I spent a whole lot of time letting stress wreak havoc on my life. In trying to do everything and be everything to everyone (the “disease to please”), my life was slowly being drained from me. I felt resentful about how tired I was all the time. Stress was slowly deteriorating my health. Exhaustion often made my words and actions contradict my intentions.
Exhaustion has become somewhat of a status symbol in our culture. Juggling multiple things and talking about how exhausted we are often makes us feel like we are kicking booty in life. I am speaking from experience. In reality, there is a better way to live and still be a rock star.
Living in constant overwhelm keeps your body operating in “fight or flight” mode. While our sympathetic nervous system, or SNS, can be very helpful in life threatening circumstances, our bodies were not meant to continually function in this state. If you are not familiar with SNS, think about the stories you have heard about people showing great strength in times of danger, such as lifting a vehicle off of a child. This system causes our bodies to release chemicals which trigger a series of chain reactions, sharpening our senses and preparing us for action. Our blood sugar increases. Our heart rate increases. Less priority is given to other life functions, such as digestion. When we live in constant stress, our bodies continually sense danger. Living in this state can adversely affect your health and well-being.
I felt the effects of living my life in “fight or flight” mode. My sympathetic nervous system was running the show. I developed issues such as inflammation and increased gut permeability (“leaky gut”). This meant constant digestive problems (pain, bloating, etc.) and systemic inflammation. I developed food sensitivities. I felt exhausted all the time and relied on caffeine just to get through the day. I could not think clearly. In my attempts to be “everything to everyone,” I became more and more exhausted and ineffective. (I will share more about stress and my gut in later posts. I am still in the healing stage at this point.)
Over the years, I had to learn to be more intentional about keeping my mind/body out of stress mode. Today, I want to share some of the things that have helped me. You may not need all of these tips, but hopefully you can take away some nuggets of inspiration to implement in your own life.
I had to learn to listen to my body. Everyone feels the stress response in similar, yet unique ways. When I feel stressed, my muscles become tense, my chest tightens, and I have abdominal pain. I find it more difficult to breath and struggle to focus. By being aware of how your body responds to stress, you can be more attuned to what triggers the stress response in your body. By knowing your triggers, you can learn how to avoid them as best as you can. One of my triggers is feeling rushed. In order to avoid the stress response, I have to allow myself adequate time to do certain things. I also feel stress when people around me are in conflict with each other. I am a natural peacemaker, but had to learn to separate myself from people or situations when needed. Sometimes God may use me as a mediator, but other times He removes me from certain situations.
I had to make some serious changes in the way I scheduled my life. I had to learn to make sacrifices. God gives us the strength to do what He leads us to do. When we go beyond this and fill our schedule to the brim, it leads to exhaustion and overwhelm. Remember, not everything is your responsibility. Stay attuned to God’s voice, His gentle nudge, and His peace in your heart (this comes from spending time in His presence, in the Word, and responding to His voice). It is better to say “no” to someone than to give a “yes” merely out of obligation. It can lead to resentment down the road. I know I would rather someone say “no” to me than say “yes” out of obligation, then harbor resentment. Many times, saying “no” to someone means saying “yes” to someone else. For example, if I say “no” to a request requiring me to be away from home too much, I am saying “yes” to Ricky. His love language is “quality time”. Earlier in our marriage, I learned from experience that spending too much time away from home left the husband feeling unloved. Saying “no” to certain requests means saying “yes” to quality time with my man.
Whenever I am considering adding an activity to my schedule, I have to use a filter. I ask myself the following questions: “Is this God leading me? Do I feel God’s peace about this? Will it take too much time away from Ricky? Will it take too much time away from my loved ones? Am I doing this only out of obligation? Am I doing this just to make myself look better or earn acceptance? Do I have the time or resources to do this? Does this allow enough time for rest?”. If my schedule is already full and I choose to add something in, I have to consider what I will take away, or do more efficiently, to make room for the new activity.
Even though I am still juggling several things at once, I am more realistic with what I am able to do with my time. I am more prayerfully intentional with my schedule instead of letting my schedule control me. I am more careful not to overload myself. I prioritize rest and release, which I will discuss in the next section.
It is so important to leave time in your life for rest and repletion of energy. I had to learn to stop and breathe. I had to prioritize getting adequate sleep. I learned to give myself time for activities that bring enjoyment, and not let the workaholic in me feel shame about it. Overall, I needed space to allow for the most important moments of just dwelling in God’s presence, letting Him replenish me.
I often think of Jesus’ response to Martha in the passage in Luke 10. Martha was busy, running around juggling a million things. Mary was just hanging out with Jesus, sitting in His presence. Martha was resentful towards Mary, and Jesus said to her, “Martha, Martha..you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (verses 41-42) He often brings this to mind when I turn into a busybody and forget about what is important—just dwelling with Him, listening to Him. It is there I find peace. It is there my energy is replenished.
I had to learn to give my concerns and worries to the one who handles them much better than I do. (“Cast all your anxiety on Him because he cares for you.” 1 Peter 5.7; “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” Philippians 4:6). Personally, I do this by keeping a prayer journal. I have been doing this for years. When something is on my heart, I write it down. This is how I “cast my anxiety” on Him. I feel at peace knowing I have turned it over to Him. It is also great to look at the past through the lens of the present and see His hand at work in our lives.
I also talk about my concerns with certain friends and loved ones, those who have earned this trust, those who are in a place where they can handle my burden. Speaking things out loud has a great releasing effect on our brains. I used to not be good at this. I can look back and see how holding things in only made things worse. Writing is also another great way to release your feelings, whether anyone reads your words or not.
Disclaimer: If your stress and anxiety are too much to deal with, or a diagnosed condition causes your anxiety, there is no shame in seeking professional help. In fact, it may be vital for you. There are professionals who are trained to help you in such instances.
Movement is also a great way to release our stress. When our SNS system is stimulated, it prepares us for action, for movement. By doing something physical, it can help bring you out of stress mode. I am not what you would call a “runner,” but years ago, I was going through a really hard time in my life. I felt like I was drowning, like I was suffocating from the stress. Out of instinct, I started running. Every time I ran, it made me feel better. Whenever you feel stressed, do something physical. Take a walk. Throw punches at a punching bag. Dance in your bedroom with the blinds closed. It is amazing how much better you will feel.
Laugh! Do things you enjoy, just for the sake of enjoying them. Schedule times of rest and play in between working and being a rock star.
The counter system to our SNS “fight or flight” mode is our Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). You may hear this referred to as “rest and digest” mode. By intentionally tapping into this system, we can keep our bodies in a state of peace.
Psalm 46:10 says “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” This is one of my favorite verses. We can take comfort in knowing God values our rest. Make time to just stop, to breathe, to sit in His presence.
Meditation and deep breathing are effective ways to “be still” and stimulate your PNS system. I used to think meditation just meant sitting cross legged in a meadow alone for hours, chanting “ommm.” I was wrong. It turned my life upside down. I have a dance friend who was going through yoga instructor training a few years ago. At rehearsals, she practiced her meditation facilitating skills by having us close our eyes and focus on our breath. It was then I realized my brain was functioning like weekend traffic in Times Square, like a major highway during rush hour. My thoughts DID NOT STOP. It was only by stopping and paying attention that I noticed this. How did I function before?
Meditation, or just being still, is a regular part of my life now. Many times it’s just 10-15 minutes when I’m alone. I use an app or just play soothing music while I stop and breathe (one of my favorite apps is “Calm” and one of my favorite guided meditation podcasts is “Holy Yoga”). Research shows that meditation, or mindfulness, slows our reaction time by helping us stop and pause instead of automatically responding to things. It helps us view our thoughts and emotions as an “observer” which helps us choose our reactions. It turns down our stress response and stimulates our “rest and digest” mode. I will never forget the first time I was able to calm myself down through paying attention to my breathing. Don’t laugh, but I was getting dental work. (I despise going to the dentist.) I was anxious and my heart was racing. I tuned in, listened to my breath, and calmed down. It was a pivotal moment. I now use deep breathing and tuning in to keep myself calm.
Focusing on your breathing helps to slow it down, which has a calming effect. My breath sets the pace of my thoughts. Through this stopping, paying attention to my breath, and being mindful, it clears the “mental clutter” and helps me hear God more clearly. It is one of the ways I pray and dwell in His presence. He reveals Himself to me during these times. I thought I was on to something new. Then, I started a Christian based yoga training where they’ve taught us this very thing. This validated what I was already experiencing. Speaking of yoga…
Yoga is another way to stimulate your PNS “rest and digest” system to take the reins. Integrating movement with your breath has a calming effect on the body. There are poses specifically designed to release tension in your muscles. In many yoga sessions, there are moments where you sit and focus on your breath, or do certain breathing exercises designed to bring benefit to the body. (not just doing crazy poses requiring you to be a contortionist, which is a common myth—you can take a breath of relief now 🙂 )
My hope for you is that you too can find some peace and relief in your life. Remember to work hard, but rest hard too. Create a schedule you can live with peacefully. Say “yes” to what matters the most. Find ways to release your stress, and find what brings you peace.
Peace and love,
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