By Denise McGuiness, PhD, M.Div | Pastoral Psychologist, Deacon
We all know that life is stressful. In fact, without a certain amount of stress, life would probably be boring. We use certain internal stressors such as deadlines to make sure we stay on track with our responsibilities. Stress can occur due to positive events in our lives, such as a new marriage or the birth of a baby. It can also come from negative situations, such as a death in the congregation while you are on vacation or conflict within the church that is being handled inappropriately through the rumor mill.
Clergy are asked to be many things to many different people and can easily feel overwhelmed by their inability to satisfy everyone. It can seem like a 24-hour day is just not enough to meet everyone’s expectations. When we become overwhelmed by a task, deadline, or commitment, we can move from stress to di-stress.
Stress and anxiety are fight or flight instincts that are our body’s natural way of responding to emergencies. When there is an actual emergency, this instinct allows us to think clearly and quickly respond to what is needed. Hormones race through our body, speeding up our heart and other physical processes to help us avoid or deal with the threat. However, because we have the ability to anticipate problems, many of us fall into chronic worry or planning for possible problems that never materialize. Even the thoughts about these possibilities can trigger the same flood of hormones and stress. Chronic anxiety leads to impairment of the immune system and increases the risk of physical and mental problems. It can lead to autoimmune diseases, coronary artery disease, and decreased satisfaction with life.
Signs of stress vary among individuals but may include:
- Worry, anxiety, or panic attacks
- Sadness or depression
- Feeling pressured and hurried
- Irritability and moodiness
- Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
- Physical symptoms, i.e. stomach problems, headaches, or chest pain
- Allergic reactions, such as a skin rash or asthma
- Sleeping problems
- Smoking or abusing alcohol or drugs
- Sexual dysfunction
- Eating too much or not enough
Mindfulness is a great tool for dealing with stress and anxiety. This practice involves stilling the mind by letting go of thoughts or emotions as they arise and tuning back into the present moment. Simply focusing on the breath or your body is one way to do this. There are many other useful techniques you can experiment with.The only definition of successful practice is when you are able to notice your thoughts or feelings, name them and let them go, always returning to a focus on the present moment.
Practicing this type of stillness is best done as a regular part of your routine before you are in the midst of an upsetting situation. Then when these situations occur, you can lean on your practice of letting go of the unhelpful thoughts that just add more stress. A great resource describing how to use this technique is The Mindful Way through Anxiety: Break Free from Chronic Worry and Reclaim Your Life by Susan Orsillo, PhD & Lizabeth Roemer, PhD.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is another tool that can help to alleviate anxiety. The first step in this process is learning how to identify intrusive thoughts and discern which are rational and which are irrational. A therapist can help to identify the thoughts that are causing anxiety and teach you ways to challenge them, thereby decreasing their power to create distress. This type of therapy has been shown to be a very effective means of reining in chronic worry, anger, or depression. A good resource on CBT is When Panic Attacks by David Burns, MD.
It is also important to remember to take time for self-care, whether it be time spent in solitude, fellowship with friends and family, and/or getting proper nutrition, exercise, and sleep. Participating in positive activities and having fun is an important stress reducer. Watch any negative self-talk about not coping well or being incompetent. Seek out people that are supportive and caring. View problems as challenges rather than insurmountable obstacles.
Remember, stress is normal, but anxiety can be met head on and dealt with. Don’t be afraid to seek the help of a friend or therapist if life begins to feel overwhelming. We all need help at one time or another, and no one needs to go it alone.
Photo credit: “Stressed Out” by Phlebotomy Tech via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.
Coming soon: The second installment of Brad Beeman’s story of transformation. Click here for part one.