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Rocks and hard places

Extreme stress can make even the strongest person feel utterly helpless. Amelia explains the medical mechanics of the stress response, the dangerous consequences of too much stress for too long a time, and sound Orthodox commentary on spiritually healthy and unhealthy ways of managing it.
When thoughts disturb, confuse, or worry you, you should not converse with them, but simply say: "May the will of God be done!" This is very calming.
— Saint Barsanuphius of Optina

Three people, six problems.

There was a woman whose child was seriously ill, suffering from multiple diseases. The more aggressively the doctors treated him, the more he suffered. Although the treatments were successful, technically speaking, they also created new medical problems for the child, many of which were worse than the original problem that they were enlisted to treat. The mother didn't know what to do. If she told the doctors to stop the aggressive treatments, everyone's guess was that the boy would die. If she told the doctors to proceed, it seemed even more inevitable that he would die. No matter what she chose, she knew it would mean more suffering for her son. The more the child suffered, the more his mother suffered, too. She made her decisions the best she knew how, but always with a heavy heart. With every parental consent form she signed, her stress level mounted.

* * *

There was a man working in a prestigious position. The opportunity hadn't come easily for him; he had to fight his way to the top. He'd spent many years in school, every minute of which was a struggle for him, both academically and financially. He didn't have any connections when it came to finding a job; he'd landed this one solely on merit. He succeeded in his work because he was capable and driven and loved his job, but he was also certain that an opportunity like this would never come his way again. That's why he felt like his hands were tied when an unexpected situation arose at work. A recent change in his company's policy meant he would have to take on a job responsibility he didn't want or else lose the job. What the company was asking him to do went against his personal beliefs and principles, so he couldn't well keep the job and rest with a clear conscience. At the same time, though, he didn't know how to throw away everything he'd worked so hard for, especially when it was in his power to hold onto it. He also had a family to feed. With each passing day that he returned to work, his stress level mounted.

* * *

There was a young woman in a relationship with a man she loved very much. They'd been together for a long time, and more than anything she wanted to marry him. Everyone told her he was no good for her, that she deserved so much better, but she wasn't sure that better existed. She came from a home where she'd been mistreated, and every man she'd ever been involved with treated her the same way. She hated the way he kicked her around emotionally, and once or twice physically, but she didn't know how to leave. It's not that she was afraid of him; she was afraid of herself—of life without him. She was afraid of how much she loved him. She also feared that he might not even care if she left. After all, months had turned into years, and although he often spoke of a future with her, serious talk of marriage never came. Every day, she wrestled with questions of what she meant to him and whether she'd be better off without him, but she always came to the same conclusion: It was better not to know. With every night that she returned to him, her stress level mounted.

* * *

While the examples in these three stories are probably more extreme than what most of us have to face on a day-to-day basis, we should all be able to relate to them in some way. We all find ourselves in situations, sometimes, that don't seem to have an easy way out. We have to make decisions that we don't feel equipped to make, or maybe we don't feel worthy of making them. Perhaps we have to choose from among choices that we don't like or choices that don't seem fair. The right answer may be clear to other people, but to us, from the inside looking out, there might not seem to be a right answer. Caught between the proverbial rock and hard place, it often seems like nothing we do will bring about good results. Many times, no matter what we do, it seems that we'll make the situation worse.

This is what it means to feel stressed.

We've likely come across many methods for attempting to combat stress, but we've probably found that most of them wind up being ineffective in the long term. There are certain techniques that can help some people relax in the moment, but when the moment passes, the stress always returns. Then there are other techniques that don't seem to work at all. And finally, there are some techniques that, regardless of whether they work or not, pose substantial risks to our spiritual wellbeing. We'll take a look at what those techniques are and why they don't work, as well as what does work and why, but first we need to understand what's happening inside of us when we feel that awful thing called stress.

Fight or flight.

In common language, stress is an uncomfortable state of being. It's a feeling we get when we're in a difficult situation and we want out. But medically speaking, stress is much more than just a feeling. It's a complicated set of reactions that happen in response to our encounter with some kind of stimulus that we perceive to be potentially harmful in some way—the stressor. The effects of stress can be neurochemical, physiological, cognitive, and emotional all at the same time. While its effects can certainly be unpleasant, the stress response serves an important purpose; it optimizes the body's functioning for one of two things: To fight or to "fly" away.

In other words, stress can be a good thing. Theories of evolutionary and behavioral psychology suggest that the physical stress response is meant to alert the body to danger and to enable us to escape from it as quickly as possible. I don't agree with most of the theories of evolutionists or behaviorists, but I do agree that the stress response is meant to serve a purpose. Just as God crafts each human body from nothing—each neuron, each blood cell, each chemical molecule—He also designs how our different bodily systems work together. One of those systems is the stress response. When we feel stressed, it means something has tripped our innate, God-given alarm system. That alarm system lets us know that something is wrong and that we need to do something to change it.

During the stress response, a cocktail of hormones and neurotransmitters surges through the bloodstream, delivering chemical messages to the entire body. These messages indicate that something in our immediate environment has changed for the worse, and they tell our glands and organs what they need to do in order to compensate for it. In other words, the stress-based changes in body chemistry are meant to prepare us for whatever challenge or threat we're about to face. Whether we decide to tackle the stressor head-on or to run away from it is up to us; the body's natural stress response prepares us for both.

One of the first things we notice when we're "under stress" is a change in our heart rate. Neurochemically, stress tells the heart that it needs to beat harder and faster to give us the best chance of surviving a potentially dangerous situation. For example, if we need to run out of a burning building, we'll need increased blood-flow to our legs. Stress tells the whole cardiovascular system that an immediate change is necessary, and the cardiovascular system rises to the occasion.

Stress also causes a change in the way we breathe. Chemical messengers tell our respiratory system that it needs to work harder and faster because the cardiovascular system is working harder and faster. Because the heart is pumping blood through the entire circulatory system at a greater rate, the lungs need to pick up their pace in order to keep that blood saturated with oxygen so it can be delivered to the muscle groups that most need it. Stress tells the lungs to breathe differently so the rest of the body is better able to do what it needs to do.

If our stressful experience is at least moderately intense, we'll also notice that we start to sweat more than usual. Chemical messengers are responsible for this change, too. The body works most efficiently at a certain temperature, and under extreme physical stress, such as running away from an angry bear, we can easily get overheated. If we were to get too hot, at best we would compromise our ability to escape danger, and at worst the body would shut down altogether; we could die before the bear even caught up with us. Stress tells our sweat glands that they're going to need to work harder to keep us cool, in preparation for whatever physical demands we might impose on our bodies, including running away. Sweating keeps our internal temperature lower so we can escape as rapidly as possible.

Stress also has an impact on the digestive system. Some people simply lose their appetite when they're under stress; others suffer to the extent of gagging, vomiting, or experiencing heartburn or stomachaches. While these symptoms may be particularly unpleasant, they also indicate that something productive is going on inside. In a life-and-death situation, digestion isn't terribly important. If we have to exert ourselves physically to survive a danger, there's not much the GI system can do to help; metabolizing the sandwich we ate for lunch isn't going to help us fight off an attacker. That's why during stress, chemical messengers instruct the GI system to go into "power-save" mode. In the face of a stressor, the physiological resources normally used by digestion could be better utilized by other body systems. The unpleasant food-related symptoms we experience during stress are the result of the digestive system essentially shutting down, which maximizes the rest of the body's ability to most effectively use whatever resources are available to it at the time.

There are many other physical changes that happen during the stress response. Some we may notice, others not. The changes involve hormones, neurotransmitters, organs, muscles, and glands. These changes affect the way we perceive pain, our ability to resist diseases, and even the extent of our physical strength. Simply put, stress changes aspects of how the entire body functions. With all of these physical changes taking place, it's no wonder that we also feel taxed emotionally and mentally when we're under stress. It's an enormous strain on the human body.

Stress kills.

It's clear that the stress response is meant to protect us from physical dangers. Unfortunately, physical life-and-death situations aren't the only times at which we experience and react to stress. Troublesome thoughts and feelings can also engage the stress response. Cognitive stress is a reaction that comes from our thoughts; emotional stress comes from our feelings. Even though these stressors are psychological, they can still result in the dramatic cascade of physiological symptoms. Because stressful thoughts and feelings don't generally put our life in danger, however, the physical stress response seems to hurt more than it helps.

Our physiological reactivity to stress isn't meant to last very long. Our bodies wouldn't be able to function properly if they were always in this heightened state of arousal. The stress response is meant to last only long enough to enable us to get out of Dodge. Situations that are physically stressful have a clear endpoint: When the stressor is no longer present (e.g., the bear is no longer chasing you), the stress response stops and the body can recover. With situations that are stressful cognitively and emotionally, however, the endpoint isn't always quite as clear. Troublesome thoughts may or may not come to a distinct end. Emotional upset may or may not come to a distinct end. If a psychological difficulty is resolved, as is the case with a physical stressor, the stress response stops and the body can recover. Usually, though, psychological difficulties don't have clear-cut resolutions. We second guess whether we made the right choice, or an unexpected turn of events catches us by surprise, or any number of other things happens to prolong our difficult experience. As long as our thoughts or feelings are troubled in some way, our bodies never get the chemical message that it's "safe" to stop the stress response.

Prolonged exposure to mental stress equals prolonged exposure to physiological stress. This is dangerous. It can cause all kinds of diseases, both mental and physical. Quite literally, stress can kill.

Simpler times.

In days gone by, the biggest worries people had were fire and wild animals. From a stress standpoint, those must have been simpler times. When ancient man felt stressed, it was because he knew he was in real trouble. For him, the stress response served a purpose.

Evolutionists would argue that ancient man was too dumb to worry about anything else. And I would disagree, because Christianity teaches that God made the first man, Adam, in His own image. That means Adam was capable of everything that we're capable of today—everything that God created us to do, not to mention everything we do of our own sinful will. We may be more literate or more educated than Adam, but we're no smarter or more capable.

Social scientists might argue that ancient man had fewer opportunities to worry: There was no stock market to crash, no law suit to lose, no corporate job to quit, no FBI investigation to evade, no stem-cell treatment to contemplate—indeed, simpler times. But I don't agree that life was easy for ancient man. He had to grow and kill his own food, build his own house from whatever he could find, bury his own children who died of malaria, and protect his family from invasion by enemy tribes. I don't see how any of that could have been any easier than what we go through today.

While we have no reason to assume that ancient man had no stress, it seems relatively safe to assume that most of his stress was related to avoiding physical danger. We don't typically have to face the same dangers that ancient man did. Because we don't live in the wilderness, it's not often that we get chased by hungry lions. Because we don't live in huts made from tree branches and heat them by open flame, our houses don't often catch on fire. If we ever do find ourselves running from wild lions or house fires, the event is considered an anomaly and usually makes the 6 o'clock news.

Because our lives today are generally less physically demanding than ancient man's, we don't reap as many benefits from the stress response as he did. There are still some benefits, of course: I recall a story about a young man working underneath his car while his mother watched; when the jack let go and the car fell on top of him, so much adrenaline surged through his mother's body that she was able to lift the car with her bare hands to help him get out. There are similar stories about women who've fended off rapists, or men who've pounded attackers twice their size. Moments of superhuman strength are one of the many perks of our God-given stress response. But these moments are few and far between, compared to how frequently our stress response is engaged. Most of what triggers our stress response these days is psychologically demanding, not physically.

Ancient man enjoyed more benefits of the stress response than we do due to the physical demands of his life. If a storm blew the roof off of ancient man's house, his stress response kicked in and helped him to gather materials and build a new roof, before the storm blew his family away. If a storm blows the roof off of our house today, the same stress response kicks in, but it doesn't really help us call the roofer. It doesn't help us file an insurance claim or figure out how to pay the roofer when our claim is denied. For the most part, the stress response doesn't seem very well suited to the way we live anymore.

Evolutionists would argue that this is because man's needs have changed over time, and that the stress response is an unfortunate obsoletism that natural selection has yet to weed out. And I would argue, again, that that's not true. God creates us in the same way He created Adam, and that "way" is just as well suited to us today as it was to Adam when He was created. All that's changed over time is how we look at things.

Complicated times.

So many things are easy for us today. If we need someplace new to live, we don't usually reach for the toolbox; we grab the phone and call a realtor. If we're cold, we don't have to shovel coal into the furnace all night long; we just flick the thermostat up a few degrees. We work in buildings that protect us from the elements, and we drive cars to get us there safely and almost effortlessly. We buy our food from the grocery store, and we have refrigerators and freezers that enable us to buy more than we need and store it. Our children don't have to walk to school; the bus picks them up in front of the house. They don't have to drag around slateboards and heavy books; their only burdens are worksheets and flash drives. For most of us, life isn't very physically demanding. What's demanding is the burden of psychological baggage that we so often find ourselves dragging around.

If only we could look at the advantages and luxuries we enjoy today and be grateful for them; we could be just as happy as ancient man was, but with all the added conveniences and amenities of modern life. We could trust all of God's promises—not just for salvation, but also for the earthly things the Bible guarantees, such as food, clothing and shelter. And we could be so happy. We could be completely free of stress, thanks to all the technologies and innovations that ancient man never knew but are ours to enjoy.

If only it were so easy …

One of the consequences of our fallen nature is that we want to be in control of everything around us. We want to know everything, manage everything, and be able to fix everything. Ancient man was like this too—this is why Adam disobeyed God in the first place. The only difference is that Adam and his progeny had so many other responsibilities—physically demanding responsibilities—that they didn't have as much freedom to stress over the kinds of things that so frequently bother us today.

A hundred years ago, man didn't have to stress over what his peers or coworkers thought of him; he was too busy plowing the fields, hunting the dinner, or otherwise providing for his family. Even if he did worry about it, he couldn't worry so much that his work didn't get done. He also understood that God would take care of him. If he was a farmer, he didn't stress over the possibility that his crops might not grow this year. If he was a hunter, he didn't worry that there wouldn't be any game in the woods. He simply trusted God.

Today, given how much erosion Christian thought has suffered in our culture, we don't trust God quite as much anymore. If we work, we worry about getting fired. If we're sick, we worry about dying. If we're in a relationship, we worry that it might end. If we have a house, we worry that it might be repossessed. Many of us also worry about less important things: We worry that our clothes don't have the right labels, or that our houses aren't big enough, or that our children aren't popular enough. We stress over all kinds of things that are beyond our control.

Meanwhile, we also have more freedom to stress over these things than people did in the past. With so many physical demands met by machines, mental demands met by computers, and social demands met by all kinds of innovations, we don't have as much to do as people did in the past. We don't work quite as hard, and all of that energy that we're not using needs to go somewhere. So where does it go? It slips right into our bad habits of worrying about things, our desire to be in control.

Unfortunately, there's a lot in life that we can't control, which means a lot of opportunities for stress.

Stress-busting myths debunked.

Stress is physically draining. Just as exercise taxes and tires the body, stress also makes it feel worn-out and fatigued—but minus the exhilarating high that exercise also brings. Rest is important whether we're stressed or not, but prolonged stress can make rest a very difficult thing to achieve. We try all kinds of things to help our stressed-out bodies relax: Deep breathing, guided imagery, hypnosis, meditation, medication, herbal remedies, massage, and aromatherapy, just to name a few. More often than not, these things don't truly help us, at least not in the long run. Even if they do provide some relief, whether short-lived or lasting, they can also bring us more harm than good.

One of the most heralded relaxation techniques to combat stress is deep breathing. Stress makes us breathe more rapidly, so the goal of deep breathing exercises is to slow our breathing rate back down to where it should be. Deep breathing also can slow our heart rate and dilate our blood vessels, thereby reducing our blood pressure. Guided imagery, hypnosis and meditation all make use of deep breathing techniques, and therefore all can be said to have similar benefits. However, these benefits don't come without serious risk.

Breathing slowly and deeply, concentrating on every breath, has extreme effects on the body. It slows more than just the stress response; it slows down brain functioning altogether, causing the brain to behave very similarly to how it behaves while we're asleep. This slowed-down state makes us feel more than just relaxed; it also makes us highly suggestible. This is how guided imagery, hypnosis, and meditation work. Breathing this way brings about an altered state of mind (which, often, is the very reason for doing it). Unfortunately, in this altered state of mind we're susceptible to influence from those around us.

If we chant mantras while in that altered state of mind, those mantras have a de-Christianizing effect on our soul. If we're in the company of non-Christians, such as Yogis or Zen masters, their teachings will have the same impact. The holy fathers remind us, also, that those "around us" need not be human. The blessed Father Seraphim Rose points out that this altered state of mind causes us to be confused about bodiless powers—we can easily mistake demons for angels. (This is why it's so dangerous to search for spiritual enlightenment through meditation; demons could be the ones "enlightening" us.) When we pair mental images with our deep breathing, it becomes even more dangerous. Guided imagery is a form of hypnosis, and the very purpose of hypnosis is to make us suggestible. And again, we're not just suggestible to the influence of the people around us at the time. We're also suggestible to the work of demons.

The spiritual risks of deep breathing exercises are too dangerously heavy to ignore. But even if there weren't any spiritual risks, any potential physical benefits are sorely limited. While deep breathing might serve to relieve stress in the moment, its effects don't last. It might succeed at dialing down our stress level when it's at its peak, but it does nothing to prevent the stress response from engaging again and again in the future. That's because breathing does nothing to prevent stress. We have to remember that the stress response is a physiological reaction to a stressor. As long as that stressor is still present, the stress response will continue to kick in over and over again, each time we come face-to-face with the stressor, and each time we even so much as think of it.

That's the problem with other popular stress-relief treatments, too. They treat the symptoms of stress, but not the underlying cause. If one of our symptoms of stress is that we can't sleep, there are many medications that can knock us out for the entire night—but we'll need to take them every night if we want their effects to continue. Moreover, when we wake in the morning, whatever stressors were bothering us the night before will usually still be there when the sun comes up. Even worse, sleep aids carry a strong risk of dependency, both chemical and psychological.

There are other medications we can take besides sleep aids. We can self-medicate for anxiety, physical pain, high blood pressure, heartburn, depression, fatigue, and any of the other side effects of the stress response. We can also use herbal remedies to do the same. We can also try massage or acupuncture to ease our pain, aromatherapy to improve our mood, and anything else we can think of—but not a single one of these efforts helps to remove the stressor. All these efforts do, at best, is put a dent in the symptoms brought on by stress. The stress will still be present, and the symptoms will continue to emerge. All the while, the body's prolonged exposure to stress will continue to take its toll, regardless of whether or not we treat the symptoms.

Some people even pray for God to relieve their stress, and they're surprised when that doesn't seem to work well, either. God answers prayers, but not always in the way we want or expect. If we pray for God to help us feel less stressed, but not to help us remove or deal with what's causing that stress in the first place, we're being unreasonable. It's like banging ourselves in the head with a hammer, but begging God not to let it hurt.

Killing stress before it kills you.

There's only one surefire way to beat the stress response. We have to attack it where it begins—at the stressor. God gave us the stress response to alert us to danger and to help us get away from it; there's no way to disable that process. It's a good thing. It's meant to help us. So if we don't like the stress response, we have to stop it before it starts. The only way to do that is to deal with the very things that set it in motion.

This is where prayer is both helpful and necessary.

Let's return to the story of the lady whose child is dying. She's obviously frazzled, and it's no surprise why—she doesn't want to lose her son. But nothing she's doing is helping to keep him alive or free of pain, especially not her worrying. In fact, her worrying is causing a great deal of harm. As far as her boy is concerned, her worrying has resulted in repeated treatment attempts that haven't helped but only made the poor child's suffering worse. She's afraid he’ll die, but she's also apparently afraid to trust that his life is in God's hands, that God is watching over all of them and will give them exactly what they need. As far as her own soul is concerned, it's not a good thing that she doesn't trust God.

It's a natural response to want to try and take control over the situation, but this situation is already beyond anyone's control. It's a natural response, but a sinful one, a result of our fallen human nature. This is not to say that the lady is in any way at fault for her suffering, but it is to say that she can do something to ease it. She can trust God. She can pray for Him to take care of her son, both now and in eternity. She can pray for God to ease the child's pain. She can pray for God to calm her worries, reminding her that everything is in His hands and that He knows what He's doing. But none of these prayers will help if she remains convinced that there's something she can do, or that the doctors can do with her permission, to continue treating the boy's symptoms. It's simply not working. All she's holding onto is a mistaken sense of control; there's nothing more that any mortal can do for the child at this point. Things will work out the way God wants no matter what, but she won't be able to deal with it as long as she's trying to hold onto something that she doesn't actually have—control.

Her body has prepared her to fight the situation, but she has no resources with which to fight—matters of life and death are God's business, not hers. Her body has also prepared her to run away, but she can't run away because it's her child involved. Her stress response isn't helping her here because she shouldn't feel stressed in the first place. She should feel other things—sad, confused, numb, a deep and profound love for her child—but she shouldn't feel stressed. Stress only helps in situations when we have the power to fight or flee. In this case, she can do neither. What she needs to do instead is to look at the situation differently. Instead of looking at it as stressful, implying that there's something she can do to overcome it, she needs to look at it as an opportunity to let God's will be done. We pray every day, Thy will be done, but at times like this we seem to want to back out of that prayer. We want our will to be accomplished. But again, we're not the ones in charge.

The man whose job is on the line is in a similarly stressful position. The context is completely different, but his anxiety is just as intense. He, too, is caught in a conundrum and doesn't know which is the best choice to make. If he looked at the situation differently, however, he would see that there's really only one right answer. The issue in question here is one of values. Assuming the value that the man's job won't let him uphold is a Christian one, if he's a Christian he has no choice but to "go with God." The Bible assures us that there will be trials in this life; what we do in the face of them is what counts, particularly with regard to issues of faith. What it comes down to, for this man, is a choice between a principle and personal gain. It's a question of whether to hold onto a deeply held belief or to a nice office, a big paycheck, and a career path that he likes. Would the choice be easier to make if he knew that another equally good opportunity was waiting just around the corner? Of course it would, but guarantees like that are hard to come by. God does promise certain things to the faithful and the righteous, but when harvest time comes, God looks to see who was, in fact, faithful and righteous. And what God promises to grant in those times isn't necessarily what we want; it will be what we need.

This man's faith and righteousness have been called into question. If he's a Christian, though, the question has only one right answer. If his beliefs really matter to him—if they're truly meaningful beliefs, then he has to make his decision according to them, even if it means sacrificing a job that was difficult for him to find, one that he enjoys very much, and one that pays his family's bills. Those things may be important to him too, but they're material things. God promises that the righteous won't go hungry (Proverbs 10:3). The man will find another job. Even if it's one he doesn't like as much or that doesn't pay as much, his family will still be fed. God promises this. If the man chooses to leave his job for the sake of upholding a Christian value, God will reward him greatly for it. It's a form of martyrdom.

The reason he feels stressed is because he's not looking at things this way. He's looking at the situation as a dilemma of whether to have his cake or whether to eat it. He's looking at it as though there are two equally weighted options, and his stress response kicks in to "help" him make the difficult choice. If he's a Christian, however, he shouldn't see the two options as equivalent. One is in line with God's will, and the other isn't. The choice should be easy to make. If he continues to work there despite his conscience telling him it's a mistake, he's going to continue to feel tension. As long as that internal tension exists, his body is going to remain highly reactive to it. The stress response will remain engaged until the stressor (the job) is removed. If he truly trusts God, God will help him through whatever difficulties quitting that job might bring.

As for the young woman in the unhealthy relationship, she too wants to have things both ways. She wants to remain in the relationship, but she wants the relationship to take on a character that's not its own. She's looking at the situation as though she has complete control over it, but she doesn't. She doesn't have the ability to make the man treat her differently. If he doesn't love her, she doesn't have the ability to make him love her. She doesn't deserve to be treated the way she's being treated, but there's nothing she can do to change that. All she can do is remove herself from the situation. What's causing her stress is the mistaken idea that she can change it. By activating the stress response, her body is preparing her for a difficult fight; unfortunately, it's a fight that she can't win, because there's another person involved, one with free will of his own, and there's nothing she can do to make him behave differently or feel differently. It's in his hands.

Fortunately, her stress response has also prepared her to escape. If this man makes her unhappy, she should want to escape. If he hurts her, whether emotionally or physically, then she needs to escape. In this sense, her stress is a good thing. It's letting her know that something is terribly wrong and that she needs to get out of the situation before it gets worse. Every time she returns to him, she reactivates her stress; every time she returns to him, her body prepares her for another fight. But this is no way to live.

What she needs to do is leave. Like the woman whose child might die, and like the man who won't have a job anymore, her decision is going to impact her life in a monumental way. She fears being alone, and it’s true that being alone is going to be difficult for her. What she's forgetting, though, is that God helps. God won't necessarily help her by turning her bad relationship into a good one, but if she leaves it, He certainly will help her to survive, to heal, and to move forward. But if she's not willing to do her part, God's help won't help her much. She can't fight the situation, so until she escapes it, which her body has prepared her to do and which God will help her to survive, her stress level will remain in overdrive. It's entirely up to her.

While these stories might not exactly match anything we're going through in our own lives, the lessons in them are still relevant to all of us.

An ounce of prevention.

There's a lot in life that we can't control. When things don't work out the way we want, it's not always our fault. Sometimes our desires simply don't match God's will, and sometimes we might not even understand why. But that doesn't mean we can't accept it.

Benjamin Franklin said: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. And such is the case with stress. If we devote our mental efforts toward accepting God's will, and our physical efforts toward fulfilling His will, we'll find that our stress response kicks in a lot less frequently. It's not difficult to follow Christ, Who tells us: Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matthew 11:29-30).

These aren't words that threaten us with added stress; these are words that promise to ease our stress. While following Christ means bearing a cross, it's a cross that He helps us to bear. It's not a cross that causes us stress. What causes us stress is when we don't pick up our God-given crosses, choosing instead to pick up even heavier crosses—crosses imposed on us by the world, by our desires, by other people, and even by demons. But this can all be prevented.

Carrying crosses that God hasn't given us doesn't make us noble; it only shows that we're trying to prove something. Maybe we're trying to prove something to ourselves, or maybe to someone else, but these efforts are in vain. All they do is cause us stress, because in the end, we often can't prove whatever we set out to prove. Often, we look back and realize that most of our stress was for nothing. It didn't help us, and it probably made many things worse than they needed to be.

We should concentrate, instead, on carrying the one cross that God has given us—this is the cross of Christ. If we bear this cross with humility and meekness, and with love for God and others, we'll never find ourselves in a situation that seems to have no way out. With eternity in sight, we'll never feel trapped. With God's help, we'll never feel helpless. With God's will as our guide, temptations won't defeat us, difficult decisions won't confuse us, and stress will never kill us.

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
— Philippians 4:6-7