"While listless, oil-soaked pelicans may be the most memorable images of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the fishermen and business owners marooned along the Gulf Coast already are proving just as big a challenge for the mental health workers dispatched from Louisiana to Florida to help vaccinate against the fast-growing epidemic of despair," reported The Los Angeles Times (Kim Murphy, "Oil Spill Stress Starts to Weigh on Gulf Residents," June 20, 2010).
Although the reference to vaccination was metaphorical, there are researchers working on ways to literally block the deadly effects of stress on the human brain. Whether they will be successful is in question, but the long-term harmful effects of stress are clear.
Stress increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, adult-onset diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, major depressive disorder, back pain and much more.
What are mental health workers expecting from the Gulf oil spill? "The symptoms are well-documented: The Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 touched off a wave of suicides, domestic violence, bankruptcies and alcoholism in Alaska," according to the LA Times article.
Stress from every side
Of course, the oil spill is only one of the many sources of stress in our lives: accidents and illnesses, relationship problems, money problems, toxic workplaces, frustrating bureaucracies and a general feeling of helplessness in the face of the bad news that bombards us every day.
For example, consider unemployment and how it affects not only the jobless person, but his or her family. U.S. News' HealthDay column reported:
"‘Whenever there's a downturn, it's the kids who suffer a significant burden,' said Dr. Christopher Bellonci, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston. ‘When families are doing well, they can buffer some of this stress. When they can't, it bleeds through to the kids.'
"Nationally, one in seven children (10.5 million kids) has an unemployed parent" (March 25, 2010).
A stress vaccine?
The August 2010 Wired magazine has the cover line: "The Search for the Stress Vaccine," based on the research of Robert Sapolsky and others. A study published in Nature Neuroscience way back in 2004 outlined some of the promise of this research. Their work on rodents "reversed the outcome of the stress response by rendering glucocorticoids protective rather than destructive. Our findings elucidate three principal steps in the neuronal stress-response pathway, all of which are amenable to therapeutic intervention."
But the research is still years away from clinical trials on humans. As Dr. Sapolsky said, "It's not going to help anybody soon, but we've proved that it's possible. We can reduce the neural damage caused by stress."
There are many hurdles to overcome, including the fact that you can't just eliminate the offending chemicals, "because they are involved in all sorts of important functions, like helping you run for your life" (Jonah Lehrer, "Under Pressure," Wired, August 2010).
Solving stress with a vaccine is not only fraught with possible side effects and unintended consequences, it is also a long way off. What can we do in the meantime?
The Wired article (which has not been uploaded to Wired.com yet, but probably will be next month) highlights a number of widely accepted stress reducers:
- Make friends.
- Drink in moderation.
- Get enough sleep.
- Don't fight.
- Confront your fears.
- Don't force yourself to exercise. (Here they point out that exercise is a great stress reducer, but only if you want to do it.)
Coping techniques for Christians
Jonah Lehrer explained that some of the most dangerous stress involves "feeling that nothing can be done" and a sense of hopeless "existential despair." Stress reducers and medicines can't deal with these fundamental issues of meaning, purpose and faith. Thankfully, our Creator provides the answers to these, the most important questions of life.
God has a purpose for your life. He wants you to enjoy eternity with Him achieving a potential even greater than we can imagine. This great purpose, and the fact that nothing is outside God's control, helps us to deal with the stresses of this life. God's plan helps give us the positive perspective that allows us to confidently cope with our trials and stresses. It gives us the peace of mind and contentment that are the ultimate antidote to stress.
To learn more about what the Bible teaches about this and other mental health issues, see "The Bible's Keys to Mental Health." It provides practical help and real hope.