We need a little stress in our lives simply to keep us going. But chronic, high levels of stress are dangerous to our physical and mental wellbeing. It was brought home to me when I met a teenager who is taking a drug to lower her blood pressure which shoots up when she is stressed, which in her case, is most of the time. It’s a vicious circle because her pulse races and she is afraid she may have a heart attack, which increases her stress. We know from research that stress is not only damaging to the health of your heart, but it leads to inflammation and is also indicated in increased risk of dementia. So, what practical things can we do to release ourselves from it, and stay steady and grounded?
A supplement in The Times, insightfully headed, ‘Body and Soul’, rounded up advice from cardiologists across the world.[i]
Get at least seven hours of sleep a night, recommends Rahul Pott Lori, consultant cardiologist and clinical lecturer. ‘Levels of stress hormones such as cortisol for when we are asleep.’[ii] ‘Sleep knits the ravelled sleave of care,’ said Macbeth. The word ‘sleave’ here means a mass of wool, not part of a garment, so it means making tangled yarn into a neat garment. Shakespeare was not to know that today’s brain research shows that while we sleep the brain is active, making sense of events the previous day and relating them to our core beliefs and thinking. It doesn’t have to be seven hours straight sleep, but we need three 90-minute sleep cycles. If you have times of wakefulness, try singing worship songs in your mind, or use the time to pray.
Exercise – the silver bullet wherever health is mentioned. The amount varies, from vigorous housework (dusting won’t do it!) to walking, or hard running or swimming. Mostly, walking is the preferred activity, with a bit of uphill included.
Practising Mindfulness – Christians can be put off by the apparent link with Zen Buddhism, but mindfulness is simply bringing your thoughts into the moment. C S Lewis wrote that when our minds are over-occupied with the big things happening in the world we become ineffective in our own small lives. Certainly, our stress levels soar! The Psalmist wrote, ‘I have certainly soothed and quieted my soul; Like a weaned child resting against his mother, my soul within me is like a weaned child.’ (Psalm 131:2). In ‘Dementia: Pathways to Hope’ is an Appendix giving Christian Mindfulness, which includes an invitation to the Holy Spirit to fill us. If you would like a copy email [email protected].
Laugh – The Journal of Epidemiology published a study of 20,934 people that showed laughter can relieve arterial stiffness and blood vessel function, and that heart disease was less prevalent amongst people who laughed most days than those who didn’t. Store in your memory incidents that make you laugh. Research a couple of years ago showed that amongst older people, the comedian Michael McIntyre had a good effect. But every one of us has comic moments in our lives.
Drink some cocoa – one of the tactics I recommend to caregivers is to plan a treat for themselves during the day. I call it a ‘Hot Chocolate Moment’, after the old TV ad for Hot Chocolate. It’s right on the button now after researchers at the University of Birmingham found that blood vessels functioned better during emotional stress when people drank cocoa. It contains flavanols, chemicals with proven cardiovascular benefits. The same effect is found in intensely dark chocolate, but there’s something more comforting about a hot chocolate drink.
Casting your cares on God – The apostle Peter tells us to cast our cares upon Jesus, because He cares about us. (Peter 5:7). If we’re honest, it can be easier said than done. It can help to externalise the action. Something I find it helps to take a small stone and hold it in your hand as you pray, then say, ‘as a token of my handing this to you, Lord, I am putting it in this little pot,’ or whatever you’ve chosen. (I have a little pot with a Scripture in Hebrew worked around it.) There’s a neurological feedback loop between our bodies and our minds, and putting the stone away in safe keeping – not throwing it away, can help.
Soothing distractions – Many people find that gardening helps relieve stress. There is also music, with its known effect on the brain. Losing yourself in a good book is good, too, and there is some evidence that sniffing certain essential oils is helpful, or being massaged with them. But the most important thing is people. From friends who are lawyers I’ve learnt that working in that sector can be soul-destroying, and there’s been a suggestion that a leading London law firm should appoint a ‘Chief Happiness Officer’ for its staff. Commenting on it, an NHS psychiatrist said that ‘the source of happiness for the vast majority of people are the relationships with others that we form.’[iii] Especially in our churches, according to more than one study. Research finds that people who belong to a church live longer and cope with stress better than others.
[i]The Times, January 22, 2022
[iii] The Mind Doctor, Daily Mail, Monday, February 28, 2022