Stress. Ugh. It’s just a part of life.
And if you’re like me, stress is a pretty regular experience. For years now.
In all shapes and sizes, ages and stages.
As Christians, we might be prone to minimizing the reality of our stress because “God is good….and He won’t give me more than I can handle….and I’ve got the joy of the Lord….and peace like a river….down in my heart”….and you get the idea. But I suspect the spirit of Scripture deals more in the realm of restoring and maintaining peace as we walk through stress rather than ignoring or minimizing the impact of our stress as a way to try to make it magically disappear and make us magically appear at peace. “I’m fine, really” (said with clenched jaw, tight fists, high blood pressure, tense shoulders and hurting relattionships.) Sound familiar?In this post, I hope to offer a way to courageously look stress in the face and come up with creative ways to walk through it. Courage and creativity. I just love those two. I also hope this post helps you begin to view stress less as an enemy or obstacle and more as a gift and catalyst to personal growth and courage and God’s provision.
I’m also including a worksheet I created for my own benefit and that I have shared with others in my community in a workshop format. Feel free to print it out and use it as needed.
Simply put, stress is a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances. (Merriam-Webster). A more complete understanding of stress from a medical or biological context, however, explains that stress is a physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension. Stresses can be external (from the environment, psychological, or social situations) or internal (illness, or from a medical procedure). Stress can initiate the “fight or flight” response, a complex reaction of neurologic and endocrinologic systems (Medicinenet.com).
It should also be noted that what one person finds stressful, another may not. Example: I love taking the kids to the pool; it’s kinda my happy place and one of the main reasons for which we moved South and into a house sight-unseen simply because there was a pool. I sit with a cold brew and soak up the sun and chat with strangers as the kids tire themselves out. My husband, however, would put that whole last sentence on his Top Ten Stresses. Statistical analysis, on the other hand, is his happy place. There have literally been mornings where our first conversation of the day involved statistics. First! As in before “Good Morning” and “Coffee.” Numbers are stressful to me and can literally cause my brain to go foggy and my eyes to glaze over. So it’s important not to discredit another’s stress, but to acknowledge it as simply their experience, even if it doesn’t match your sentiment. More clearly, invalidating phrases like “Oh, it’s not that bad,” “What’s wrong with you?” or “You just gotta…” can be damaging and distancing. And as a spouse or parent or friend, damaging and distancing probably aren’t your goals!
So let’s get started! Perhaps the first step in walking through stress with peace is acknowledging the stress. This sounds easy, but we expend a lot of effort avoiding, disguising, distracting ourselves and others from our stress. But our body isn’t as easily fooled, and is quick to talk to us if we would just listen.
SYMPTOMS OF STRESS
Here are just a few symptoms of stress: headaches, upset stomach, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, elevated blood pressure, chest pain, air hunger, irritability, depression, anxiety, sweaty palms, confusion. You might ask yourself if you experience these or any other symptoms. For me, my first warning is air hunger; that sensation of needing to take a deep breath or yawn, but never actually getting a satisfying breath. My second warning is clenched jaw. I’ll wake up in the night grinding my teeth and I’ll know that something is a’brewing in my soul.
PHYSICAL & EMOTIONAL TRIGGERS
Here are some physical and emotional stress triggers: tired, bored, hungry, angry, sick, nervous, overworked, overwhelmed, abuse, pressure from peers, pressure from parents, pressure from self, poor time-management, poor eating habits. Can you see a connection between one or more of these situations and a stress response? For quite a while, I would go to the gym with the kids, drop them off at Child Watch and enjoy my workout. But by the time I’d pick them up, I’d be grouchy, impatient, and regretting the whole experience. By the time we got home I’d be yelling and panicked. Not pretty. As I started to listen to my body’s cues, I realized that all of this stemmed from hunger! After such a hard workout, I wasn’t replenishing my body with protein, so as the hour wore on, I was a hot mess. Hangry, to be exact. Now, I pack a protein drink every.single.time I go to the gym, and I drink it and make sure it hits before l pick up the kids. The difference is UH-MAY-ZING. I went from the Wicked Witch to Dorothy. So you can start paying attention to your body’s response to stress and see if you can find the correlating trigger, whether it be the sound of a toddler screeching, a phone call from a particularly difficult person, looking at your bank statement, waking up late, or early, or to the noise crying of a baby, or doctors appointments, or cooking dinner, or kids complaining about dinner, or a messy house. All hypothetical here, of course.
If at this point you are still a little foggy as to the effect of stress in your life, then this next set of questions just might help shed a little light on the subject:
What is your quality of life in the following areas:
- Rest & Relaxation
- Spiritual life
Mind, body & spirit. Relationship with self, others & God. Inward, Outward & Upward. Whatever catchy phrase you are familiar with, the essence is the same: AN INTEGRATED LIFE! We cannot compartmentalize our lives, allowing some aspects to flourish and some to wither any more than a tree can thrive as some of it’s branches rot. If your career is skyrocketing but your relationships are tanking- red flag. If you have plenty of time for a great hobby, but haven’t been investing in the health of your soul- red flag. If you are known for your selfless service in the community, school, church, etc, but your physical health is suffering and you aren’t sleeping- red flag. There’s just so many ways this can play out (and I’m NOT saying that there aren’t seasons to life; Lord knows I have not been in a flourishing season of rest & relaxation in a long time), but the point is to have the courage to look at your life as a whole. Even the scary parts. Lest there be a blindspot. Or rot.
By this point, you might have a pretty long list of things you’d like to change. And you might be feeling all the feels about that list. Frustration. Shame. Guilt. Anger. Disappointment. My suggestion is to focus on JUST ONE THING. Well, actually, my suggestion is to take a deep breath, give yourself a hug, and then focus on just one thing. Just one thing this week. What is one small change you can make in just one area? Want to eat healthier? Focus on just changing your breakfast. Want to enjoy healthier friendships? Focus on just one phone call or letter. Want more rest? Try going to bed just 30 minutes earlier, and set a bedtime alarm. Want deeper connection with God? Focus on just one spiritual discipline.
As you think about your J.O.T., here’s a few considerations, intended to help make this process more like an optimistic & creative adventure rather than another chore, bore, or pending-defeat.
- Ask God and others for help
- Brainstorm what you might try differently
- Learn to say NO cordially (you can read more on that exotic topic here)
- Accept that you only have so much time and energy
- Do the M.A.T.H. when making decisions
For more on these considerations, you can watch my 6-minute video on the topic here, or on my Facebook page, where I also share weekly videos on similar topics.
And for future needs, here’s the worksheet for you to print out and have on hand when stress hits and you want nothing more than to bang your head repeatedly against a wall. Perhaps walking through this worksheet first will help you find more productive solutions 🙂
*BONUS: I find that laughing also helps when I’m ready to pull my hair out. For years now, this 16 second clip of the Grinch attempting yoga continues to make me laugh and take my stress a little less seriously. You’re welcome :). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HsvyjePPFRs