If you feel like you are under a lot of stress, you’re not alone. Stress is a normal part of life on earth, but it definitely gets a bad rap. For years, we’ve been warned to avoid it at all costs. We’ve been told about the negative health effects it causes. Still, if surveyed, most of us would say we have a significant stress load in our lives. So, if we can’t eliminate it, how can we better manage it? I explore this question in today’s podcast episode.
In this episode, I talk about all things stress: from how the fight or flight response affects our brains and bodies, to research about our interpretations of stress, to the role support and community play, to practical ways to manage stress in our lives. Best of all, this podcast ends with a self-calming exercise, so you should feel relaxed by the end of the podcast.
During this episode, I reference a fantastic Ted Talk by Kelly McGonigal entitled, How to Make Stress Your Friend. In it, she talks about a study in which thousands of people were surveyed about their interpretations of stress. If you find the information in this podcast intriguing and want to learn more, you may want to check out Kelly McGonigal’s book, The Upside of Stress.
If something in this podcast episode resonates with you, please leave a comment below the shownotes or join the conversation on PRN’s Facebook page.
Have you ever observed a toddler throwing a tantrum, or an adolescent having a meltdown? If so, you can probably attest to the fact that the child had wild eyes throughout the meltdown. When our bodies are under stress and undergo the fight or flight response, our senses are heightened. This affects the eyes, as they are preparing to take in any important visual cues.
For the most part, this response is beneficial. Imagine you are walking to your car late at night in a dark parking lot. Your pupils will be dilated, taking in as much light as they can to help you see better. Chances are your eyes will also be scanning the alley, checking for signs of danger. This is a helpful response, as it helps to keep you safe.
What if, however, you are in a crowded restaurant, trying to enjoy dinner with your family, but the crowds and noise are making you anxious. You find it hard to concentrate on the conversation at your table. Instead, you find yourself looking around the restaurant restlessly, scanning the room. In this case, you are not in danger, and your eyes are doing you a disservice by keeping you from focusing on the loved ones at your table.
Because processing visual stimuli takes a lot of mental energy, one way that we can help our brains and bodies calm down in moments of high arousal or stress is to block out some of the distracting visual stimuli. There are two main ways to do this:
The first is to close our eyes. It’s amazing what a difference closing our eyes can make to our inner state. We are taught to pray with our eyes closed, and in this way we can focus inward, rather than paying attention to what is going on around us.
The second is a tool called visual anchoring, which is choosing a neutral object to stare at for a short period of time. Using the restaurant example, this might be the menu or a saltshaker at the table. This gives time to refocus the mind and body while purposely keeping the eyes from scanning. This tool is even more effective when paired with deep breathing.
Interestingly, this same anchoring principle can be found in Scripture. In Matthew 14, we find the disciples in a boat, in the middle of the night, being approached by a ghostly form walking on the water. Jesus reassures His disciples that it’s just Him, but, being overwhelmed and terrified, the disciples find it hard to believe. The ever brave and impulsive Peter quickly devises a scheme to test the validity of Jesus’ claim. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
“Come,” Jesus replied.
Good enough for Peter, he jumps out of the boat and begins walking toward Jesus. We can imagine at this point that he has anchored his vision onto the Savior. Then, he becomes aware of the wind and fear takes over. I can only imagine his stress response system kicking in as he begins to sink. “Lord, save me,” he cried.
Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
Matthew 14:31 ESV
Just that quickly, Peter was safe.
When we are in danger, our bodies are designed to serve us well, protecting us from danger and rising to challenges. Our eyes are designed to take in more light and scan for danger when we are under stress. Remember that ultimately our fear response can be overridden with calming tools such as visual anchoring. Even more importantly, we can remember that we have a Savior who will never leave us or forsake us, even when it feels like we’re drowning.
Pause: Take a deep breath and exhale. Now would be a great time to practice your new anchoring tool by closing your eyes or fixing your eyes on a neutral object for 20 to 30 seconds. When you feel calm and ready, read Matthew 14: 22 – 33.
Renew: Think about a time in the last month that you felt overwhelmed. What was the trigger that caused you to feel overwhelmed? What helped you to feel more calm?
Next: Both in a spiritual as well as in a physical sense, think about how you can use anchoring the next time you’re feeling stressed or afraid.
May we anchor our eyes on the One who can save us from the wind and waves of life!
Have you ever noticed that when you feel overwhelmed, it’s hard to form clear thoughts and think logically? There is a good reason for that. When we are under great stress, our bodies go into the “fight or flight” response which equips the body and brain for survival. The same mechanisms that make your heart pound harder and adrenaline flow when under stress also cause your higher-level thinking abilities to become impaired.
One of the downsides of the stress response is that our higher-level thinking cortex (responsible for language, logic, imagination, and planning) gets hijacked, while our lower brain that runs instincts, reflexes, emotions, and memory is highly activated. This is all meant to work for our survival. After all, if your car is parked on a train track, and a train is barreling down the track towards your car, you don’t need to calculate the velocity involved; you just need to MOVE! Our bodies and brains in fight or flight mode are made to do just that.
When under great stress or anxiety, we are also more susceptible to believing negative thoughts. It’s a lot easier to fight negative thoughts when you’re in a positive frame of mind. When overwhelmed, you will not only have more negative thoughts, but also give in to “stinking thinking” more easily.
I am a huge proponent of talking back to negative thoughts. In other words, replacing lies with truth. In previous blog posts, I’ve shared about the importance of using Scripture to combat negative thoughts. However, when overwhelmed, the part of your brain that can think logically and combat lies with truth is impaired due to your body’s fight/flight system. What then?
Enter the mantra, a short, true statement (4-5 words) that uses little concentration and can be used to get through a time of stress.
Mantra: a word or sound repeated to aid concentration in meditation / a statement or slogan repeated frequently.
Long before I knew about how the fight/flight response affects the brain and body, I managed to use a mantra. I was in labor with my second child in the middle of the night, and I told myself over and over, “Joy comes in the morning, Joy comes in the morning.” After my first birth experience, which was far from pleasant, I was prepared for the worst. In the heat of labor, immersed in pain, I almost forgot my mantra. Still, when it was all said and done, my joy DID come in the morning, with the birth of my sweet child.
Some examples of helpful mantras could be:
“This too shall pass.”
“I am not alone.”
“Tomorrow is a new day.”
“I can do this.”
Large chunks of Scripture may be hard to remember when in fight or flight mode. Still, the truths of Scripture can be shortened to work as a mantra.
“His mercies are new each day.” Lamentations 3:22 & 23
“He will fight for me.” Exodus 14:14
“God loves me.” John 3:16
“He is with me.” Isaiah 41:10
If I am being carried along in a rushing river, trying to keep my head above water, I will not be looking for a yacht to come and save me. I will be looking for a life saver, a piece of plywood, or a log to grab onto, until I can make it to shore. That is how I think of mantras. They’re not elaborate. They’re not even eloquent, but they are true. They can be clung to until our brains return to a calm state.
Pause: Take a deep breath and exhale slowly. Think of a Scripture passage that brings you comfort when you are overwhelmed and read through it now.
Renew: Remember a time when you felt overwhelmed and had to fight negative thoughts. When in that circumstance, what kind of a mantra would have been helpful to repeat to yourself?
Next: Make a list this week of a few true, short statements that will be helpful for you the next time you find yourself under major stress. If you want, keep a couple of them in a location where you can see them easily (in your wallet, on your phone, or taped to your bathroom mirror).
May you be encouraged to hold onto truth in the midst of stress and anxiety.