Coping with Stress in the New Year

Jan 17, 2005 05:48 PM EST

People have always said constant stress produces premature aging, but now it's official and no longer simply folk wisdom. According to a recent article in Time magazine, a new study reported on by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says chronic stress can damage the DNA of the immune-system cells "in a way that speeds up the aging process."

Elissa Epel, a psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco, and her colleague Elizabeth Blackburn, a biochemist, worked with a team of psychologists and biologists to perform the study. They recruited 58 women ranging from 20 to 50 years in age, 39 of who were the primary caregivers for a child that was seriously ill; the rest had healthy children. After performing a standard test on the mothers to determine their stress levels in the previous month, the results showed women who reported the worst stress "had shorter telomeres -- bits of DNA that cap the ends of chromosomes. In lab experiments, scientists have shown that telomeres get a bit smaller every time a cell divides, and that when telomeres are worn out, cells can't divide anymore and ultimately die. In humans, older people tend to have shorter telomeres -- and by this measure, the most stressed women in the study had cells that looked 10 years older than their chronological age."

The test also revealed the most stressed women in the study had lower levels of telomerase, an enzyme that repairs damaged telomeres, and higher levels of free radicals, a reactive molecule that damages DNA.

Doctors Frank Minirth and Paul Meier, and Stephen Arterburn of the Minirth Meier New Life Clinics define stress as "any external influence that disturbs the natural functioning and internal equilibrium of the mind and body." "Stress," they add, "is produced by major changes in life or emotional disturbances (such as relocation, a job change, grief and loss, or major financial changes), disease, physical injury, or prolonged demands on one's mental or physical endurance. Our minds and bodies are amazingly designed by God to withstand a great deal of stress. However, if the stress persists for too long, or if the nature of stress is too extreme and intense, the stress management systems of the body become overwhelmed .... Just as a racing engine will eventually rattle apart if it is constantly revved up and never maintained or allowed to rest, the human body and mind will inevitably rattle apart if placed under constant stress."

It's clear that stress is a killer. The question, however, is what can be done to reduce the ravages of stress? The only answer that Epel and Blackburn's study could offer was "the prospect of some anti-aging medicine to protect cells." Fortunately, the Bible offers solutions that can be applied here and now.

The Scriptures teach that a critical step to effectively managing stress is to deal with any disobedience to God. Certainly not all stress is the result of disobedience. Nevertheless, a great catalyst for stress is living outside of God's moral and ethical standards. The farther one wanders from God's protective guidelines, the closer the individual moves toward a life of unrest. The Psalmist testified to this when he wrote: "My guilt has overwhelmed me like a burden too heavy for me to bear. My wounds fester and are loathsome because of my sinful folly. I am bowed down and brought very low; all day long I go about mourning. My back is filled with searing pain; there is no health in my body .... I confess my iniquity; I am troubled by my sin" (Ps. 38:4-7, 18).

A second biblical solution in managing stress is to stop being anxious about anything. Some say worrying can't be helped. But if that were so, Christ wouldn't have commanded: "Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear .... For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well" (Mt. 6:25, 32-33). It's as simple as the old cliché, "If you're worrying, you're not trusting God; and if you're trusting God, you're not worrying." Dr. James Montgomery Boice comments on Christ's command not to worry, saying: "In other words, make it your business to seek God's interest and follow His way and see if all of your physical needs do not come to you effortlessly and without any necessity on your part of being anxious about them." Now there's a stress reducer indeed!!!

Third, human beings are made in the image of God -- triune in nature. Man has a mind, body and soul -- the needs of which all three must be regularly addressed. Retreats -- times of refreshment -- are important for restoring the mind and body. Sleep is important in helping the brain to replenish essential biochemicals that help to cope with stress. Physicians say exercising just 20 minutes three times a week can significantly help in releasing physical and emotional tension, enhancing circulation, and helping one to feel better.

Moreover, one's spiritual side needs to be quickened and maintained as well. People without a personal relationship with Christ as Savior and Lord need to begin by straightening out the matter of their salvation first. Afterward, a quiet place should be chosen where one spends a few minutes each day alone with God in Scripture reading and prayer. Archbishop Trench once said: "In a world where there is so much to ruffle the spirit's plumes, how needful that entering into the secret of God's pavilion, which will alone bring it back to composure and peace!"

Dr. James Dobson tells a humorous story about Bill Klem, a famous National League umpire. Klem was well known for hesitating a moment before signaling a ball or a strike when calling a game. One day a hotshot young pitcher, after throwing a crucial pitch, got irritated with Klem and yelled at him, "Come on, Bill. What is it?" Klem immediately pulled off his facemask, stared the kid down, and yelled back, "It ain't nuthin' till I call it!" "Well, that's kind of the way it is in life," says Dobson. "We can't stop the curveballs from coming our way, but we do get the privilege of deciding what to call them."

Stress in life is inevitable, but calling the shots by choosing how to respond is within everyone's power. Few greater New Year's resolutions could be made than to commit to effectively dealing with the pressures that can drive one toward an early grave.

Rev. Mark H. Creech

Christian Post Columnist