When the Dog Bites

That the birds of worry and care fly over your head, this you cannot change, but that they build nests in your hair, this you can prevent. Chinese Proverb

Rae Lee Cooper is a registered nurse. She and her husband, Lowell, have two adult married children and three adorable grandchildren. She spent most of her childhood in the Far East and then worked as a missionary with her husband in India for 16 years. She enjoys music, creative arts, cooking, and reading.

IT WAS AN ORDINARY-LOOKING LETTER with no return address. Full of questions, she opened it and began to read. Then she sat down in despair.

It had been an emotionally challenging and lonely week. Being a busy pastor’s wife certainly had its ups and downs. This letter, full of harsh criticism of her, her husband’s ministry, and their children, was a heavy blow that sent her already low spirits spinning further into a downward emotional free fall.

Life can be amazing and wonderful, and then things can go wrong, taking a serious “bite” out of our self-confidence, coping skills, joy, and even faith. We can all relate to some of these vicious hits to an otherwise peaceful, tranquil life:

  • A sudden extra financial burden strikes the family.
  • The children are involved in problems at school, or in the neighborhood, or at church.
  • You lose your job or perhaps were overlooked for a more desirable position.
  • A supportive relationship turns against you with criticism and faultfinding.
  • The death of a much-loved friend or family member deeply affects you.
  • Your recent health checkup revealed some worrisome news.
  • You have had to move away from family and friends.

Often it seems that these big “bites” come when our emotional resources are already compromised by a buildup of lesser stresses. At such times, remembering “whiskers on kittens” and “bright copper kettles,” as the song “My Favorite Things” suggests, can fall short of helping us not feel “so bad.”

Our bodies were designed to aid in handling the little crises of daily living, as well as the periodic major hits. Mild, daily stress can elicit a physiological response that heightens our awareness and sharpens our focus, thus  aiding in problem-solving. Once the situation is under control and the stressor resolved, the mind and body can relax. However, there can be occasions when there is a continuation of even these mild stressors without a break, such as work overload, a series of disappointments, and family challenges. This results in a buildup of tension and the corresponding wearing down of physical and emotional coping ability.

When the brain receives an actual or perceived threat of danger, an alert signal is sent to all body systems. Instantly a powerful chemical is released that stimulates the body to prepare for fight or flight. There is a corresponding rise in respiratory rate, heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tightness. We are ready to take action.

However, when we’re faced with a major life-altering threat on top of a current buildup of ongoing stress, the physiological coping ability of body and brain can become overloaded and begin to show warning signs of emotional breakdown or the onset of chronic health conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, depression, and other problematic health conditions.

Be aware of these and other warning signs.

Emotional and cognitive symptoms:
1. A decrease of patience, mood control, and ability to focus—easily agitated
2. Low self-esteem accompanied by sadness and despair
3. Decreased interest in the normal activities of daily living such as getting out of bed in the morning, caring for personal hygiene, dressing appropriately, etc.
4. Feeling overwhelmed and incapable of managing responsibilities
5. Neglecting healthful lifestyle practices such as regular exercise, good nutrition, and adequate sleep
6. Unwillingness to associate with people socially, including attending church gatherings
7. Expressed decreased trust and faith in God

Physical symptoms:
1. Tiredness and low energy level
2. Headaches and muscle pains
3. Rapid pulse and chest pains
4. Increase in colds and infections
5. Inability to sleep or relax
6. Gastric symptoms, including upset stomach, diarrhea, constipation, and pain
7. Nervous behaviors such as nail biting and restless pacing

Anyone feeling overwhelmed by stress should talk to their doctor first. Symptoms of stress can occasionally be signs of other health problems. A good physical exam can help rule out contributing health conditions and lead to appropriate treatment. The doctor can also recommend a therapist or counselor if needed to aid in problem-solving and stress resolution.

You can also help your mind and body handle stress better by following some of the suggestions below.

  • Eat good food. Replace caffeine, sugars, and processed high-fat foods with a simple diet of plant-based whole foods such as fresh fruit, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and nuts.
  • Get moving. A quick way to melt away tension and stress is by releasing those feel-good endorphins through exercise. Take a walk, join an exercise group or a gym, or go biking, and notice the difference in your mood. As much as possible get outside in the sunshine and fresh air when exercising.
  • Get adequate sleep. Stress affects good sleep. Lack of enough sleep makes one ill-prepared to effectively handle stress. Getting enough daily exercise will aid in encouraging restful sleep. Try relaxation techniques and disconnect from technology as much as possible at least an hour before bedtime to help the body relax.
  • Take deep breaths. We often forget how healing deep breathing can be to the body by decreasing blood pressure, slowing heart rate, and easing stress levels. Deep breathing several times daily can help you relax and stay calm.
  • Rely on your support system. Many retreat into solitude when things go wrong. Leaning on friends and family instead can provide listening ears, comfort, reassurance, and acceptance, all of which greatly aid in encouraging emotional healing and a return to clearer thinking and normal living.
  • Get outside of yourself. Volunteer. Join a craft or art class. Learn a new skill or musical instrument. Join a book club. Adopt a pet. Engaging in something new and different will increase your enjoyment of life while decreasing your focus on problems.
  • Count your blessings. Changing the focus of your thoughts from all that has gone wrong to what is right and positive in life can encourage a more balanced thinking process. Ellen White said, “Nothing tends more to promote health of body and of soul than does a spirit of gratitude and praise” (The Ministry of Healing, p. 251). When we focus our thoughts on being thankful, we open our hearts to heaven’s peace provided by a loving Creator.

Dealing with stress is a normal part of life. However, even simple annoyances can build up when our defenses are compromised by such things as lack of sleep, loneliness, or episodes of perceived failure. Knowing the warning signs, keeping focused on healthful lifestyle habits, leaning on our support system, and maintaining faith in a loving heavenly Father will lighten the load and lead forward toward joy, peace, and a healed spirit.

Rae Lee Cooper is a registered nurse. She and her husband, Lowell, have two adult married children and three adorable grandchildren. She spent most of her childhood in the Far East and then worked as a missionary with her husband in India for 16 years. She enjoys music, creative arts, cooking, and reading.