by Judy Ball
“Oh, I had such a stressful day at the office!” “Thank heaven exam week is almost over. I’m totally stressed out!” “I’ve got a stress headache. That phone hasn’t stopped ringing all day!”
Welcome to the Age of Anxiety. If our own weary bodies and spirits don’t convince us we are stressed out, we get steady reminders from self-help books, magazine articles, news reports, public lectures. Stress seems to be epidemic in our society today. The antidote, it appears, lies in finding ways to reduce those tensions and irritants which invade our lives and, in the process, sap our energy and impair our sense of contentment. The proposed solutions are as widespread as the problem. Typically, they focus on eating and exercising well, getting sufficient rest, setting realistic goals, learning to relax through deep breathing or meditation.
All of these techniques have their place and promise a degree of relief. But, sadly, few experts on stress management suggest that drawing on one’s belief system in difficult times can also lead to peace and calm. In truth, when we get in touch with our spiritual roots and deepest beliefs, we unearth a mysterious and powerful reserve that can help us in our darkest hours. “Meaning,” says psychologist Carl Jung, “makes a great many things endurable, perhaps everything.”
Working your way through.
It was faith that sustained U.S. hostage Terry Anderson during his nearly seven years of captivity in Lebanon. In fact, he had only returned to an active practice of his faith shortly before his capture. But the centrality and depth of his beliefs are revealed in the poems he wrote during his captivity, many of them with religious themes.
Few of us will be required to endure such overpowering, extended loneliness and fear. But the same faith that gave meaning and hope to a man chained to a wall in a darkened cell can be a potent antidote to the stresses we experience in our everyday lives. Whether our stresses come in the form of tragic illness, unexpected death, a major financial crisis, or simply a headache brought on by a rush-hour traffic jam, our faith can help us better accept and understand our suffering, put it in perspective, and strengthen our relationship with the God who is with us throughout our difficulties. To borrow a line from an old television commercial and suggest a new response: How do you spell relief from stress? F-A-I-T-H!
Find the major stressors in your life and record them.
Some stresses, like concerns about how the bills are going to be paid or a general sense of being pulled in too many directions, may be persistent and long-term. Some may be more temporary, such as a college freshman’s feelings of homesickness. Others may be relatively minor irritants: the banging of the kitchen door as children rush in and out or a neighbor who insists on parking in front of your house rather than his own.
Only you can determine what stresses you. Never mind what others might think or say or jot down on their lists. Now that you have listed the major pressure points in your life, try to turn them over to God. Together the two of you can tackle them one by one, day by day, even hour by hour if necessary. In your life you have already experienced the release that comes simply from sharing your concerns with a spouse or friend. How much sweeter it is to share your burdens with God!
Accept that a certain amount of change and crisis is an essential part of life.
Stress is not necessarily synonymous with distress. “Indeed,” says Bonnie Sigren Busick in Beyond Crisis, “without stress not much would get done in this world. Any physical or mental effort, any problem-solving or decision-making requires it to one degree or another, and it is through the stretching influence of stress that people and communities find unexpected resources within themselves and develop the capacity to meet new challenges.”
In light of this awareness, ask yourself some challenging questions (and ask God to help keep you honest): Are all the stresses you have listed actually distressing or are they, in some way, energizing for you? Which are within your power to change or improve? Are any of your own making, perhaps created out of a need to be constantly busy or to have others dependent on you? Do any of them reflect a difficulty you might have in saying no? Are you using the stress in your life as a convenient way to keep from making difficult changes or facing painful life issues?
Your answers are likely to tell you something about yourself and to offer new ways of coping with stress. Perhaps it’s time to challenge the unreasonable “shoulds” and “musts” in your life and learn how to set limits. Perhaps it’s time to make distinctions between real stresses and ordinary, everyday challenges. Perhaps it’s time to take honest stock of the degree to which you are living out your deepest needs and values.
Identify how you can draw on your faith to deal with stress.
Just as you have drawn up a list of the major stressors in your life, you can now identify the outlets that will help to handle them. Keep in mind your lifestyle as well as your personal religious preferences. Maybe you need to spend time in a quiet church or synagogue or mosque to feel you are really communicating with God.
Or you might be one of those people who can experience the calming presence of God as they whisper a quick prayer while preparing dinner, asking “How was your day?” and fielding phone calls—all at the same time. Perhaps for you, experiencing the presence of God happens through music, a play, or a values-oriented discussion group. Meditation or spiritual reading might be best to help you get centered, whereas for others the “right” novel might work as well. Or the sentiments of Anthony de Mello, S.J., may speak to you: “Do you wish to catch a glimpse of God? Look intently at creation.”
You may be at a point in life where snatching a few moments to yourself each day is all you can manage, or time may be weighing on you. Whatever the case, Kenneth Grooms speaks of the therapeutic value of a slow pace: “Teach me the art of taking minute vacations—of slowing down to look at a flower, to chat with a friend, to pat a dog, to answer a child’s question, to read a few lines from a good book….The race is not always to the swift—there is more to life than increasing its speed.”
Take the time to see how the hand of God has been evident in your life.
Look for this evidence not only in the “good” moments but in those which have been most challenging, even overwhelming. Most of us profess to believe that God is present with us at all times. But in the midst of a crisis, we can momentarily lose trust.
Our spiritual resistance wears down and we become susceptible to the virus of doubt. Prayer helps us to see our lives from God’s perspective—not just ours—and to put our individual concerns into a wider context. Psychiatrist Frederic Flach often asks his clients to share with him their attitudes about prayer. He has his own firm opinions about its healing powers. “…Prayer reminds us,” he says, “that there can be a personal destiny for every one of us…a design for our lives that we may not fully grasp and can’t foretell, but that we can live up to and fulfill if we sometimes move with events as they evolve….”
Help manage your stress by reaching out to others.
Most of us have experienced the delight that comes in helping and giving to others. If we are operating from a faith perspective, that delight can be transformed into joy and that joy can lead to a true inner peace. When we put behind us the stresses that are weighing us down and offer our help to someone in need, we have lightened our load. We will still return to the same worries and frustrations as before, but we will come to them with renewed energy, a sense of gratitude for all that we have been given, and a heightened awareness of the steady and loving presence of God in our lives.
From all indications around us and within us, stress is a problem we will likely need to combat over and over again in our very fast-paced, full, and anxious lives. But if we can give ourselves the freedom to get in touch with our spiritual roots and turn our stresses over to God, our faith can carry us through our most trying times. This spiritual centeredness can lead us to deeper, richer living with a renewed sense of peace, balance, and hope.