After nearly four straight years of too much stress, too little sleep, practically zero exercise, and way too much travel, my body had finally had enough. Over the course of one painfully long year, I battled the flu, two rounds of strep throat, bronchitis, walking pneumonia, an ear infection, and multiple urinary tract infections.
My body was telling me, in no uncertain terms, that it was all too much for me, and I was mentally and spiritually exhausted as well. My relationships with everyone, including God, were suffering. And yet, I couldn’t stop. I wanted to be everything to everyone—Super Mom, Super Wife, Super Blogger, Super Friend, Super Christian—despite the signs that were obvious to everyone but me.
Something had to give.
I wish I could point to a dramatic turning point that changed everything overnight, but balance and wellness don’t really work that way. I finally just got sick and tired of being sick and tired all the time. And while it took me a really long time to even acknowledge the problem at all, it has also taken a very long time to begin to correct it, to cut out the unhealthy habits in my life in favor of incorporating healthy ones. It’s a process I am still figuring out, and one I will probably have to work at for the rest of my life.
Before I continue, let me just state for the record that I am by no means an expert on health and wellness or stress management. I have no background in nutrition. I am not a sleep expert. I am not a doctor. Nor have I mastered the art of balance.
I am a blogger, wife, mom, and author. I struggle with working too much, sleeping too little, not taking time off, and trying to keep my own stress level under control. I don’t eat as healthily as I could or as I know I should. All I can share is what I’ve learned along the way, as well as a little of what has worked for me.
Addressing Stress Triggers
To begin the journey of finding balance and wellness, we must first identify what’s triggering our stress. Balance in our day-to-day lives is passive, only happening once we are willing to stop doing and start resting, but the act of eliminating the obvious stressors in our life must be active. Reducing our exposure to the things that cause stress is something that each of us can and should work on. Our health depends on it.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. The things that cause the greatest degree of stress will vary greatly from person to person and from season to season. However, as a Christian woman, I can generally count on the following three forms of stress:
- Emotional stress. This type of stress comes from a trauma or severe emotional blow—betrayal, abuse, an accident or catastrophe, as well as guilt over something we did (or didn’t do). It can involve extreme feelings of sadness, remorse, loneliness, grief, fear, anxiety, or even depression.
- Physical stress. This type of stress comes from activities that are physically taxing or exhausting, such as travel, physical labor, long work hours, and the care of babies. Lack of sleep or exercise contributes to physical stress, as do poor eating habits and addictions to tobacco, alcohol, or drugs.
- Spiritual stress. This may be one of the most overlooked sources of stress. For Christians living in an increasingly secular culture in which traditional beliefs often run counter to political correctness, this stress can manifest itself as shame, guilt (real or false), selfishness, rebellion, or even distancing oneself from God and living out of sync with the way the Bible says we should live.
The reality is that stress can often become a vicious cycle of cause and effect. We feel stressed about one thing, which causes us to sleep less, stop exercising, or work nonstop, which in turn compounds our stress even more. The more stressed we feel, the more it affects everything else around us. The only way to reduce the stress—or eliminate it altogether—is to make conscious healthy choices, even when we really don’t feel like it.
As Christian women, we tend to elevate our spiritual lives above all other areas, though I’ve found them to be completely intertwined. If we want to see change in one area, we need to make a concerted effort in the others. And in the same vein, positive change in our spiritual lives will create positive change in other areas as well.
When I struggled with depression, I was much more likely to eat junk food instead of cooking a healthy meal. When returning from a hectic week of travel, I am much less likely to wake up and attend church on Sunday. If my spiritual routine gets out of whack (Sunday mornings, daily prayer times, Bible study, and so on), my home life and sleep cycle soon follow. And so the cycle continues.
In my own battle to combat stress, I’ve tried to focus on three distinct areas: sleep, exercise, and downtime. Each has had a profound impact on improving my health, healing my immune system, and keeping my stress level down. And while you may think it’s just one more thing to add to your schedule, attending weekly church services does a remarkable job of relieving stress as well.
A well-rested brain is happier, healthier, and more productive; it’s better equipped to handle stress, regardless of where the stress comes from. Sleep changes our perspective. It is the magic bullet and the miracle cure to excess stress. And Scripture has a lot to say about it as well:
“I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the LORD sustains me.” (Psalm 3:5)
“In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, LORD, make me dwell in safety.” (Psalm 4:8)
“In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat—for [God] grants sleep to those he loves.” (Psalm 127:2)
“When you lie down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet.” (Proverbs 3:24)
Strive to get the sleep you need. Create a bedtime ritual, be consistent with your bedtime, avoid screens and caffeine before bed, and keep a record of your sleep cycles.
Modern life has made it far too easy for most of us to become almost completely sedentary. The average American spends 9.3 hours sitting each day. This lack of movement not only compounds our stress levels but is downright dangerous to our health as well. To get moving without running five miles a day or conquering P90X, try to work standing up, taking a walk every day, stretching frequently throughout the day, or using a pedometer. These seemingly small things will make a big difference in the way you feel day to day, and in the way you handle stress.
This one is often the hardest to conquer in a world that is constantly calling us to do something, wearing our packed calendars as a badge of honor. But we have to combat the culture of busy in favor of wellness and balance. I start with my calendar and actually plan to do nothing on the weekends (pencil it in!), set a limit on the number of activities our family does each week, and extend ourselves lots of grace when our life may not mirror the highlight-reel-expectations of social media. And much like sleep, Scripture has a few things to say about rest and downtime:
“The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul.” (Psalm 23:1–3)
[Jesus said,] “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)
A number of scientific studies have also proven that going to church has incredible health and wellness benefits. We crave connection and interaction with others, and we long for a place to belong—a community of people who care about us and accept us just as we are. Church fills that need, and it also usually involves prayer, quiet meditation, and music, all of which can help a person feel more relaxed and bring her blood pressure down.
Some studies have even proven that those who attend weekly religious services have a significantly lower risk of depression, better time and life management skills, better grades, a longer life expectancy, and even better sex lives than their non-churchgoing counterparts.
The Power of Small Changes
Finding balance in a chaotic world is not always about eliminating stress completely, but it is sometimes about the way we handle it. If we work hard to change the small things we can control, we will in turn become much better at responding to and handling the things we cannot control. While there’s no quick fix to finding balance and maintaining wellness in this chaotic life, I think we owe it to ourselves to put in the work and journey toward a more fulfilled, simplified life.
Ruth Soukup is a writer, mom of two girls, and wife to her husband of eight years. She’s the successful founder of LivingWellSpendingLess.com and is the author of Unstuffed and Living Well Spending Less. This article was adapted from Unstuffed by Ruth Soukup. Copyright © 2016 by Ruth Soukup. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.Zondervan.com. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2016 by the author and Today’s Christian Woman