Heart racing, cold but sweaty, Ann bolted upright.
“What was that? What’s happening?
Paul gently snuffled, his face partially buried in his pillow. Slowly, Ann slid back under the covers. Eyes wide open, heart pounding, she quickly assessed her rude awakening.
“Huh? What’s wrong?”
“I’m not sure. Check my pulse?”
“Honey, why are you sweating?” Finding the correct spot on her wrist, Paul counted.
“It’s a little fast. Did you have a bad dream? What’s going on?”
“I’m not really sure, but something.”
In his befuddled state, Paul suggested she try to slow her breathing and calm down. “Probably a bad dream.”
Thirty minutes later, Ann shook Paul. “It’s not a bad dream. Something’s wrong. My chest feels tight, and it’s hard to breathe. My heart’s racing, and my left arm feels numb. I’m scared.”
A couple hours later, the emergency room doctor looked puzzled. “All your cardiac tests came back normal except for your elevated blood pressure.”
Studying Paul and Ann, he inquired, “What’s going on in your life?”
Our culture talks about stress like it’s a badge of honor.
I’m so stressed.
Life is stressful.
My job carries a lot of stress.
My kids stress me out.
What would I do without the stress in my life?
We nod or chuckle at these comments. But what if this level of stress isn’t supposed to be a normal part of life?
There are two kinds of stress: eustress and distress.
Eustress, or positive stress, embodies the following characteristics:
- Focused energy and motivation
- Within our coping capabilities
- Feels exciting
- Improves our thoughts, actions, or performance
Some examples of eustress include
- getting married
- receiving a job promotion
- adding a new baby or child to your family
- learning a new hobby or skill
- moving to a new house or your first home
- taking a vacation
These activities challenge us to grow, which creates excitement, and the change or stressor eventually levels out (short-term).
Distress, or negative stress, however, looks more like this:
- Short or long-term
- Feels outside of our coping ability
- Decreases performance
- Feels unpleasant or painful
Distress, if not addressed, eventually causes physical and mental harm.
Dr. Archibald Hart in his book Adrenaline and Stress cautions, “No one can live in a constant state of emergency without paying for it later on with some form of physical disease.” Throughout this book, Dr. Hart documents how living in a continual hyper-adrenalized state can lead to a heart attack or other serious physical symptoms.
While eustress, the positive kind of stress, improves our life, failing to manage distress or negative stress does cause harm.
Ann’s story is mine.
How to identify which kind of stress, lean into eustress and away from distress
1. Identify the source of your stress.
Is it positive or negative? Often when you and I feel stressed, it is distress. Notice the anxiety. Do your hands shake for no reason? Are you quick to get angry or frustrated? Not sleeping well at night because you can’t turn off your brain? Are your thoughts scattered? If you answer “yes” to these questions, I suggest you take a huge step back and evaluate the core issue.
When our marriage suffered severe damage, I experienced high negative stress levels. The resulting brain fog, anxiety, irritability, and distrust caused physical symptoms. I felt my body was constantly on high alert. It seemed like I couldn’t relax. Add in the suicidal depression, and adrenaline coursed through my body like a bullet train. Yes, even though I struggled with depression, my body remained on high-alert status. Through counseling and coaching, I discovered the source of this damaging stress and how to manage it. I learned to process each issue and resolve it, thus reducing the adrenaline.
2. Perform regular reality checks.
Just because you can do something, or it sounds exciting or interesting, doesn’t mean you should do it. I call this performing a reality check. My assistant will tell you that I often overload my schedule. When I do, she’ll ask, “And when do you think you can do that?” It’s her gentle way of pulling me back so I consider my limitations. There are 24 hours in a day, and 8 of those should involve rest.
Superhero status makes a great storyline, but it’s not a sustainable way to live. Because you and I are human, we have mental, emotional, and physical limitations. We aren’t SUPPOSED to do or be everything. I know. Blasphemy, right?
To be the best me, I must function at my best. Therefore, rest, relaxation, focused time, and relational time need to be part of my routine. Lettie Cowman, author of Streams In The Desert, relates the story of a wealthy Englishman who explored the deepest jungles of Africa. Being quite wealthy, he traveled with the trappings of British royalty. The Englishman hired a large contingent of strong locals to portage his items through the jungle. On the first day of his grand adventure, he pushed these men at an exhausting pace. The second day, the Africans refused to move. One young man told the Englishman, “They had gone too far and too fast the previous day. They had to wait for their souls to catch up to their bodies.” Brilliant reality check. Have you pushed so hard you need to allow your soul to catch up with your body?
3. Abandon your addiction to adrenaline.
Think about how you feel when you’re excited about leaving for vacation? What about when you accomplished that project at work? What happens when a stray dog charges you? These natural responses are adrenaline and cortisol coursing through your body. They are the body’s alarm system God created to help us in fight or flight situations. Normally, as in the case of the charging dog, your body naturally self-limits these responses.
Cortisol release causes an energy boost, heightened alertness, and a burst of increased immunity. All good things. However, for the person who constantly feels under attack, desires that hormonal rush, or hasn’t learned to process this fight or flight response in a healthy manner, these high hormone levels can cause physical problems and even become addictive.
Some healthy ways to process stress include walking, journaling, breathing exercises, listening to music, and meditation. To be your best you, learning to process stress well allows you to live life with joy. Matthew 11:28-30 encourages us to walk with Jesus and learn His unforced rhythms of grace. Dave and I continue to practice several of these stress management strategies that we learned during our recovery process.
Where are you today with these two kinds of stress?
Do you, like much of our culture, believe living over-stressed is normal? It’s not. Nor is it the life God calls us to. Chet Scott, in Becoming Built to Lead, describes eustress this way
Stress is any challenge that promotes growth. More stress than you
can handle feels like distress. Less stress than you can manage leads to
boredom, stagnation, and complacency. The sweet spot is eustress where
you are out of the comfort zone reaching, but it feels like you’ve got a
chance. This is how you grow. . .
One person’s challenge is another’s chill. One person’s comfort zone
is another’s panic. One person’s distress is another’s eustress. We are
all wired uniquely. Our optimal performance zone is outside what is
comfortable and toward the edge of what is challenging. Too easy, and
we’re bored. Too difficult, and we’re overwhelmed. Just this side of chaos
does not sound like your optimal performance zone, but it is.
Chet coaches his clients to become who God created them to be by embracing eustress. He practices effective stress management and is one of the most relaxed people I’ve ever met.
Rather than wearing stress like a badge of honor, let’s focus on doing the heart work to live well.
We can overcome anything that’s distress through leaning into Jesus. He alone is our strength, comfort, and answer to our questions.
Being grounded in Jesus produces peace and joy. If you’re stuck in the stressed-out cycle or need help processing the negative emotions related to discovering your husband’s porn addiction, reach out. I promise to listen without judgment and help you discover a better way to live life.