Migraines. Anxiety. Depression. Gut problems. Acne. Weight gain. Adrenal fatigue. Dizziness. Nerve problems. Insomnia. Heart palpitations. Hormonal imbalance. Hair loss. Muscle pain from rock hard knots causing ribs muscles to spasm and difficulty breathing. Lowered immune function.
These are all symptoms I have personally had in the past that all had their root cause in extreme stress. Other symptoms of stress in other people include ulcers, high blood pressure, heart attack, autoimmune disease flare ups (hello, psoriasis), the list goes on.
My mother used to say when I was a child that I was a “bottler”: I would bottle up all my feelings, stress, frustrations until it was too much and it all came exploding out in a fit of tears like a shaken soda bottle. I had stomach problems all the time, even into my teenage years.
Stress is normal in life. In fact, if you have a totally stress-free life, that sounds pretty boring. But stress can undo us if we let it. I could write a very long blog post on the different situations in my life that have caused stress, but I’ll spare you that for now. I’ll boil them down to a few things: overwork, overcommitment, financial stress, problems in personal relationships, awful jobs, constant change, transition.
Sound familiar? I realized, after finally getting all the stress behind me and all the awful physical and emotional symptoms that went with it, that no matter what situation I find myself in, stress will follow. It’s life.
It wasn’t my situation that always needed to change, it was how I coped with stress on a day-to-day basis that mattered.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some really important things you may need to change in your situation to bring dangerously high stress levels down. However, for many of us this just isn’t possible. But keeping your stress levels down is a huge key in staying healthy and keeping your weight in check.
So, what to do?
One of the little clues I would get that I wasn’t processing something stressful or anxiety inducing well was that my chest would start to tighten up. When you’re in the midst of stress, it’s important that you stop for a moment and breathe deeply and slowly. Soon you should feel that tight feeling in your chest ease up, and stress begins to lighten. Praying as you breathe in and out is also a great way to ask God to guard your heart and body. For example, slowly breathe in (“The Lord is my Shepherd…”) and breathe out (“I shall not want…”). Continue with as much of the Psalm as you remember.
2. Scan your body for tension.
I had to do this at work today. My muscles tend to tense up when I’m under even normal everyday stress like getting a project done. There are currently two huge muscle knots in my shoulders as a result of this. But catching this tension in the act can be really key from letting it take over and give you an awful headache, neck ache, or back ache. Doing a quick scan to see where you have tension (and then telling your muscles to quit it) is easy and can work wonders on keeping all that tension from causing you to freeze up. Start at the top of your head and work down. It’s quite telling when I realize, “Holy cow, my face is even tight!” I’ve had days where I was tense from top to bottom. Maybe you have, too.
3. Practice self-care
Let me first be clear that there is a difference between self-indulgence and self-care. Self-indulgence leads to the problem getting worse (eating a bucket of ice cream feels good for a moment but has really done nothing to help me cope with stress). Self-care leads to the problem getting better. Self-indulgence looks like comfort eating. Self-care looks like drinking a nourishing smoothie with superfoods in it.
For me, self-care can look like a lot of things, from taking a walk along the river and praying, to painting, to going on a run. Some people find writing in a journal to be very beneficial. Others might find that what your body needs is a nap. Stress is something that effects body and soul together, so self-care to help you deal with stress needs to involve the body and the soul. If time and money allow, go get yourself a massage! It gets those pesky knots out and you leave feeling amazing.
I find knowing your Myers-Briggs can go a long way in helping you know how to reduce your stress. As an “omnivert” who tends toward extroversion, sometimes what I really need is to sit and have coffee with a friend. Or maybe I need to take a walk alone in the woods (Jesus was a great example of someone who practiced this in a really healthy way. He knew when it was time to be alone and pray and when it was time to be with people). Listen to your body. Find ways to feed your soul in healthy, constructive ways.
4. Learn to say ‘No.’
When I lived in Germany I was frightfully overcommitted, and it lead to severe burn out. But it’s hard to say ‘no’ when someone asks for you to commit to something. Maybe you feel guilty drawing that boundary with people, or maybe you feel like you’d be personally missing out on something if you said ‘no.’ For me it was the latter. There are always good things going on, but there is only one of you. Maybe your kids are signed up for too many activities (guess who else might feel the pinch of too many ‘yeses’ and not enough ‘no’s’? Yep, your kids.) and you need to feel more like a human and less like a taxi. Maybe your church has asked you to volunteer for literally everything and there’s an expectation you’ll say ‘yes.’ Either way, if the plate of your life is already full, it’s time to start learning to say ‘no’.
5. Keep a gratitude list
Anyone who’s ever read Ann Voskamp’s amazing book One Thousand Gifts will know what I’m talking about. Thanking God for everyday gifts changes your perspective quite a bit. Maybe it’s something small that you’re grateful for like your daughter’s laugh or the way coffee smells. Maybe it’s something big like the support of your spouse or a good friend or the provision of your house or car. Filling your heart with gratitude does two things: makes you realize Who is ultimately taking care of you and that yes, you are going to be just fine, and that fear and frustration cannot fill the same space as thankfulness and gratitude. “In everything, give thanks.”
Stressful situations are unavoidable, but how you cope and manage that stress can mean the difference between squeaking through life sick and miserable, and actually enjoying it, vibrant and healthy.
How does stress affect your health? What are some ways you cope with stress?