Last month the Disaster Distress Helpline at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration saw an 891 percent increase in call volume compared with the same time last year. The national hotline, which provides emergency help to people suffering from emotional distress, has received more than 22,000 calls and text messages seeking help amid the coronavirus crisis.
Distress is a negative form of stress, which is the brain and body’s response to any demand, whether emotional, mental, or physical. Because stress can affect how we feel, think, and behave, our ability to manage stress can have a profound effect on how we deal with the current coronavirus crisis.
Before we consider ways to manage stress, though, we need to develop a better understanding of what stress is and how it affects us.
What You Should Know About Stress
Stress is caused by stressors — A stressor is anything that causes the release of stress hormones and chemicals (such as adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine) that prepare the body for physical action. The two broad categories of stressors are physiological and psychological. Physiological stressors put a direct demand on our body; they include injury, pain, or extreme temperatures. Psychological stressors are non-physical demands we interpret as negative or threatening. These types of stressors include such categories as events (e.g., such as our current pandemic), situations (e.g., concerns about employment), and comments (e.g., a hurtful insult from a family member).
Stressors are absolute or relative — Stressors can be further divided into absolute and relative. Absolute stressors are those that the bodies of all or nearly all people would interpret as being stressful. A prime example of an absolute physical stress would be exposure to sub-zero temperatures, while an example of an absolute psychological stressor would be concern about an infectious disease. Relative stressors are those that only some people’s bodies interpret as being stressful. For example, you might become stressed by seeing blood or an open wound while an emergency room physician might have no discernible physical reaction to the same sight.
Stress can cause us to enter fight, flight, or freeze mode — When the stress hormones start flowing, God has designed our bodies to react, to a greater or lesser extent, in one of three ways:
- Fight — A state of stress in which we feel agitated or aggressive;
- Flight — A state of stress in which we feel the urge to avoid or flee from the stressor;
- Freeze — A state of stress that causes dysregulation, in which the energy mobilized by the perceived threat becomes “locked” into the nervous system, causing us to “freeze.”
Keep in mind that stress affects different people in different ways. Just because a person’s reaction differs from your own automatic response does not make it wrong.
How to Manage Stress
Understand your particular stress and stressors — The first step in managing stress is to identify the stressor and clarify the type of stress. Is there more than one stressor? Is it a physiological or psychological stressor? Absolute or relative? Is the stressor a temporary challenge or a long-term situation? Is a recurrent stressor causing you to have a recurring fight/flight/freeze reaction?
Take an objective view of the various types of stress you are experiencing right now and make a plan for how you will react. By taking the time to think about the stress and stressors you can give yourself some control over your response. Control what God allows you to control and leave the rest to our sovereign Lord. (Note: If the stress doesn’t seem to have a particular stressor, you may have a physiological condition such as generalized anxiety disorder. See a doctor about how to manage such physical-based anxiety.)
Take care of your body — “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” the apostle Paul asks (1 Cor. 3:16). While we might claim to believe this verse, we often treat our bodies with less respect than we would a church building. To manage the normal and unavoidable stresses in your life your body needs proper maintenance. You already know what to do—exercise, eat healthy, get enough sleep, drink more water, and so on—you just have to commit to doing it consistently. In normal times such maintenance is important; in times of crisis it’s essential.
Use the Box-Breathing Technique — One of the most common physiological reactions to stress is shallow breathing or holding our breath. This results in our brains getting less oxygen, which heightens our anxiety and impedes our ability to respond. Fortunately, there’s a breathing technique so simple you can teach it to a child and so powerful Navy SEALS use it to help them react in combat situations.
The technique is called box breathing (also known as four-square breathing or square-box breathing) and combines deep breathing with simple counting. Here’s how it works:
First, inhale your breath slowly for a count of four. Then, hold the breath for an equal count of four. Release the breath all the way out through pursed lips, on a count of four. Finally, wait four seconds before saying or doing anything. Repeat the cycle a few more times or as long as you need to help you relax. Always breathe from the lower belly instead of from the upper chest. It may help you to place one or both of your hands on your abdomen or sides to feel the lower part of your abdomen rise as you breathe in.
Practice the box breathing technique when you are more relaxed so that you’ll be prepared to apply it when in stressful situations.
Avoid unnecessary stressors — The optimal approach to managing stress during a crisis may be to remove unnecessary stressors. How do we identify what is unnecessary? Ask whether the stressor (a) can be avoided and (b) is negatively affecting your life or your relationship with God. We may be feeling stress because we are forcing ourselves to engage in behavior we’d prefer to avoid. Sinful behavior is the ultimate negative stressor, of course, and should always be avoided. But some behaviors that are negative, but not necessarily sinful, should also be minimized or eliminated from your life.
Put your trust in the Lord — We should acknowledge that troubles will come (John 16:33) and that we will face many trials (Jas. 1:2-4) knowing that the Lord cares for you (1 Pet. 5:7), will meet all your needs (Phil. 4:19), and works the good of those who love him (Rom. 8:28). Christians should have no qualms about taking steps to reduce unnecessary stress or preparing our bodies to better handle stressors. But ultimately, peace and comfort can only come from putting our trust in the sovereign provision of God.