Whether we are conscious of it or not, we all share a goal to be one with the Lord. If we are one with God, some would say we are saintly; others would say we are sanctified and peaceful; regardless of the label we tack onto it, simply put, we are whole and happy. I read an article recently that stated that most of us feel that the world has gone crazy. As a result, many people today are dealing with increased anxiety, depression, sadness and all the symptoms that go along with them. Stress is on the rise, for us Christians too.
One of the most important indicators of our spiritual maturity is how we deal with stress. Even saintly people, though, with all their great intentions fail to maximize their spiritual life precisely because they deal with their stress in ways that actively work against the above mentioned “wholeness and happiness”. We all are dealing with stress. But, if we are finding ourselves not being able to bounce back like we used to, maybe we need to reflect on some of the following.
I love chocolate. If I use chocolate to distract me from the stress for a while, that could actually be good. However, anything can become unhealthy if it becomes a subtle way that we use to avoid dealing with our problems. While avoidance can sometimes reduce stress in the short term, research has found that it actually increases stress and anxiety in the long term. In other words, if avoidance is your go to way of coping, it may lead you to stay in a job you hate or a relationship that makes you unhappy because you are afraid of dealing with the stress of making a significant change in your life. Avoiding that change, however, will inevitably lead to more stress and unhappiness down the road.
Preparing yourself and taking proactive steps toward dealing with changes and stress is a better way to take control and feel empowered. There are other spiritual ways to center and find peace. Simply put, the person who learns how to surrender and process their stress with Jesus has found the pearl of great price. This does not necessarily mean that we completely abandon other forms of stress management. These can be very healthy responses. When dealing with stress, experts say to take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories, including those on social media; to take care of yourself; take care of your body; to make time to unwind; and to talk to others. Our primary goal is to make Christ the center of everything, even in those other forms of stress management.
We are told to exercise. Our bodies, as Pope St. John Paul II often reminded us, are an essential part of our personhood. It’s important to respect how they’re created. Many of us would like to put in a full 30 to 60 minutes of exercise every day, but often, that goal is just not realistic. It sounds silly but exercise with Jesus. Bring him in and let it out. A mere 20 seconds of intensive activity at a time when stress is overwhelming allows our bodies to use, rather than store, the adrenal surge that comes from our natural fight-or-flight response.
Are you fixated on something? Feeling powerless? Sometimes, our stress comes from holding on to the many worries, fears, and anxieties that plague us. In the ancient scriptural tradition, naming was believed to give the namer a certain power over the thing named. Modern studies in neurology support this and show that naming our emotions can help calm our response. Instead of keeping our stress inside, we can gain power over it by naming it. Take a few minutes in your prayer to make a specific list of everything that is stressing you out, from the tiniest annoyances to the most catastrophic fears. Then, make that list your gift to Jesus. Say it out loud to Him in prayer and/or figuratively put your list on the altar during the sacrifice of the mass. Acknowledge His power over all things and follow St. Peter’s advice to “cast all your anxiety upon him because he cares for you.”
The third way to cope with stress is not focus on the negative, but on what the Lord is asking of you and has given you. Don’t think about the color blue. What? If I say don’t think about the color blue, all that does is get you thinking about the color blue. Many Christians state their desired outcomes in negative ways, which slows the process down. For example, they say, “I don’t want to be a sinner and unhappy (poor, sick, sad or unproductive) anymore.” The Lord has set us up to be successful and our negativity slows the process down. We all go in the direction of our most dominant thoughts. Begin your prayer in gratitude. Focus on virtue, not sin. Thank the Lord for the good things before you get to the complaining. While eliminating stress from our lives is not possible, our lives can never be too drenched in prayer and God’s presence!