Optimal Stress

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Many people I talk to think stress is bad. That isn't necessarily so. Stress is an inevitable part of living. In fact, I've found that people who from time to time are not experiencing and growing through some stress - challenges, struggles, conflicts, pain - probably aren't living a very active or full life. They're not experiencing enough stress. They may even be depressed.

We all need what I call "optimal stress." What is optimal stress you ask? It means that your stress level is within a moderate range, not too high and not too low. You're not racing around anxiously and you're not out of gas and depressed. Nor are you stuck in a rut, depressed and anxious, spinning your wheels in futility and frustration. Instead you're energized and focused as you go down the road of life.

Optimal stress challenges us to grow personally and spiritually. It's the price of success; daring to dream, making sacrifices, working hard, and overcoming obstacles are the stresses of becoming successful. And stresses like conflict, disappointment, or injury are the fires that forge good relationships and challenge us to become better people. We all need optimal stress like this and function best within this moderate stress environment (see graph below). Optimal stress helps us to focus on what matters, have energy to accomplish our goals, stay calm under pressure, and enjoy the journey. This is much preferable than the common alternatives of being anxious or depressed!

Stress Overload

Achieving a balanced stress level can be difficult. If you're like me your tendency isn't too little stress. It's too much. Most of us go through seasons in our lives in which we're overloaded with too much, often too much of a good thing. Sometimes the fall can be one of those stressful seasons for me! Times of family vacation from the summer are but a memory and it seems that wave after wave of stress crash on top of me and threaten to knock me down. School starts for my kids and that means I and my wife need to help them with emotional adjustments, monitor their homework, and drive them to and from school and various activities (all on schedule!). At the Crystal Cathedral we kick off new ministry programs and New Hope training classes in the fall. And before I know it, it'll be time to make plans for the holidays, buy gifts for friends and family, and attend parties. These are all good things, but sometimes they can be too much, especially if an unexpected crisis hits.

That was just the case on Thanksgiving of 1995. My family and I were knocked off our feet by a crisis. Briana, our baby girl got very sick with whooping cough, the RSV virus, and pneumonia. She was in intensive care until New Years and almost died twice. Thank the Lord she is fine now and the picture of health and happiness. But that stressful season took a toll on us. Even after Briana was well again, my other kids had recovered from the flu, and family tensions had eased we found ourselves emotionally drained and physically exhausted. It took a few months for all of us to get back on our feet again. You've surely had your own stressful seasons from time to time and experienced the negative effects of that stress. Often that means being literally knocked off your feet, laying sick in bed, in a time of forced rest and recuperation.

Symptoms of Chronic Stress Overload

For some people stress overload becomes a more severe and prolonged problem. They don't just experience stressful seasons from time to time they live a continuously stressful lifestyle, living under constant pressure, anxious all the time. Their life is marked by some of these characteristics:

  • Always in a hurry.
  • Using adrenaline or caffeine to sleep less and get more done.
  • Expecting perfection.
  • Unrealistically high self-expectations.
  • Self-critical.
  • Short-tempered.
  • Taking life too seriously.
  • Denying their feelings.
  • Anxious all the time.

Are you chronically overstressed? Do you struggle with the above symptoms of stress overload? (If you're like the fish that don't know they're wet because they've always been wet you may need to have your spouse or a friend help you assess whether or not you're continually overstressed and just aren't aware of it.) If so you need to learn to R-E-L-A-X in order to lower your stress to a more moderate level. Doing so will help you function at a higher level in your work and in your relationships. It'll also help your health and well-being. In fact, research suggests that those who are over stressed for six months or longer are liable to experience a negative consequence to their physical or emotional health. Problems like sickness, headaches, ulcers, digestive problems, insomnia, family conflict, panic attacks, compulsive behavior, drug addiction, eating disorders, and even some severe medical illnesses like heart disease and cancer can be partially caused by chronic stress.

Learn to R-E-L-A-X

So, how can you reduce your stress level and achieve that balance I call optimal stress? The key is to make some important lifestyle changes - one at a time, starting today. Here's some tips to help you R-E-L-A-X and go from stress overload to optimal stress:

Rest regularly. At first you may be bored and fidgety, but stay with it and learn to use times of rest to recuperate and re-energize yourself. For instance, try to get a full eight hours of sleep per night, respect the Sabbath, take vacation time, pause during a busy day to take a deep breath.

Enjoy yourself. Have fun with your friends. Make time for your hobbies. Exercise regularly. Laugh.

Learn to say no. Don't try to do it all, just the things that are most important to you. Don't try to do things perfectly, good enough will do.

Accept yourself. You're not perfect, but you're loved by God and others. So practice receiving care, asking for help, believing compliments, and saying thank you.

X-ray and X-press yourself. Talk to God and safe friends about your feelings regularly. This is the biblical prescription for anxiety. Paul said it best in the Bible:

"Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus" (Phil 4:6-7).

By Dr. Bill Gaultiere

2001 NewHopeNow.org. Used by permission.