I take days off.

September 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJes

I always appreciate your posts. Stress at times can be one of my biggest struggles, and lately it has been one of my husbands. I know that there is more we can be doing to help our stress levels.
For us, I think we help each other, we love to laugh and just be near each other. My husband has said many times that once he walks in the door after coming home from work, just being home and near the kids and I helps alot.
I've come to realize that I have meditation time in the morning before I get out of bed, there are mornings that I will lay in bed for an hour before I get up.

September 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

Stress is a huge thing in my life. Just a few days ago I decided that I need to start meditating more often to help with this. Thank you for this post with all of the ideas for reducing stress!

September 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

I recently found something to help me out during the day when stress levels can run high. There is an app called "Simply Being" that walks you thru a meditation cycle. You can choose how long it lasts, beginning with 5 minutes -- and whether you want music or nature sounds in the background. So I just grab my iPhone, set it up for a 5 minute guided meditation with music and it does wonders. You have to like her voice to be happy with this -- but it really makes a difference and is always easy to have at hand.

September 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSandra

My father died at 44 of what had been (as far as we knew) undiagnosed colon cancer. We always wondered if perhaps stress and also his tendency to hold things in had affected his health.

A few unrelated thoughts:

It is ironic that the actual "stress" of exercise is good for you (but that is what I understand to be true).

I second Jes' comment about yoga. One of my best years so far was the year I practiced yoga regularly.

Also interesting that family tops your list for managing stress. I love my family, but if I had to tell you what kept me up at night feeling worried sick the most it would be family.

Finally, one of the best things I have learned from yoga was breathing. Breathing deeply and properly also helps me manage stress.

September 28, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterdalene

Sandra: There's an Iphone app for stress management? I should have guessed. This seems a really good idea.

Dalene: I'm sorry for the loss of your father. You observed that exercise, which "stresses" muscles, is therapeutic. There's a lesson here, isn't there? If we exercised constantly, like we worry, I think we would find this excessive exercise unhealthy also. I suspect a benefit in stress too—it's often a component of making some break-through or great achievement. It's the constant worry, the lack of relief, especially when you have no control to affect the outcome, that wrecks havoc with body chemistry.

Amy: Sweet of your husband to acknowledge the role of you and the kids in his stress relief. Two heads are better than one in figuring a good path out of our troubles also. I worry for the single parents; they can turn to friends for help but it's still tougher for them. The good Lord bless them.

Shelly: It's true, major tasks, which do occur in Church callings, can be stressful. Try and think about your patterns in approaching these challenges. The physical component is usually not the issue, in my experience. It's the mental stuff, how we start too late, or don't work well with someone, or fail to resolve issues before they began to canker.

September 29, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterskip hellewell

Years ago when my husband was unemployed for 18mos and 7 days, and our savings, year supply of food storage and hopes were gone....with 7 little children and literally not enough money to buy a gallon of milk, I remember praying with soo much worry I threw up. Contrast that to this summer where my two teen age daughters went to Spain to visit family as unaccompanied minors. My daughter's appendix burst and she was literally 4 hours away from death. I was still in shock but this time prayers were more.....ummm...faithful...maybe trusting. Stress is harder when one is a control freak- which is what I tend to be. The fact is that we are utterly helpless at times.

I truly believe that having a stronger body and exercising coupled with trusting faith- helped me through this event better. I also believe it will carry me through what the future holds too. Skip and everyone here have educated me. I am a different person....some one I wanted to become ( and will continue to become) but didn't know where to begin- thank you.

In my darkest moments I ran while praying - rather than eating chocolate and any processed food handy ( ok alot less chocolate). The runner's high, strong body and clearer mind- allowed me to counsel, but most importantly listen to counsel from heaven. I was more in tune to the miracles and even communication with a language barrier was ....doable.
For me and my family we found, healthy body and exercise induced the truth that through living right allows for "wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures."

September 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHeather

I'm still trying to understand your point about taking ownership of stress. I agree that in many ways that is possible, but there are many, many times when the stress we feel comes due to no fault of our own. I'm thinking back on when my brother passed away. I had no control over the stress I felt at that time, but after the funeral, life returned to normal and I could get rid of the stress. I also didn't cause the stress I felt on the job at the beginning of 2011. That was caused by an abusive manager. In a way I have taken ownership of it, though, because I know I need to work out the issues and forgive so I can be at peace. Maybe that is what you meant by taking ownership. Maybe not, but I know the stress from this year has not been good for my health and I don't want it messing up next year too, so I am working hard to get it taken care of.

Normally, I don't have a huge problem with stress. I walk, read, play the piano, scrapbook, tat, etc to help relieve stress. Sometimes a small vacation (day trip or weekend out of town) helps. Even serving in the church (although it can be stressful) can relieve stress as I'm out in the trenches doing what needs to be done. Action is much better than sitting around stewing over it.

December 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnn

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