You’re driving your car late at night, and the journey has been long. You’ve still got a couple of hours left on the road before you can snuggle between the sheets of your warm bed. You’re tired—bone tired—and the monotony of the road is almost more than you can bear. “If I could just sleep for a moment,” you say to yourself. “If I could just close my eyes and rest, I’d be fine.”
Then something happens that should not. The car is still traveling at freeway speed, your hands are still gripping the wheel, the radio is still playing a popular tune, but you aren’t aware of it. You’ve become a passenger in your own car—a car with a sleeping driver.
Slowly, the car begins to drift. Your wheels inch across the white line painted along the shoulder, and bits of gravel begin pinging off the underside. But you don’t hear the gravel, just as you don’t notice that the car is drifting toward the highway boundary fence off to the right.
The spinning tires of your vehicle slip onto the grooved lines of pavement that the highway department etches into the shoulder of most modern thoroughfares. Suddenly, there’s a loud rumble that jerks you awake. In that instant, you realize what’s happening. Immediately, you jerk your car back into the driving lane and stare at the road ahead, trying to calm your racing heart.
Let’s examine what happened inside your body the moment you heard the rumble and realized the danger.
When you were awake, the front part of your brain was in charge of your driving—the part where short-term memory, concentration, inhibition, and rational thought exist. However, when you were jerked awake by the sound of your car hitting the lines in the shoulder, your brain triggered the production and release of several powerful hormones that are designed to give you control of your actions by reflex action rather than by intentional choice. These hormones suppressed the front areas of your brain so that you could steer the car back onto the road without even thinking about it.
At the same time, your lungs began taking in more oxygen through rapid breathing. Your spleen discharged red and white blood cells, allowing the blood to transport more oxygen throughout your body. The blood flow through your body may have increased 300–400 percent, priming your muscles, lungs, and brain for instant reaction.
These instant hormones also suppressed certain aspects of your immune system, making infection fighters available to fight injury in places such as your skin, bone marrow, and lymph nodes. Fluids were diverted from nonessential locations like your mouth. Blood was carried away from your skin to support your heart and muscle tissues, and your digestive activity and other bodily functions temporarily shut down completely.
Now here’s the most dangerous part: at that stressful moment, your body was flooded with adrenaline. Adrenaline does a lot of good things, like make you move faster, jump higher, and generate strength you didn’t even know you had. And it also causes your blood to clot more readily. That isn’t a problem if—and this is an important if—you aren’t suffering from any form of heart disease.
But let’s say you’re a smoker or are overweight or don’t exercise much or that your diet is rich in fats and processed sugars. In addition, let’s say that you have a family history of heart disease, and perhaps you’ve been experiencing chest pains each time you climb a hill or do anything strenuous. These conditions are a setup for a heart attack, because they contribute to the production and buildup of plaque, which causes a narrowing of your arteries.
Now, along comes a stressor, like waking up in a speeding car and realizing that you’d been asleep at the wheel. Adrenaline floods your system, making your blood “sticky.” By chance, several tiny pieces of plaque get together and form a clot that begins traveling through your system until it reaches an area of restricted flow. That particular artery suddenly gets sealed. Blood, and the oxygen it carries, can’t get through. If this happens in your heart, you’ll have a heart attack. If it happens in your brain, you’ll have a stroke. And you’ll die right there in your car.
Did falling asleep at the wheel kill you? No. Was it the stress of suddenly waking up and realizing that you were in grave danger? Not exactly. What killed you is what you did or didn’t do that day, the day before, and the day before that. It was your lifestyle that made your heart stop that night as you hurried home along the dark, lonely stretch of highway. Stress—in this case emotional stress—was but a cog in the wheel.
So, emotional stress is bad, right? Well, not really. Stress gives you the ability to deal with dangerous situations. It was your unhealthy body that set you up for disaster. It was your lifestyle that created the unstable arena where stress became your worst enemy.
Stress isn’t all bad. In fact, some stress is necessary for health. However, life sometimes involves us in prolonged stressful situations we can’t avoid. If you have symptoms of this excessive stress—sleepless nights, acid stomach, frequent headaches—try the following 12-step stress reduction suggestions developed by Connie Stetler, a personal trainer in Houston, Texas. She works with business people who carry a large load of stress, and her suggestions make a lot of health sense.
STEP ONE: Take at least six deep breaths each day. Taking those six deep breaths will relax your body and clear your mind.
STEP TWO: Enjoy three to four cardiovascular workouts per week. That means workouts that get your heart pumping. A brisk walk or a climb up and down several flights of stairs should do the trick.
STEP THREE: Give away a dozen kisses per day to children or a favorite pet (you can blow them to the pet). The operative word here is give. We humans tend to be takers. But when we give, we’re mentally relieving some of our pent-up stress.
STEP FOUR: Take part in two or three weight-training sessions per week. Weight training means weight resistance— lifting, moving, straining your muscles—a few minutes each session
STEP FIVE: Sleep eight hours per night.
STEP SIX: Eat nine servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Fruits and vegetables are like tasty, healing medicines. Meats and processed foods simply aren’t.
STEP SEVEN: Say No twice a day to something that would stress you out. Saying No is a whole lot less stressful than saying Yes and then becoming overworked or burned out.
STEP EIGHT: Think ten positive thoughts per day. Being positive— even thinking positively—is a wonderful stress reducer, allowing a touch of hope to enter your overburdened mind.
STEP NINE: Let yourself laugh really hard five times per day. Scientists are discovering that, as the wise man said, laughter truly is a good medicine (Proverbs 17:22). It relieves tension, improves muscle tone, and increases the circulation of the blood.
STEP TEN: Sit alone quietly for a few minutes one to two times per day. Remind yourself that you have a heavenly Father who cares for you.
STEP ELEVEN: Drink eight glasses of water per day. Notice Ms. Stetler didn’t say fruit juice, soda pop, or even soy milk. She said water. Why? Because water is a basic ingredient for good health. Pure, unadulterated water cleans, lubricates, and flushes toxins from your body. It’s like taking an internal bath!
STEP TWELVE: Remind a loved one of your love at least one time each day. Expressions of love can calm the stressful heart. Why do you think Jesus spent so much time telling people that they were loved?
Finally, remember that stress is a necessary part of living. Dying from it doesn’t have to be.