Do We Have a Choice on How It Affects Us?
DrPH, MS, RD
If there is one thing that is hard to avoid, it is stress and worry. You hear people talking about it all the time. Some get stressed when driving, shopping, watching the news, etc. There is a lot to be worried about in this world recently. Others are stressed at school or at work. Family dynamics and other relationships can also be a significant source of stress, and on the other hand, being too lonely can also lead to depression and stress. No matter how you look at it, there is going to be a source of stress in your life. It is, in fact, a very normal part of life.
Stress is our body’s reaction to any change in our environment that requires an adjustment or response (1). While we usually interpret stress as a bad thing, positive outcomes include helping us avoid danger and keeping us alert and motivated. Often, I have been most productive in my life when I was stressed. The helpful stress is acute stress or short-term stress and is activated for minutes to hours. On the other hand, long durations of stress that last for months to years with no break in between can have harmful effects on us. This is chronic stress and it has been linked to many health problems and chronic diseases.
How Stress Affects Our Health
Chronic stress has been linked to heart disease, cancer, lung disease, and even suicide. It can cause headaches, upset stomach, high blood pressure, chest pain, and sleeping problems (1). If you cannot sleep well, a myriad of other problems can occur because rest heals our body. Chronic stress even affects our first line of defense against disease — our immune system. Stress can cause an increase in inflammation in our body, which in turn has been linked to numerous health problems (2). Chronic stress causes white blood cells to be weaker and the immune response to be less effective (3). In addition, the biological aging process and stress have been found to interact and negatively influence the immune system. Older people are already predisposed to illness due to a weakened immune response, and this, combined with stress, makes illness apparently inevitable (2).
With the knowledge of how bad stress can be for our health, the logical questions to ponder next are what can we do about it? Is there something that can even be done? The good news is: Yes! There is something we can do to help alleviate the unavoidable stress that we face. Remember the keys to having good health: “Pure air, sunlight, abstemiousness, rest, exercise, proper diet, the use of water, trust in Divine power—these are the true remedies” (4). Trust in Divine power can help us overcome and handle the stress and worry we are bombarded with on a daily basis.
“It is not work that kills; it is worry. The only way to avoid worry is to take every trouble to Christ. Let us not look on the dark side. Let us cultivate cheerfulness of spirit” (5).
It’s one thing to be faced with stress and it’s another thing to drown in it by worrying.
“Do not worry. By looking at appearances and complaining when difficulty and pressure come, you reveal a sickly, enfeebled faith. By your words and your works show that your faith is invincible. The Lord is rich in resources. He owns the world. Look to Him who has light, and power, and efficiency. He will bless everyone who is seeking to communicate light and love” (6).
Is it possible to cancel out or mitigate the effects of stress by having faith and looking at the bright side? Science says that it is. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t other important and sometimes needful ways to deal with stress. But it’s often an area that is overlooked.
Tapping Into Effective Steps to Counteract Stress Harm
Some time ago I watched a TED talk titled “How to make stress your friend,” (7) where the presenter highlighted research showing that changing the way you think about stress can change your body’s response to it. That is to say, if you view stress as a positive thing, if you view it as a signal to prepare yourself for a challenge or to motivate yourself, it can help your health. It discussed how people who experience a lot of stress and who view their stress as harmful had a 43% increased risk of dying. On the other hand, people who experience a lot of stress yet did not view it as harmful were no more likely to die than others. Those who reported that they experienced little stress had the lowest risk of dying. The numbers were affected by individuals’ perception. And among people who reported high levels of stress in their life, those who spent time in selfless service, caring for others, showed no stress-related increase in dying compared to those who did no such activity. The latter group had a 30% increased risk of dying for every major stressful life experience reported. Staying connected with people was also recommended to reduce the harmful effects of stress.
Stress Management and Religion
An effective way to stay ‘connected’ is through religion. It helps you connect to God and being involved in church creates a community that can potentially help with your health. Research into how religion and health are related is ongoing at Loma Linda University. Dr. Jerry Lee is a researcher and professor who has been involved in studying this link and he says that those who are involved religiously are less likely to report depression and anxiety and negative feelings (8). It’s not that people who go to church experience less stress than those who don’t. Rather it seems to be they have a coping mechanism that allows them to worry less because they choose to leave it in God’s hands. It’s amazing to see how much our mind affects the rest of our body and how our thoughts can actively change our health for better or for worse.
“The relation which exists between the mind and the body is very intimate. When one is affected, the other sympathizes. The condition of the mind affects the health of the physical system. If the mind is free and happy, from a consciousness of right doing and a sense of satisfaction in causing happiness to others, it creates a cheerfulness that will react upon the whole system, causing a freer circulation of the blood and a toning up of the entire body. The blessing of God is a healing power, and those who are abundant in benefiting others will realize that wondrous blessing in both heart and life” (9).
This quote by Ellen White has been confirmed in a scientific study titled Giving To Others And The Association Between Stress And Mortality where it was concluded that, “helping others predicted reduced mortality specifically by buffering the association between stress and mortality” (10). Helping others is the essence of religion (James 1:27), and just think: helping others helps your health in return.
I love how modern science is catching up with these principles. Work in psychoneuroimmunology and other fields of science are establishing the link between our attitude and our health; having a positive outlook on life leads to a healthier body and having a negative and pessimistic view on life can lead to illness. In fact, it has been shown that the simple act of smiling or frowning has a small yet significant influence on feelings of being happy or sad (11). How much more benefit do you think it would be to actively choose to be happy?
“A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” Proverbs 17:22, ESV.
Praise God for such counsel! The active choice of looking at the bright side and being cheerful can alleviate the negative effects of brokenness and stressful situations. Interestingly, the immune system’s cells originate in the bone marrow. The Bible is basically telling us that being happy and trusting in the Lord and laying all our cares on Him will relieve us and help our immune system, which is our first line of defense against illness. How awesome is this?
- Morey, J. N., Boggero, I. A., Scott, A. B., & Segerstrom, S. C. (2015). Current Directions in Stress and Human Immune Function. Current opinion in psychology, 5, 13–17. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2015.03.007
- Ellen G. White, Ministry of Healing, p. 127
- Ellen G. White, Letter 209, 1903 in Mind, Character, and Personality, Vol. 2, p. 466.1.
- Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church Vol. 7, p 212 in Mind Character, and Personality, Vol. 2, p. 471.3
- Ellen G. White, Christian Temperance and Bible Hygiene, 13, 1890. (Counsels on Health, 28; see also Testimonies for the Church 4:60, 61 .
- Poulin, M. J., Brown, S. L., Dillard, A. J., & Smith, D. M. (2013). Giving to others and the association between stress and mortality. American journal of public health, 103(9), 1649-1655.
- Coles, N. A., Larsen, J. T., & Lench, H. C. (2019). A meta-analysis of the facial feedback literature: Effects of facial feedback on emotional experience are small and variable. Psychological Bulletin, 145(6), 610.
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