Managing the stress

When I was a child, our family held hands before every meal and we said a blessing. The blessings were usually quite short and designed so that children could easily memorize them. To this day, one of my favorites is:
We thank thee, Lord, for happy hearts
For rain and sunny weather
We thank thee, Lord, for this our food
And that we are together.

Our children were raised with the same practice and many of the same prayers.

Our grandchildren have a slightly modified practice that is so powerful that we have taken to imitating even when we are not with the grandchildren. They take a few moments to go around the table and each person says, “I’m thankful for . . .” It doesn’t take me long to come up with a lot of things for which I am very grateful. On a clod, blustery night with snow in the air, I’m thankful to have a warm home with lots of windows so I can look out at the cold without getting cold. I’m thankful to have such a wonderful wife and such great children and grandchildren. I’m thankful for my brothers and sisters and all they added to my life. I’m thankful to have deer and turkeys for neighbors and a few very wonderful human neighbors as well. I’m thankful fr professional colleagues who challenge my thinking and offer support for my ministry. I’m thankful for a congregation that supports me in my vocation. I’m thankful for the music that surrounds my every day. I’m thankful for the children in the preschool . . . . I could go on and on. And when I do, I feel much better for doing that.

My first piece of advice for people trying to figure out how to cope in these stressful days is to develop a practice of expressing your gratitude. Keep a gratitude journal. Speak your thanksgiving out loud at every meal. Think of all of the small things that bring happiness to you every day. Sure these days are filled with all kinds of reasons to worry. It probably is naive or irresponsible to not have a little worry. But you can reframe the way you look at the world. The same world that has brought coronavirus into our lives is the world that gave us raindrops and rainbows, snow crystals and trees, birds and hot summer days. There are a lot of things that bring us joy.

Joy is not the same thing as happiness. You can experience joy in the midst of trauma. Joy is much more than a burst of emotion. If you spend your life chasing happiness - living for the short bursts of emotion that overwhelm you, you will end up exhausted and disappointed. Instead, look for those little things that put a smile on your face and warm your heart despite difficult circumstances. The best way to get out of focusing your attention on your own surface happiness, is to pay attention to someone else’s happiness. Make someone else happy and you will feel joy.

When you are feeling overwhelmed with stress, it can help to have a diversion. A hobby or a pet are excellent things that demand your attention and draw you away from focusing on your worries. Sometimes we obsess on the stressful event, playing it over and over in our brains. It can give you a bit of respite to simply take a vacation from thinking about the trauma. Name a few things that you love to do and get a mental image of yourself doing those things. Create a diversion from the drudgery and stress of everyday life. Learn to go on a vacation in your imagination.

Take a deep breath. There are breathing prayers and meditation practices focused on breathing in every major world religion. You don’t have to call it centering prayer to appreciate the benefits of simply paying attention to your breathing. It is an incredible thing that is happening. You draw air, rich in oxygen into your lungs and your lungs help the oxygen to get into your blood stream to nurture all of your organs, including your brain. You can lower your blood pressure simply by taking a series of very deep breaths. Paying attention to your breathing takes you mind away from the problems and stresses of everyday living. You don’t have to become a mystic or a monk to enjoy the simple pleasure of breathing in and out. Exhaling as completely as possible and then pausing a second or two before starting to draw in the next breath can give you an incredible sense of well-being and relaxation.

When I taught stress management classes years ago, one of the things that was hardest for very busy, overcommitted individuals to do was to simply stop it. If something causes you stress, stop it. If relationships are dragging you down, stop it. If your worries are keeping you up at night. Stop it. It is easier said than done and it takes a lot of practice, but you can learn to simply stop doing the things that bring you the most stress.

Exercise for endurance. Figure out some way of getting into motion. Make sure you stand up for a minute or more every hour. Find an exercise program that works for you. Maybe you like to go for walks. Maybe you prefer going to the gym. Maybe you like equipment. Maybe you simply want to be yourself. Find some form of physical activity that you can pursue without injury and make time to engage in your practice.

The isolation demanded by our current situation means that you need to take responsibility for your feelings and your management of stress. There may not be an opportunity to talk it out with a professional counselor for a long time. Find out what works for you. Maybe you want to learn to meditate. Maybe you are looking for a service project. Maybe you are working for him as diligently as you did from your office until recently. Find your own spiritual disciplines. Then share them. There are a lot of other people trying to learn how to cope.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!