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Living in a Pressure Cooker

The pressure cooker is an amazing device.  We recently purchased one of the new models that are so popular of late.  It allows the cook to prepare a meal that would normally take hours, in just a matter of minutes.  The secret, of course, is the application of heat while subjecting the food to extreme pressure.  Stress can have the same result for us.  Research has indicated a strong relationship exists between sustained levels of stress and health concerns.  These health concerns range from the minimal such as lack of concentration and cognitive challenges to very serious effects such as heart attack, stroke, and even cancer.

Some types of stress are beneficial.  An example of beneficial stress is the excitement we experience when competing in a game of basketball.  The benefit of this type of stress is that it exercises the body in a healthy way (one that absorbs the chemicals exerted – more on that in a minute) while encouraging our competitiveness and increasing our metabolism.  The corresponding exercise dumps a magnificent chemical compound called endorphins that provide a feeling of happiness.

Stress becomes harmful when it is prolonged and the body does not respond effectively to it.  For instance, constant deadlines, the driver that just cut us off, and pressure to meet expectations may produce harmful stress if we don’t respond properly to it.  Why is it so harmful?  When we experience stress, our body does some amazing things.  In response to stress, our body releases a number of chemicals including one you may have heard of called cortisol.  These chemicals dilate the blood vessels and send blood rushing to the large organs such as our arms and legs.  This is to prepare us for the famous fight or flight response.

To get this blood to the large organs, the heart must beat much faster and the vessels must constrict (think of putting your finger over the end of a garden hose) and then turning up the water pressure.  In moderate frequency and quantity, the increased blood flow through the restricted veins does not are present a problem.  However, when exposed to this repeatedly or for prolonged durations, the body begins to experience the harmful effects of this increased pressure.  An abundance of cortisol production is also associated with increased fat storage (resulting in weight gain) and the formation of plaque in the arteries.

Yep… scary stuff … so, how do we prevent this unhealthy stress?  The truth is, stress is out there, and it’s a magnet… like Liam Nieson in the movie “Taken”, it will find you.  To deal with unhealthy stress effectively, you need a two-pronged approach.

  • First, when you feel this type of stress coming on, acknowledge it for what it is… unhealthy stress.  Acknowledge that there is no benefit of unhealthy stress and commit to eliminating that stress right then.
  • Next, implement an effective stress outlet — your pressure relief valve.

Of course, it’s best if you have your pressure relief valve in place and ready before the next bout of unhealthy stress comes your way.  What does a pressure relief valve look like?  They aren’t like the pressure relief valves you might see on your water heater.  Instead, they are disguised as a number of everyday activities such as

  • Deep breathing exercises
  • Writing in a journal
  • Physical exercise
  • Prayer and mediation
  • Talking with a trusted friend.

These are only a few of the emotional pressure relief valves available.  If you find that the stress is beyond your current abilities to manage, reach out to a helping professional such as a counselor.  They will be able to work with you to find appropriate stress outlets and help you understand how to use them effectively.

Once you have your pressure relief valve in place, it is a matter of continuing to use it whenever the magnetic properties of stress head your way.  The next time the driver in front of you changes lanes without warning, you will be prepared to release the pressure without experiencing harmful effects.  Or, to paraphrase the children’s song, “… when I get all steamed up, then I’ll shout.  Just tip me over and pour me [the stress] out!”

How do you blow off steam when you are stressed?

“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed”
– II Corinthians 4:8-9

Encourage, Elevate, Empower

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