by Beverly Ward
April 10, 2022
From Science: Were your great-great-grandparents ever “stressed”? Technically, no. Until the 1930s, “stress” did not exist as a recognized psychological or physiological concept. Hungarian born Endocrinologist Hans Selye gained world-wide recognition in the 1930s for introducing the concept of biological and psychological stress. Before his work, "stress" was known only as a physical principle (as in physics). Dr. Selye adopted “stress” to describe a unique syndrome he observed in his patients with varying medical diagnoses. He discovered that the "acute stress response" begins when the brain recognizes a stressor and signals the autonomic nervous system to increase release of hormones, including adrenalin and noradrenalin, into the blood stream. This chain of events has become known as the fight or flight response, so named because, on primitive level, we are "deciding" whether to fight or flee. Mentally, we make very rapid assessments of the situation to determine, sometimes outside of our conscious awareness, whether this threat is best handled by staying and fighting or by running to safety. Physiologically, our bodies respond in ways intended to ready us to deal with the perceived threat. We may experience increased heart rate, increased blood-pressure, rapid breathing, trembling, and/or dilated pupils. Once the fight or flight response is triggered, it can take up to an hour for the body to return to a state of normalcy.
There is currently some disagreement within the field of psychology about the proposed renaming of the "fight or flight response" to the "fight-flight-freeze response”. I side with those who make a distinction that "freezing" is not part of a stress response but rises to the level of a traumatic response. This is an important distinction to make. There is a difference between an acute stress response and a traumatic response. In this article, we are talking about stress, not trauma.
Most of us think of stress as harmful and to be avoided, and that is partially true, but there is more to the story. Behavioral science tells us that stress falls into two categories: eustress (stress that has a positive effect) or distress (stress that has a negative effect). While too much stress of either type can be unhealthy, eustress can also be beneficial, having the effects of increasing motivation, productivity, energy, and determination. Distress can cause discouragement, hopelessness, anxiety, and impaired creativity. According to Selye, “It’s not stress that kills us, it’s our reaction to it”. Consider the stressor of financial strain, it might threaten us into responses such as despair and avoidance or challenge us into gaining new skills for upward mobility. What makes stress either eustress or distress is all about our mind set (our thoughts and beliefs and our emotional and behavioral responses to them).
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) offers excellent tools to reshape our thinking in response to stressors, which, in-turn, reshapes our emotional and behavioral responses. When we come to view stress as acceptable, and even as a potentially useful tool, we begin to become psychologically equipped to harness its’ potential for benefit. Changing our thought habits takes time, and gains come through commitment and hard work. Therapy for unhelpful stress responses includes both the process of cognitive restructuring (changing the way we think) and learning strategies to manage emotions and behaviors.
From Scripture: Scripture makes it clear that stressors are an inescapable part of this life. "In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world (John 16:33, NIV)." Notice God does not say "you might have trouble", or "if you make bad choices, you will have trouble", rather He says, "you WILL have trouble". It is a given.
There are many verses and narrative examples in scripture that teach us the utility of stress. One of them is found in the process of transforming shafts of wheat into seed suitable for nourishment, this happens in two phases: threshing and winnowing. Sheaves of wheat are harvested, gathered, and brought to the threshing floor, a place either indoors or outside with a hard floor or a stone against which the stalks of wheat are beaten (threshed). Threshing (applying stress) breaks off the chaff, a hard outer husk, from the seed, leaving a pile of mixed, broken pieces on the floor. The harvester then uses a tool, such as a pitchfork, to lift a shovel full of broken pieces and toss them into the air (winnowing). As wind meets wheat, the chaff becomes air born and blows away, and the heavier seed is pulled, by gravity, back to the ground. Winnowing is repeated until the seed is purified. With each toss into the wind, more impurities take flight and a more highly refined, usable seed returns to the ground. On a psychological parallel, threshing and winnowing could be seen as a process of allowing stress to separate the desirable pieces of ourselves from the “chaff” and of "lifting and tossing" the broken pieces to allow release of the bad and refinement of the good.
What is your threshing floor? Is it an illness? an addiction? a divorce? the loss of a job? a broken relationship? financial difficulties? Could the stress of your burden be the force that allows the breaking off of those parts that are just not working for you? Could you develop the tools to “lift and toss” your broken pieces for the removal of what does not serve you well?
Action Plan: This week’s action plan is to do a little winnowing by giving ourselves permission to talk about our burdens to a trusted person. Research shows that talking about distress, even if you don’t find a solution to the problems, causes release of hormones that reduce stress’ negative effects. I wonder, as we talk it out, is our breath the wind that blows away the chaff? Surely The Wind, the Holy Spirit, carries off what only His supernatural breath has the power to move.
A look at winnowing
The Wind by Kari Jobe