Picture a grown man—husband, father, college professor—lying in his bed. The lights are off and the shades drawn, even though it is the middle of the day. On one side sits his wife, trying to get him to eat a little cherry Jell-O. On the other side are his in-laws, holding his hands and praying for him. His body is shaking and all his muscles ache, like symptoms of a severe flu. When he sits up, his head pounds and the room spins as if he’s just stepped off a Tilt-A-Whirl at the county fair. Too weak to walk, he has to drape an arm over someone to limp down the hallway.
This sounds like a description of a terminally ill patient, but it’s not. This was me just over a year ago. I was confined to bed for seven long weeks, unable to keep food down, losing weight daily, and too weak to function. I was forced to take a medical leave from the university while my wife, distraught over my condition, ran the house, cared for our three children, and tried to keep me from withering away. She wore a strong face, but she was being stretched to her limits.
For nearly two months the doctors were stumped. I was the “healthiest sick man” they’d seen, more than one of them said. Test after test came back negative: infectious diseases, endocrinology, oncology. The more negative test results I received, the more my condition deteriorated.
Finally, a kind, soft-spoken specialist suggested that he had seen similar symptoms in patients suffering from chronic stress.
At first, I didn’t want to believe that was a possibility. It felt to me as if he was saying, “It’s all in your head, pal. Just get over it.” But I knew too well that the symptoms were very real, very biological. I’m a scientist. So there had to be a biological explanation, right?
Out of options and feeling like I was running out of time, I took his recommendation and checked into the psychiatry department, where I was quickly diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder caused by chronic stress.
I was prescribed a short-term intervention medication that would settle down the part of the brain called the sympathetic nervous system, which responds to stressful situations, the so-called fight-or-flight response. Within 12 hours I felt better than I had in more than 50 days. I finally had a diagnosis and a path forward.
Over the ensuing months, with the help of counselors, classes on stress management, dramatic behavioral changes, medication, and lots of prayer, I gradually climbed out of the pit, returned to work, and got on track to a full recovery.
I have often marveled that my brain could beat me up so severely, but it did.
Anxiety and depression are the twin daughters of unchecked, chronic stress. When stress is allowed to ferment day after day, week after week, without some changes in our lifestyle or implementation of coping strategies, our sympathetic nervous system gets irritated and begins firing as if we were living in a war zone with danger around every corner. Alternatively, it can plunge us into a deep sadness that defies explanation.
A Bear in the Camp
Years ago I was solo camping in Sequoia National Park. It was a warm September evening, so I was sleeping on the ground without a tent—when a large black bear bumbled into my campsite in search of food or water. Immediately, my heart began pounding as if it were going to jump out of my chest and run off into the woods. My breathing became rapid and my hands turned clammy and sweaty. My sympathetic nervous system was doing its job, getting me ready to duke it out with a bear or possibly outrun him across the mountains: fight-or-flight.
About 20 feet away, the bear abruptly turned his head and made eye contact with me, raising my alert level another notch. As he swung around and began trotting toward my prone body, which must have looked like a queer log lying on the forest floor (or maybe a carne asada burrito wrapped up in a sleeping bag tortilla), I knew the time had come to make a decision. Since running from a bear is probably the stupidest thing you could ever do, I did the only thing I thought might work: I jumped out of my bag, arms high over my head, yelling and screaming like a banshee.
The startled bear stopped in his tracks and immediately ran in the opposite direction.
I spent the rest of that night with a flashlight in hand, checking every crack of a twig, every crunch of a leaf, certain the bear was going to come back with his buddies to teach me a lesson.
My sympathetic nervous system executed its job perfectly that night under the sequoias. But when we let stress, worry, hopelessness, and hyper-busyness accumulate in our lives, it’s as if there is a bear on the loose, roaming freely inside our house, sitting next to us in the car, and sharing our cubicle at work. Our nerves are on high alert continuously, without a rest, anticipating the next crisis. We simply can’t live like this, at least not for very long. We have to chase the bear back into the woods.
Who Let in the Bear?
There was a bear on the loose in my life, keeping me on high alert—and I wasn’t sure how it got in. When I finally took a step back to look at the overwhelming list of responsibilities and other stressors in my life, I quickly saw they fell into two broad categories: those completely out of my hands and those over which I had some level of control, or at least influence.
We all know that sometimes stuff just happens through no fault of our own: natural disasters, an unfaithful spouse, a wayward child, the loss of a job, or a market crash. I reasoned that I was simply the victim of bad luck; the perfect storm had stirred up against me.
The easiest place for me to put the blame was my career. The workload of a college professor can feel overwhelming at times: courses to prep, teach, and improve; scholarly work to maintain; papers and grant proposals to write; and committees to serve.
And if that wasn’t enough, I was applying for tenure—a frightening “up-or-out” prospect. There just weren’t enough hours in the day to get it all done, and not enough of me to go around.
Another stressor was my fixer-upper home that was always in a state of fixer-uppering. And since the family budget was tight (another major stressor), I was doing all the work myself. Evenings and weekends, when I should have been playing catch with the kids or watching football on the couch, were spent installing flooring or running new electrical circuits throughout the house. I was living beyond my capacity.
Then there was the overachiever in me who couldn’t distinguish between striving for excellence and perfectionism. When is a lecture or class activity good enough? Should I even use the phrase good enough? Isn’t that just an excuse for not doing my best? How much preparation should I put into my Bible study lesson? Am I even qualified to teach a Bible study? How many books should I read each month on parenting? I know I’m going to screw up my kids if I don’t stay on top of the latest advice!
In the midst of these stressors, already living at my very limits, the unthinkable happened. Within two months, I lost my step-brother, Jason, and my good friend, Mike, both to cancer. I was done. I broke.
Chasing the Bear Back into the Woods
One of the most important revelations came a couple of months after the anxiety diagnosis; when I was truly honest with myself, I had to confess that many of the burdens I faced each day were in fact self-imposed. Without even realizing it, I had developed a set of unhealthy habits while neglecting healthy ones. As an overachiever, I was putting far more effort into nearly everything I was doing than what was called for. Every day I was setting the bar ever higher—and setting myself up for failure. At the same time, I made excuses for not exercising, eating right, or resting enough. Bad habits were winning and I was losing.
Apparently, I was the one who had let the bear loose in my life.
There is good news: when we admit much of the craziness in our lives is actually due to our own decisions, it puts us back in the driver’s seat. I was empowered to make changes, to say “no,” to set realistic goals and standards. And to recommit myself to healthy habits.
I started by honestly evaluating my to-do list and eliminating things that were not 100 percent essential. This is easier said than done. Is the extra study session I’m offering to my students essential? What about the grant proposal due next month? This triage was the first and most important step in the process of reclaiming my life from chronic stress.
I went straight to work on my emotional habits. I started by learning to give myself grace with regard to my performance at work, church, and home. I use the word should much less often and have embraced the phrase good enough. When I catch myself ruminating over past events or obsessing on the future, I bring myself back to the present, the only moment that actually exists. I am also investing more in relationships with colleagues and friends. Diving into the neurobiology science literature, I have discovered the central role of physical health in maintaining good mental health. There is strong scientific evidence that all forms of exercise promote mental health through long-term desensitization of the sympathetic nervous system, and activation of its counterpart, the parasympathetic system. My local YMCA now has another member.
My mother always nagged me about eating healthy and getting enough rest. I now see how right she was. Sufficient sleep (by the way, coffee ≠ sleep) is critical for resetting the brain to cope with each day’s new challenges. Likewise, a healthy diet low in carbs (especially refined sugars) and saturated fats gives you the best chance at good mental health. In fact, caffeine and sugar are known to exacerbate stress and anxiety and should be minimized. My daily latte and cookie have been hard to give up, but the payoff is well worth it!
In his letter to the church in Rome, the apostle Paul wrote, “Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2a, NIV). Of all the spiritual disciplines, four in particular stand out to me as essential for renewing our minds and reclaiming our lives:
- Pray often. In the book of Philippians, we are promised that prayer can replace anxiety with peace (Philippians 4:6-7).
- Meditate on Scripture. “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful” (Joshua 1:8, NIV).
- Give God praise. Worship restores our proper relationship with the Father—on our knees at His feet. It instills in us a heart of gratitude and contentment and puts our troubles and worries in proper perspective.
- Seek joy and peace. We mistakenly believe joy and peace are feelings that result from our situation, but they are actually choices we make that ultimately transcend our ever-changing circumstances. Life can rise and fall like waves on the sea, but a heart filled with joy and peace provides a solid foundation for weathering any storm.
As I write this article, a year after first falling ill, I am reminded how far I have come. I returned to teaching in January and had my best semester yet. I am exercising regularly, investing in relationships again, and enjoying life more than I have in a long time. In fact, because of the tools I now have to cope with stress, I am probably healthier overall than I have been in many years.
I had mindlessly allowed dangerous habits to replace good ones, slowly, over time. It took a full-blown crisis to snap me out of my blindness and force me to reevaluate my priorities. Good habits, healthy habits, habits that promote overall well-being, require intentionality and a fierce determination to keep them as top priorities.
Experience tells us that the Christian life is not exempt from trials, disappointments, and stress. If anything, we of all people are guaranteed a rough road (see Psalm 34:19 and John 16:33)—but it doesn’t have to destroy us. By intentionally instilling in ourselves good emotional, physical, and spiritual habits, we protect our minds, bodies, and hearts from the flaming arrows of the enemy.
I have learned I don’t have to live life with a bear on the loose. And neither do you.
By Dr. Dave Cummings
To read more by Dr. Dave Cummings, check out his blog at: davidedwardcummings.com.