“I’m so busy!” “There isn’t enough time!” Seemingly universal laments. Life is filled with opportunities to be stressed and to become even more stressed all the time.
In short bursts (of a few minutes or so) stress can be useful. Stress, when it functions according to its purpose, calls our mind and body to be attentive and responsive to the challenges in front of us. Ideally, stress ramps us up so that we can make a plan to handle those situations and then the stress should go away. We are not meant to live in a perpetual state of stress (which might come as a surprise to most people). Once stress motivates us to make a plan, it should decrease.
All Stressed Up and Nowhere to Go…
The problem is that, in the face of stress, we often don’t actually stop to make a plan. We become hyper-focused on the stressful event and live in a state of reaction rather than receptivity. Looking at stress through the lens of the Theology of the Body, we see that stress stops us from being receptive to God and to others. The Theology of the Body reminds us that a healthy life (i.e., a life dedicated to seeking connection with God and others and open to his unfolding plan) is a receptive life; that is, a life in which we are open to the movement of the Holy Spirit in the moment and responsive to both the needs of others and the love they have to share with us.
This is Your Brain on Stress…
Brain research shows that, under prolonged stress, the mind becomes rigid, closed, rejecting, and task/thing-focused. When I allow myself to remain in a state of prolonged stress, I become stuck in old patterns and closed to new possibilities. I reject help and new ideas as useless before I have really taken the time to consider them. Further, I focus all my energy either on simply pushing through the problem or looking for things that will make me feel better in the short term without considering the bigger picture. This stressed-out posture is the antithesis of a receptive mind and spirit which–again, according to brain research–is always curious, open, accepting, and loving (COAL). Curiosity allows us to seek new solutions, to be open to asking the questions that enable us to hear the Holy Spirit speaking to us in the moment. Openness allows us to consider possibilities we hadn’t entertained before. Acceptance refers to the willingness to suspend our judgment of new options and possibilities before we have gathered all the information we need to chart a healthy course of action. Loving refers to our willingness to put the well-being of people (ourselves included) before the accomplishment of tasks or the acquisition of things.
Stress: The Antidote
Again, from both the perspective of the Theology of the Body and brain science, the antidote to stress is connection. The Theology of the Body reminds us of Genesis’ assertion that, “it is not good for man to be alone.” Brain science bears this out. When the mind becomes dis-regulated by stress (i.e., our emotions override our intellect instead of the intellect and emotions working in partnership) the quality of our connection to God and others tends to determine the degree of resilience (“bounce-back-ability”) we will display. Taking time to maintain a strong connection with God and the people we love and who love us even when we’re under stress helps the mind see our problems through others eyes, reminds us that help is readily available, and calls our attention to the most important things. Likewise, intimate connection with God and others fills our body with “calm-down chemicals” like oxytocin that help us to be at peace in the presence of stress.
Taking “Time In”
So-called, “time-in” practices, such as meditative prayer (e.g., rosary, adoration, etc.), rituals of connection (e.g., regularly scheduled and anticipated times to play, talk, work, and play with loved ones), self-care (e.g., good nutrition and physical activity), and leisure (e.g., hobbies and creative endeavors) have all been shown by brain research to help a person develop a more receptive mindset in the presence of stressful events. These practices highlight the power of the Theology of the Body’s insights that we were both created and destined for intimate connection with God and others and that the more we pursue these connections, the more we “become what we are.” That is, persons who function best when we are both working to create communities of love and pursuing intimate connection with the God who created us, sustains us, and leads us on the path to wholeness.
For more strategies for dealing gracefully with the stress in your life, check out God Help Me, This Stress is Driving Me Crazy! Finding Balance Through God’s Grace. or contact me at the Pastoral Solutions Institute to discover how you can work with a faithful, Catholic counselor through our tele-counseling practice.