I read a book over Christmas break by John Medina called: "Brain Rules." John Medina is a brain scientist but this is not a neuroscience kind of book; it is a normal people kind of book. It was my vacation, after all.
I was especially interested in the chapter on stress and the brain. Stress can be good for the brain or it can be bad for the brain; it depends.
Research is like that. Welcome to my world.
Stress is good when it is short term. Chemicals are released in the brain to enhance performance. One famous example is a group of high school students taking the SAT test while a hurricane raged outdoors. The testing company assumed they would have to toss the scores and do a retest. The scores turned out to be higher than expected. Even though the students were worried about family and traveling home, they still did better on the test than expected.
Don't even get me started on high stakes testing in our schools.
Stress is bad when it is chronic. When you are under stress for a long period of time, those performance enhancing chemicals can interfere with your ability to learn and can cause untold harm to your brain and body. People who provide long-term care for chronically ill loved ones have shown us this phenomenon.
The other curious thing about stress is that one person's performance de-enhancing stress is another's performance booster. The event itself is not the stress. Stress is more likely to be damaging if the person experiencing the event views it as adverse. Running a marathon, although physically tiring, would be an enhancer for some. For me: not so much. We are talking major de-enhancing stress.
A big part of stress is how we view the situation, how we react to the situation, and whether or not we are prepared for the situation. If we view the stressor as enjoyable, if we react positively and are prepared for the stressor, the results will be enhancing. If, however, we are unprepared, see the situation negatively and react poorly, the results will be detrimental. God created our minds to be able to deal with stress. Furthermore, He knows how much stress we can take before it is too much. He knows this because He created us. Not only that, He knows us so well He can give us a minute by minute count of the hairs on our heads.
So, why can't I get rid of my anxiety? I sit in class and listen to the professor go on and on about effect sizes and formulas and I feel the knot in my stomach spread to become a migraine in my head. I doubt this reaction is performance enhancing. If I were to contact God on my way out of class regarding the number of hairs, He would report at least a 5% loss. It is a good thing I can't do that because then I would worry all the way home about whether or not that number of hairs was statistically significant. As my stats prof would say: "are we in the critical region?"
Uh, um, maybe.
In spite of all that God has done for me, I am an Israelite wandering in the desert of graduate school wondering if He will send manna, again. Never mind the fact He sent it every day before. Forget the miracles, forget the covenant, forget the awesome power of my God, forget the absolute strength and consistency of His promise to me; I am anxious because today might be different; today He might forget to send the manna.
Think again, who does most all of the forgetting in this relationship? Yeah, that's right: me.
What is keeping me from letting go of my anxiety? What prevents me from viewing these classes as a positive thing? Why do the chemicals released in my brain cause harm instead of enhancement? Hmmm, could it be a faith issue?
12 men went into Canaan to do reconnaissance. Ten reacted to the stress by clinging to anxiety:
And they told him, "We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large.
However, two did not:
But Caleb quieted the people before Moses and said, "Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it." Numbers 13: 27-28 and 30 ESV
God had prepared all twelve men equally. They had all been beneficiaries of God's strength and fidelity. They had all been to the same Canaan and seen the same fruit and the same fortifications. It was faith that made the difference between what was performance enhancing and what was anxiety causing.
I am venturing into the Canaan of statistics and measurement. I am not seeing the fruits of the land because I am preoccupied with the giants that haunt me. This stress is not any bigger than any other stress I have experienced before. Furthermore, my faith potential is not any less.
"I believe; help my unbelief!" Mark 8:24 ESV
One of those two men who saw Canaan as potential was appointed to replace Moses as leader of God's people. Now there's a stressor for you. He was to replace Moses; he was to lead an especially difficult group of people; and their job was to conquer a land full of giants. God strengthened his faith by commanding him, three times, to be strong and courageous.
Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go." Joshua1:9 ESV
Abba, father, Amen.