March 09, 2009

The Good News About Stress

The Good News About Stress :Stress Studies Link Mental Health and Faith

Newsweek’s recent cover story on stress deserves a second look. After all the bad news we’ve had about the effects of stress on our health, this report offered some good news. It also has some starling implications for folks who have suffered a crisis of faith and how science may be able to help.

The Stress Reaction

It’s important to remember that our stress reaction is a survival hold over from pre-historic times, i.e. it’s the body’s reaction to a perceived threat.  Physiologically, stress reactions are accompanied by sharp increases in adrenaline and cortisol levels.  These hormones prepared us to fight by increasing our strength, speed, and concentration as well as our blood’s ability to clot.

The stress response can be a good thing when it is of short duration, e.g. when athletes get psyched up for the big game. Emotional as well as physical problems develop, however, when the levels stay up for a long time. Instead of quickening our abilities, long exposure to elevated stress hormones “fries” our neurons and destroys our judgment. The result is that everything feels like a crisis.  Anxiety, depression, angry outbursts as well as a number of psycho-physiological disorders often follow.

The new research also explains why not everyone responds to stressful situations in the same way. Part of the explanation may lie with an area of the brain called the hippocampus. This is the area of the brain which sorts out recent from long term memory and give us the capacity for judgment and perspective. It has been shown that long term exposure to high levels of stress hormones damages this region and greatly reduces our ability to distinguish the relative differences among life stressors. As a result of the damage everything feels like a crisis.  People who were abused as children, the victims of natural disasters or soldiers who have served in combat are examples of populations which experience the most brain damage.  

Even if you’re not in a high risk category the new research is important because it promises to provide a more precise diagnostic assessment of how bad our stress is. Further, the research shows that there are effective ways to repair the damage and restore hippocampus functioning. Brain scans may be able to determine the extent of the damage as well as measure its recovery. (Hmn … I wonder if they could  even be used to test a political candidates judgment ?)

Techniques for Reducing Stress

There are many techniques, such as psychotherapy, journaling, aerobic and breathing exercises as well as meditation and prayer which are helpful in reducing day to day stress and keeping it from getting out of hand. But here’s a surprise:

What seems to be the common factor in all these approaches is that they restore a sense of meaning to a person’s life. The studies revealed that those who recovered the most had both new hope for the future and an understanding and sense of their overall motivation for their lives. They were able to realize that, although they had endured severe pain and loss, neither they nor their sense of ultimate purpose was destroyed. 

Faith and Mental Health

It is fascinating to me as a therapist and minister that, in stressful times, the goals of psychological health and faith merge. Ultimately, a transcendent purpose emerges in those who recover from the ravages of stress.  By implication those who have lost faith may not simply be having a spiritual crisis but also may have experienced a reduction in hippocampus functioning.  I’m interested in future research which would explore the impact of stress therapies on faith. The findings of modern science confirm the ancient spiritual wisdom which understand the importance of hope and meaning in a fulfilled life. The unanswered question is, “ Can science help restore a broken faith ?”.

Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC prepared these remarks for Bridge Street   3 11 09

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