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What We Can Learn from Zebras about Stress

Laura (my wife) and I were having a conversation the other day about stress, worry and anxiety. I know—sounds exciting, doesn’t it? We were trying to get to the root issue as to why people, ourselves included at times, struggle under the weight of pressure.

Why do we toss and turn at night worrying about that meeting or our finances or the safety of our kids? Why do we allow fear to grip us when we think of all the tasks we have to get done today, and we don’t even know where to begin? Why does our throat tighten and our heart rate quicken when we know we’re about to step into a difficult conversation?

Robert Sapolsky is a neuroendocrinologist and primatologist at Stanford University where he studies how stress affects animals and humans. He wrote a fascinating book called, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.

His premise is that zebras don’t get ulcers because even though they have very real threats, the stress-response episode is here and gone in seconds. But we humans self-induce stress-response episodes that go on for minutes and even hours because of our imagination.

What we share with zebras (and other mammals) is a physiological response to threats. Our bodies are flooded with hormones, especially adrenaline and cortisol. Our heart rate increases, as does our blood pressure in order to shoot more energy into our body. Thanks to the influx of cortisol, more sugar flows into our bloodstream that helps our brains think under pressure. When we feel threatened, our bodies also shut down other functions temporarily such as our digestive and reproductive systems. All of this happens so that in a moment of real threat, our bodies are “in the zone,” focused and ready for a fight-or-flight response.

But unlike zebras, our minds have a hard time distinguishing between real threats and imagined threats. Zebras don’t lie awake at night imagining a lion attacking tomorrow morning. Their brains and bodies relax and move into a normal range of function. But then when a real threat does occur—a lion jumps out from behind a bush—zebras immediately shift into a stress response. Once the threat is over (and assuming they weren’t eaten by the lion), they just as quickly shift back into normal-function mode.

We’re the only creatures on God’s green earth who are capable of feeling threated all the time. We can imagine a threat, and just based on our imagination, our brains and bodies can jump into a stress-response mode leading to panic attacks, increased heart rate, and even irrational behavior.

If you’ve ever “been-there-done-that,” here are few suggestions. First, understand what is happening. Is the threat real or imagined? If a car is coming toward you in your lane, the threat is real, and you need to react. But if you are only imagining a car coming toward you in your lane, the current threat is not real, and you can let your brain and body relax.

Second, for that to occur, however, you need to be able to stop, count to ten, and pray. Develop disciplines or practices that help you “take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

Third, don’t try to go through this alone. Jesus teaches us not to worry about our lives (Matthew 6:25), but sometimes we need others to help us learn how. Seek out Christian community and counseling to give you the support and tools needed.

Isn’t it amazing how God created zebras to react with urgency to real threats but not to stay in perpetual fight-or-flight mode? Jesus says we can take our lessons from the birds of the air (Matthew 6:26). Maybe we can learn from zebras as well.

Posted by Rick Grover, Lead Pastor with

Do you suffer from Past-itis?

For the next few minutes I’d like you to think about things you have launched. Maybe at some point you launched into marriage. You launched into parenthood. You launched a new career. You launched your kids into college and adulthood. You launched into retirement. Some day you hope to launch into heaven.

To launch anything significant in your life, you need a pioneer spirit. The future needs to look brighter than the past. I read a few weeks ago that when your memories exceed your dreams, the end is near. But when your dreams exceed your memories, you pioneer.

After being launched into space on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first astronauts to land on the moon. That event defined NASA for decades to come. Even though they had many additional successes, they never quite gained clarity on a new vision. Past successes can become future challenges, especially when the past defines a group.

Have you noticed the older you get, the bigger the rearview mirror becomes? This happens to me all the time. When I get together with family and friends, I find it much easier to talk about where I’ve been than where I’m going. This is the disease of “past-itis,” where the past hinders the future.

Of course, we should celebrate the past, but do so to give thanks, to gain courage, and to get going.

Why am I writing about the past and launching into the future? Because I don’t want your past launches to keep you from moving forward in faith. Maybe you had a launch that fizzled, and now you’re afraid to try again. If so, remember, “God is the one who makes all things new” (Revelation 21:5). Now is the time to “forget the former things and don’t dwell on the past.” God says, “See, I am doing a new thing!” (Isaiah 43:18-19a).

Maybe you had a launch that succeeded, but now you want to quit while you’re ahead. Oh, don’t miss out on future victories due to past wins. Most teams know that when you’re in the lead, you have to keep pressing on. When you stop playing to win and start playing not to lose, you give the opponent the edge, the fire, and the motivation to be the victor.

Finish strong and finish well. The apostle Paul could have spent his final years reminiscing on all of his successful launches—new churches, new followers of Jesus, letters written that became part of the New Testament. He could have sat back and basked in the glory. But he didn’t, at least not until he received his eternal reward.

He kept launching. He kept the pioneer spirit. Even from a prison cell where he could have easily given up, he wrote, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith” (Philippians 1:23b-25).

And so now, keep launching and keep dreaming, for when your dreams exceed your memories, you, like Paul, are a pioneer.

Posted by Rick Grover, Lead Pastor with

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