The seasons of gratitude, joy and peace are upon us. The season when family and friends are welcomed; when meals are planned, prepared and enjoyed; when gifts are carefully considered and wrapped – but in addition to joy and peace, this season can also bring stress.
The Bible reminds us, in Philippians 4:6-7, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
We are given these verses to deal with stress, and as Christians, we make use of them. But I’d like to take a look at what scripture means when it says that through prayer and petition, the peace of God will guard your heart.
The heart is the primary organ that delivers blood to every cell in the body. To say that the heart is a workhorse is an understatement. During the course of the average lifetime of 70 years, the heart, a muscle no bigger than the size of your fist, pumps about 191,625,000 gallons of blood! That’s 2,000 gallons per day!
The Bible has much to say about the power of blood. “For the life of every creature is its blood: its blood is its life.” (Leviticus 17:14). The New Testament refers to “blood” more than 100 times.
So guarding one’s heart seems to be a spiritual command: to honor and preserve the precious gift of life.
Researchers have known for decades that stress causes the body to secrete hormones that can harm bodily function. Here is a little information about how the body reacts to stress: according to the Father of Stress Research, endocrinologist Hans Selye, M.D., Ph. D. (1907-1982), “reaction to stress is governed mainly by three tiny glands: the pituitary, which nestles under the brain, and the two adrenals, which sit on either side of the kidneys. Together they weigh only about a third of an ounce, yet the hormones they secrete have a huge influence on vital body functions.”
And in fact, these tiny glands are responsible for the survival of the entire human race!
Cavemen’s quick fight-or-flight instincts kept them alive another day to make cavebabies.
To think that the hormones that have ensured the existence of our race weigh just a third of an ounce! The study of biology is a never-ending discovery of God’s infinite, and fearful, creative genius.
Dr. Selye said, “The apparent cause of illness is often … nervous exhaustion or merely old age.” He continues, “Every stress leaves an indelible scar, and the organism pays for its survival after a stressful situation by becoming a little older.”
Nervous exhaustion is the condition resulting from too much or too prolonged stress.
Adrenaline is a powerful chemical, and as with every substance, the body must metabolize it. In order for it to leave the body, the molecules of adrenaline must be broken down, or oxidized. Oxygen-carrying blood is how this happens.
The heart pumps blood. Blood carries oxygen (and nutrients) to every cell. When a tough substance like adrenaline needs to be metabolized, more blood and oxygen are required.
The body naturally accommodates that need. The heart beats a little faster, breathing rate increases, vital organs may be slightly deprived of life-sustaining oxygen – these are the actual reasons why stress is harmful over time.
The following study is one more proof that stress causes chemical damage in the body. Joseph A. Boscarino, a senior scientist at the New York Academy of Medicine, used health data on Vietnam veterans collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 20 years after the men were discharged from military service.
The veterans who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder were three times more likely to have an autoimmune illness than veterans not experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder.
To recap: under normal conditions, the heart delivers oxygen-carrying blood to cells. Under stressful conditions, more oxygen is required to break down adrenaline. The heart must work harder, thus contributing to the nervous exhaustion, as cited by Dr. Selye.
How can we help our heart in its work for life? We already know those answers. Eat right. Exercise. Get enough sleep. Avoid smoking, excess alcohol and sugary beverages. Avoid stress. And be kind to your internal balance.
It’s a mystery, isn’t it? For the human race to survive, fight-or-flight hormones must be present. For the human race to survive, systems must be in place to overcome those potentially harmful hormones.
1 Timothy 6:17 NIV tells us “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.”
That enjoyment means welcoming friends and family, buying perfect gifts and wrapping them beautifully, planning, preparing and feasting on delicious food. So enjoy this season and care for your heart, while avoiding the stress that should not be a natural outcome of this season of fellowship and love.