A good friend once told me “If it doesn’t burn calories, then stress has no place in my life.” Great thought but … how do we manage that? The fact is we should avoid stress. Our bodies thrive when they are subjected to and survive stress. That’s how we build stronger muscles and even immune systems. Stress, however, is often that which breaks us down instead of building us up.
Pentecost is called the “Ordinary Time” and the series this year has been about making this ordinary time something extraordinary. We have discussed over three hundred ways to make things we do in our daily lives better and impactful but I keep getting comments about all the stress, particularly from people in the United States.
This has been a very tumultuous year for many people. We have had terror attacks and political negativity. Natural disasters have wreaked havoc on people’s lives and gun violence has created fear and distrust. We do not need the countless scientific studies that exist to recognize the danger stress can present in our lives if it overwhelms us.
William James once said “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” Can our best defense simply be our thoughts? Is the key to living extraordinary hours simply a matter of thinking differently?
Our brains are made up of over one hundred million neurons or cells which interact with each other in over one hundred trillion different ways. Each of these connections can link up at 10 different levels – there are 1,000 trillion possibilities or, in laymen’s terms, endless possibilities of connections. What does that mean for us?
Studies done on children living in high stress situations for prolonged periods of times such as those in Middle Eastern war zones of African famine conditions have shown us the effects of long-term exposure to high levels of stress. Their ability to plan, concentrate, learn quickly, think ahead and act decisively has been compromised as a result of long term flood of stress hormones into the body and brain. The part of their body, the hippocampus, that allows us to learn and remember is severely affected. On the other hand, British researchers also found that, while chronic exposure to high levels of cortisol damaged hippocampus, the right amount of this hormone could actually enhance learning and memory.
Muscles that are never subjected to stress do not grow and even atrophy. The brain is, at its core, a muscle that uses almost twenty percent of the oxygen in our body. Pacing ourselves and teaching ourselves how to respond to stress can be the most extraordinary gift we give ourselves. It is as easy as simply taking a breath.
Relaxation is a key step towards defeating the negative effects stress can have on our bodies. A study conducted at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine which is part of Massachusetts General Hospital revealed that just eight weeks of relaxation practice can counter the damaging effects of stress. Deep breathing, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, and even repetitive prayer lead to progressive muscle relaxation and healthy eustress which is positive stress on the body.
So take a deep breath and start living in an extraordinary way. Learn to think positive and be grateful for all you have. Your body will thank you. We cannot control the world or certain aspects of our lives but we can control the stress instead of letting the stress control us.