The Soul Care Series: Stress Management

Woman relaxing

Last week, I talked about sleep and rest. One of the biggest impediments to rest is, unsurprisingly, stress. Before I dive into what is the mainstream advice and how that affects us as Catholics, I’d like to talk about stress itself. There are two kinds of stress: good stress, or eustress, which is a response to something that keeps us motivated and alert and then goes away when the stressor is over, and then what we all refer to when we talk about stress, which is a response that isn’t measured to the source and it’s even worse when it becomes chronic. And I don’t mean to make a value judgement that you should be able to control your response so that it is measured to the stressor, I know it doesn’t work like that.

If you look up stress around Catholic media, most of the responses are along the line of “pray the anxiety away”, and while it’s true that prayer and most of all true surrender of control can help us, we are talking about a physiological response. God has made us integrated beings which are both body and soul, so if you are just becoming more frustrated at the apparent lack of an answer to those prayers this post is for you. I have been there. So, while it’s important that you keep praying and there will be more on that in my favourites, I want to start from the common stuff you get advised to do as per the NHS website (so what your GP would tell you if you went there with a complaint related to stress).

  1. Be active. This is not a surprise, and if you are able to get any movement done I think there is a value to it. Exercising releases endorphins, which counter the hormones related to stress (cortisol and adrenaline), and it can also be a way to focus the mind away from thinking. Anything will do, from a body scan meditation (not any of the new age stuff, just simply noticing what your body feels like) to a prayer walk or my famous favourite Pietra Fitness, or even any regular exercise that is not combined with prayer…as long as you don’t just get up in your head distracted by the stuff that is stressing you. Let it at the door. 
  2. Take control. According to the experts, feelings of powerlessness don’t help our mental health. I’d agree. I already mentioned surrendering the issues to God, and I’d like to stress that it should make you feel powerful. You are not powerless when you have the power of God. Surrendering is, in a way, admitting powerlessness over a situation, but it is doing so in a way that is not despairing and like giving up. It’s doing so in a way that is taking control of the situation and acting to see it solved: you are calling in the biggest guns ever. You are surrendering control over how things will be solved in both situations, but the mental postures couldn’t be any different. 
  3. Connect with people. This is a painful one for me, because I don’t see a world where relationships are important even within the Church, but we have been told over and over throughout the Bible that we were made for relationships. We need to be better at journeying together and being there for others, as a healthy distraction with a game night and as a shoulder to cry on, or a prayerful presence when working through something or whatever else is needed. This piece of advice is really in line with God’s vision for us. 
  4. Have some me-time. It appears introverts are not the only ones who need time alone. Whatever that time looks like is up to you, but it has to be something that nourishes you on every level (as I addressed in the post about self-care). If you feel that your prayer life could do with a boost, I’ll have some ideas for at-home retreats in my favourites. 
  5. Challenge yourself. My gut reaction to this one is to be sceptical, but also I can see where they are coming from. It can be easy to slip from having goals to beating yourself up over them. While I acknowledge how starting my podcast has given me something to look forward to every day in a way that just reading wouldn’t have done, I have also had my times of stress around the feeling of commitment to whoever shows up to hear me talk. Personally, I’d scrap it from this list, but I guess if you are interested in doing it just take it to prayer and discern what challenge is good for you.
  6. Avoid unhealthy habits. By that, they mean no alcohol, caffeine, or smoking. I can testify that I can be more stressed without caffeine than I am with it, but even I pay attention to how much of it I drink and rarely exceed one cup that is half a Moka for 6 people. Judge me not. I have also fixed my drinking habits after years of trying to fit in with a social culture that revolves around alcohol, mostly as part of my general embracing of the idea of virtue as the medium between two things that I keep bringing up. I don’t think it’s entirely fair to put the onus on us, because there are situations where peer pressure would make it more stressful to avoid than just to give in. We should all be more mindful of that…
  7. Help other people. I have shared the story of how volunteering helped me at a difficult time a lot of times before, so I can testify that this is true, but I find that it is also true in smaller ways. Serving others truly makes us flourish, as it’s a way in which we become conformed with Christ. Also, in many cases, a lot of stress can come from feeling like we are doing everything at work or at home, and shifting our mindset from hating it to perhaps still hating it but seeing it as a sacrifice and a service that makes us holier can remove some of the pain of it…at least, that was true of me and the perennial laundry on the floor.
  8. Work smarter, not harder. Something I’ve been doing is to ditch the daily to-do list. I use my to-do list to dump stuff that needs doing at some point in time so I can remember that it needs doing, and then every day I get 2-3 things to focus on. If I have time and energy it can end up with more things being done, but on less productive days I don’t beat myself up because those are the times I exceed myself rather than the norm. I keep set times to check emails and block out times to focus on individual tasks. I know that in many places it can be hard to not end up multitasking, but it’s a work culture that I believe we should start fighting. I’m not sharing this as a blueprint, though, you can work out your way based on your circumstances.
  9. Try to be positive. I tend to have a big beef with advice such as this because there are plenty of situations when it is right and just for us to lament and not try to force positivity. Life is hard and there’s no need to sugar-coat it. What I’d suggest we do instead, is take a leaf out of the Bible and look at the Psalms of Lament, which are about 1/3 of the book. As you’ll see later in our meditation over Scriptures, they teach us to worship the Lord in the midst of the storm. It’s about time we get over a simplistic view of faith and accept that lament is an act of faith. We give these feelings to God, and let Him deal with them. Instead of being positive, we have hope, which I think is much better than a fleeting feeling.
  10. Accept the things you can’t change. I feel like the NHS’s final point is a repetition of stuff I have already said but I guess we can take it further. If we can’t change things, we can ask God to change us. Something related to this is a piece of advice I just heard on Sally Clarkson’s podcast before writing this, and it’s to figure out and accept the season in life we are in and what are the things God wants us to do right now and learn to say no to the rest. You can listen to the whole conversation, which was really inspiring, here.

My favourites
This guided meditation from the Joel’s Bar virtual conference was a game-changer for me. It involves both the body and the soul on different levels, and it’s a good example of what I meant about body scans earlier.

If you are in need of a retreat, the whole of that conference was so good, but I am also a fan of the retreat guides on RC Spirituality.There is also a beautiful one on St Thérèse’s spirituality on Youtube.

If you want to get better at surrendering and experience the graces that flow from it, the Litany of Trust by the Sisters of Life is a prayer you want to become familiar with.

If you want more productivity hacks that I’m on board with, this article is a great starting point. 

I also use Welltory to keep track of my stress levels since I don’t have a health watch yet. It helps also with finding your golden hour as per the list of productivity hacks above.

Rooted in the Word

Prayer for Deliverance from Enemies

To the leader. A Psalm of David.

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
    and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!
    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
and my enemy will say, ‘I have prevailed’;
    my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.

But I trusted in your steadfast love;
    my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
    because he has dealt bountifully with me.

Psalm 13 New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised Catholic Edition (NRSVACE)
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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