The Internal Dynamics of Stress (Stress and Distress): Part 2 of 4

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by Shane Fookes, MA LPC Intern

This is the 2nd post in a 4-part series on Stress and Distress. The first post about distress introduced the idea that stress occurs when you experience disruption in your relationship with yourself, with God, or with another person. This post addresses distress in your relationship with yourself. The concept of a relationship with self may seem unusual to you. If that’s the case, I hope you’ll understand it and appreciate its importance by the end of this post!

How Do Stress and Distress Show Up in Life?

Remember how you felt during crucial moments in your life? Moments like an important job interview, a first date, or that presentation you gave in front of your boss, your boss’s boss, and your boss’s boss’s boss?! Your heartbeat quickened, your hands felt clammy, your legs started trembling, and you found it hard to breathe, right? Something similar happens – though more suddenly – when something surprises you. Like encountering a snake on your favorite running trail or hearing a sudden loud noise behind you. Fascinatingly, you don’t even have to experience an actual event to have this bodily reaction. Merely anticipating or imagining an event can provoke the same reactions! Sometimes we even purposefully provoke this body response when we ride roller coasters, watch horror movies, and take part in similar activities. This bodily experience is called stress. 

Stress is Necessary

Stress is a wonderful and natural part of your biology that prepares you to respond to a threat to your well-being. You experience stress when you face something beyond your capability or understanding. Physiologically speaking, stress involves the limbic part of your brain and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) in your body. You feel stress when your limbic brain senses a threat and ignites the SNS. The SNS releases hormones – primarily cortisol and adrenaline – to stimulate your body to respond to the threat. This is commonly referred to as the “fight, flight, or freeze” body response. Thankfully, your body has another system connected to your limbic brain, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS helps your body “rest and digest.” The PNS counteracts stress and helps your body recover from it. When either system is activated, your body does what your body was designed to do!

Distress is Harmful

Of course, not all experiences of stress are wonderful and helpful. Prolonged periods of stress overtax your SNS and put your body in distress. Too much of a good thing becomes destructive! Troublingly, we live in a culture that values and rewards overusing the SNS. And when our SNS can’t produce enough stimulus, we have products like caffeine and amphetamines readily available to hyper-stimulate our nervous system. In addition, unresolved traumatic experiences “program” the SNS to respond to ordinary stressful situations in an outsized manner. We live in distressing times.

How to Biblically Navigate Stress and Distress

As human beings, we face a dilemma. Our internal capacity to think and yearn and create are immense and diverse. Yet, we remain finite beings in an infinite space. We are designed by God as dependent creatures with a great deal of independence. The writer of Ecclesiastes in the Bible captured the dilemma this way: 

Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end. Ecclesiastes 3:11 (NLT)

When you operate outside the bounds of God’s design, you create a disconnect in your relationship with your own body. This may work for a while (for some people a long while). But eventually, your body will let you know of the disconnect through physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual distress. 

Stress Counseling and Mindfulness

If you are experiencing distress right now, you can move toward health first by expressing gratitude for your body. You are wonderfully made! (Psalm 139:14) Secondly, give attention to what is provoking your distress. Notice any aspect of your life where you feel stuck or overwhelmed. Maybe it’s money problems, an unhappy marriage, or trouble at work. Third, begin training yourself to calm your body by engaging your PNS. Regularly practicing mindfulness and meditation can help you accomplish this.

Anxiety Treatment Can Help

If you find yourself in a place of chronic distress, help is available! A Christian counselor can help you find healing in each of the four dimensions of distress. If past hurts and traumatic experiences are provoking the distress, EMDR can be an effective PTSD treatment modality.

Learn More About Stress & Distress

You can also learn more in the following posts in our 4-part series on lament:

  1. Why Am I So Stressed?
  2. The Internal Dynamics of Stress
  3. Distress & Worship
  4. Distress & Belonging


Our Clackamas and Hillsboro-based counselors are excited to work with you, wherever you are in Oregon. Stress counseling and anxiety treatment can help you thrive again. We can help you get back on track in a way that aligns with your faith and values. When you are ready to start online Christian counseling in Oregon, follow these simple steps:

  1. Learn about our therapy team in Hillsboro and our caring counselors in Clackamas
  2. Schedule an appointment with your preferred therapist, or contact us with questions
  3. Feel more connected to the important people in your life


If you are in Clackamas, Happy Valley, Damascus, or Hillsboro, we can help you in person at one of our comfortable therapy clinicsChristian counseling is the cornerstone of our approach to therapy. Not only do we see adults, but children in counseling too. We also work with depression treatmentanxiety therapytrauma therapy and PTSD treatmentrelationship issuesmarriage problems, and postpartum counseling. No matter where you are in the state, we can provide the support you need with online therapy in Oregon. Once you’re ready to start, we’re ready to meet you. Let’s connect!

Headshot of Shane Fookes, Christian counselor in Clackamas, OR who offers counseling in Clackmas, OR or online therapy in Oregon

About the Author

Shane Fookes is a graduate of Western Seminary’s Counseling program and a Licensed Professional Counseling Intern. He was previously a pastor and is still involved in churches, and writes about marriage and relationship issues, anxiety, depression, and spiritual development.

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