Life is stressful. Can I get an 'Amen'?
Stress (or anxiety) can come from lots of places: medical issues, broken relationships, work problems, trauma, mental health disorders, addictions, drugs, alcohol, heredity, and many others. Just about anything can be a trigger for stress.
Stress, for the purposes of this article, can simply be defined as worry -- to torment oneself with or suffer from disturbing thoughts.
So, how are you handling your stress?
Let me suggest that the following exercises might help you manage your stress in healthier ways:
1. Read and Pray Every Day
While there certainly can be physical reasons for anxiety, one thing seems to always be present when we are stressed: obsessive thoughts about our fears.
What you think about matters to how you feel. And what you think about is affected by what you focus on. So, what are you focused on?
Pray throughout the day. Share your struggles and fears with God. Be honest and open about the difficulty you are having; even expressing any doubts you are having about God and goodness and life.
Also, it is important to read other good material on understanding your emotions and how to respond to them in healthy ways.
Read and pray every day. It makes a difference for handling stress well.
Stress creates a sense of panic. And when we panic everything speeds up -- thoughts, heart rate, and even breathing.
So, a very practical exercise to help deal with stress in a healthy way is to focus on your breathing. And keep it simple: breathe in and breathe out.
According to Medical News Today, something called the 4-7-8 breathing technique can help reduce tension and stress. (I'm not advocating for yoga; this is only a simple way to breathe that has positive effects on your body.)
Simply breathe in for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds, and then exhale for 8 seconds. Start easy by doing this for 3-7 minutes, then work your way up to 15-20 minutes a day. I suggest lying down or sitting down when you start, just in case you get light-headed.
To enhance this breathing exercise, meditate on Scripture or pray the Lord's Prayer. Breathe in God's grace and truth, and breathe out any lies of shame and all the things you can't control. Focus your mind on God's truth and grace.
Breathing is essential to life. Learn to breathe deeply and focus on what is true. This will help you handle your stress far better.
3. Name Your Fears
Stress seems most powerful when it attaches our fear to the unknown. And the unknown is whatever is unnamed.
Have you ever noticed that the stuff that scares us most is usually the stuff we know very little about. Take something extremely difficult, like cancer, for instance.
When someone has cancer but doesn't know it, their fears about feeling sick can go in a million different directions. But once the cancer is named, those particular fears are not as strong -- even though the thought of fighting cancer is very daunting.
Once the diagnosis is made, new fears emerge, right? But why? Because now there are yet more unnamed realities that must be faced.
Naming your fears is healthy self-talk. The Psalmist says, "Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?" (42:5) And follows this up later with a specific question, "Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?"
Finally, after naming the specific fear (oppression of the enemy), the Psalmist fights it with pointing his will toward truth: "Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God."
The more you can name your fears and combat them with truth, the more you can limit their power over you -- and the more your stress will decrease.
4. Connect with Healthy People
It is not easy to deal with stress, or name your fears, alone. You need to connect with healthy people who love you and can listen thoughtfully to your full story of stress and anxiety.
Healthy people are those who understand the difficulties of life, and have likely traveled through some valleys themselves, but know how to direct you to wisdom with love and compassion.
The more you try to handle your stress alone, the more you are likely to drown in it. Healthy people lift your head above water so you can see from a different vantage point, and breathe the air of hope and truth.
I'm sure you're asking, "Where do I find these healthy people?"
Start right where you live. Plug into a local church where you can connect with Christians who can love and support you.
Seek out professional counseling to deal with any underlying roots to your stress, whether they be psychological or physical.
Connect with others in a confidential support group.
5. Embrace Your Limitations
There is no "cure" for the difficulties of life. Sure, there are things you can do that help with responding to such difficulties in healthy ways, but be careful of "magical" thinking that says you just need to get the formula right and all your troubles will disappear.
You and I have limitations. And each of us is different. I'm amazed at how "easily" some people seem to handle stress. It's like nothing bothers them. But I'm not them. And neither are you.
Admitting you are weak is not weak. It's actually quite powerful. The Apostle Paul said as much:
"But he [Jesus] said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong." (1 Cor. 12:9-10)
Stress isn't fun. It seems to "torment" with relentless persistence. But you can respond with confidence; not in yourself, but in the grace of God.
Preach this message of truth and hope to yourself every day: though I am weak, my God is strong. I will trust in His power, not my own. I rest in Him.
May you grow in grace as you learn to handle stress in healthier ways.