The Stress Tip That Changed My World
by Elizabeth Baker
Until I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) I never thought much about the relationship between stress and physical health. Germs and sickness were a logical combination. Failing organs and surgery made sense. But stress? Not so much. Then came CFS and struggling just to get through a normal day. Medication helped, but I soon had to face the fact I might never fully recover unless I learned to manage the unavoidable stressors of life in the fast lane.
This realization was perplexing because as a professional Christian counselor I spent my days helping other people manage life. I believed my own to be balanced and my faith strong. Sure, my days were packed with responsibilities and every morning brought new problems to be solved, but I loved my job. What was I doing wrong?
The answer turned out to be surprisingly simple. I wasn’t doing anything “wrong.” I just wasn’t doing what I did do, the right way! Like many others before me, I found the number of items on my agenda mattered less than my attitude. Discovering and managing that attitude can pay big dividends in a longer, healthier life.
Eventually, I wrote a book on stress management (How to Hang Loose in an Uptight World) sharing several tips and tricks for breaking the stress/illness cycle. But the one technique that personally helped most was simply asking myself, “How much am I paying?”
Hans Selye is regarded as the grandfather of all stress research. He was the first to identify what we now call stress and clinically demonstrated its impact on health. So, when CFS forced me to reevaluate my lifestyle, his was one of the first books I picked up. His entire work was fascinating, but the illustration that changed my life was his “bank vault in the sky.”
Dr. Selye believed ever organism possessed a finite amount of “general adaptation energy.” It was like an inheritance deposited in a cosmic bank account and was ours to use any way we chose. The only caveat was that the resource was finite and only given once. Every period of prolonged rest was like making a “withdrawal” from the “bank.” After a good night’s sleep we wake feeling refreshed with our energy renewed then we “spend” our resources throughout the day meeting the demands of life. By night we are weary and depleted, so we sleep again and a second “withdrawal” is made. If we spend resources too rapidly or unwisely, our “bank account” dwindles and illness takes root.
At first, the metaphor of finite “bank accounts” and daily allowances for “spending” seemed humorous and not very practical. But the longer I prayed about it, the more I wondered if unconscious stress might be making it harder for my body to heal. Could I be wasting much of my limited, God-given, resources?
For instance, if I were in a grocery line and the person in front of me suddenly decided to exchange three items, how much emotional energy did I expend while internally griping over my “lost” seconds? Was two minutes of time really worth it? Why did I push myself as I raced from store to store? I would only make another list when this one was checked off. Why did I impatiently tap my foot while waiting for the microwave? Did that make the oven work faster? What was I actually “buying” with the energy I spent worrying over a problem I might have tomorrow or ruminating over regrets of the past? I had learned to budget my time and my money, why should it be any different with the energy God provided each day?
It didn’t take long to realize while I may have learned to manage the big stressors in life, and even been successful teaching others those skills, I was throwing away large amounts of life-energy each day on trivial matters. Put in Selye’s terms, I was “spending” my resources more recklessly than a gambler who believes there is no tomorrow! And, like the foolish gambler, I was refusing to admit that every resource is limited. Once wasted, they don’t magically reappear.
Slowly, over time, my habits began to change and with them came a corresponding change in health. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome will always be part of my life for the viruses never totally go away, but I stay symptom free as long as I manage not only the big issues in life, but the small, daily ones as well. A large part of that management is to frequently ask myself, “How much are you paying? What do you expect to buy with the expenditure?” Too frequently, the Lord convicts me and I must admit I’m expending too much life-energy on trivial or useless items; it’s time for a “budget improvement.”
Elizabeth Baker is an author and retired counselor drawing on thirty-five years of experience helping individuals apply biblical principles to real-life situation. Find out more on her website, ElizabethBakerBooks.com