I was asked to speak at a Youth Ministry meeting concerning stress and worry. This is an important topic for teens, who have a lot on their minds as they mature into adulthood. I did not think it would be the right approach to simply throw out Bible verses that tell us God loves us so we should not worry. God made us both spirit and flesh, and we need to minister to both. I wanted to give the teens something concrete they can relate to, so focused mainly on the human aspects of stress. I am not a psychologist, but have a lot of experience with stress in my own life. Here is what I shared.
Let’s start by understanding what stress really is. The dictionary defines stress as “physical, mental or emotional strain or tension”. For this talk, I would like to expand that definition as follows:
Stress is our body’s physical and mental reaction to situations in life that threaten our physical or emotional well-being. Stress is the body’s way of bringing awareness to situations we need to act upon. Our level of stress increases as the possible threat to our well-being increases.
Examples of Stress
Mild stress can be caused by public speaking, job interviews or asking someone out on a date. The possibility of embarrassment or rejection makes us nervous. Stress might lead us to practice what we want to say over and over again, in hopes of getting a good outcome.
Higher levels of stress might be caused by driving in heavy traffic or walking alone down a dark alley. The possibility of physical harm causes a “fight or flight” reaction. Stress would lead us to have a heightened awareness of our surroundings and movements of others. We focus harder on our environment to give us a better chance of avoiding harm.
The highest levels of stress are often caused by situations that alter our life in a significant way or maybe seem to have no end in sight. Losing a loved one, losing a job or living with overbearing parents are very stressful situations. The problem with these situations is that stress is renewed every day. It does not seem to go away and can build up until the stress may be hard to handle.
Stress is normal. Life in general is filled with situations that are beyond our control. No matter how careful we are, we will get a cut or bruise. No matter how we treat others, somebody will emotionally hurt us. There will always be situations in life that trigger a stress response. It is hard or impossible to avoid stress.
Stress is ok. Each of us has a certain level of comfort, or discomfort, in different situations. Things that cause one person stress may not cause others stress, and vice versa. Someone with a natural ability in math will have less stress over a math test. Someone who is very sociable is less likely to be stressed speaking publicly. It is ok to be stressed in situations where others are not. Stress will not go away just because someone tells us the situation is nothing to get stressed over.
Stress is nothing to be guilty about. We often believe we should be able to handle situations better. We do not like getting nervous or upset. We wonder why we cannot stop the feelings. We may wonder why, after so long a time, we cannot “get over” the grief caused by the loss of a loved one. But, if we deeply love someone, shouldn’t we always want to remember them and never get to the point where we act like they never existed? It’s ok to cry.
Stress is good if it leads to action. When we realize that we are feeling stress, we begin to evaluate the situation and the potential physical, mental or emotional impact. When we correctly respond to stress, we increase the likelihood of a better outcome. The stress of an exam might lead us to study more. Stress in social situations may lead us to be cautious of our words and call on fortitude to get through it. Stress can protect us from harm. When driving situations cause stress, we automatically become more aware of our surroundings. We see every car on the road as a potential accident, so we drive with extra caution.
Stress needs to be managed, not relieved. We have to be careful about how we approach stress. There are hundreds of videos on YouTube with titles like: “Reducing stress”, “Relieving Stress”, “Dealing with stress” and lots of stress relaxing music. Sometimes, we do need to step back and clear our mind to manage a situation. It is not often a good thing to react without thinking. To use meditation or relaxing music to calm down in order to think is a good thing. To continually watch the stress relief videos to try to avoid stress in our life is not good.
God loves you and has not abandoned you. God created each of us for the purpose of sharing in His own blessed life in Heaven. God is always drawing close to us and calling us to Himself. (These are the first two sentences of the Catholic Catechism.) We should reject any temptation to believe God has abandoned us or does not love us. Each of us is so important to God that Jesus gave His own life on the cross for each of us. He would not die for us only to then abandon us. Why God allows bad things to happen to good people is an entire topic of itself. But just believe, always believe, God is not punishing you or abandoning you.
Worry is not the same thing as stress. Stress and worry are often mentioned together as though they are the same thing, but they are not. Let’s take a look at worry.
The dictionary defines worry as “to torment oneself with or suffer from disturbing thoughts.”. Honestly, I cannot describe worry any better than that. Worry torments us with disturbing thoughts of the worst possible outcome. Worry keeps our focus on the problem and can prevent us from concentrating on a solution. Worry may hinder meaningful prayer. Worry can lead to loss of hope.
For comparison, let’s look at the dictionary definition of concern, “interested, affected, troubled or anxious”. Stress, at first causes, concern. We become interested in the possible effect of a situation. We may even become nervous or troubled. The anxiety we first experience by stress is not the same as the constant anxiety felt when one has an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorder do require medical attention.
One final definition, despair is defined as “to lose or give up hope”. When a bad situation continues for a long time, worry can become despair. We see no end in sight and have no hope for a better outcome. Despair is characterized by lack of focus, lack of energy or desire to do anything and losing a sense of self-worth. If despair is recognized it is very important to seek professional help quickly. Despair does not always lead to suicide, but suicide is caused by a feeling of complete hopelessness in a bad situation.
So, to summarize…stress causes concern…if stress is not managed properly, concern becomes worry…if worry is allowed to persist, we can lose hope and feel despair.
Worry is not good in anything but a a life-threatening situation. Do we really want to "torment ourself with disturbing thoughts" because we do not have enough friends on Facebook or because our post does not have a lot of likes? What about completely unchangeable situations? It is only society, not God, who places value on looks and intelligence and ability and money. God made us who we are. We are made in His image regardless of how we look. There is no reason, really, to allow society to force us into worry because of our weight, looks, physical ability or intelligence. Society's emphasis on these things and all the ads that tell us we need to change to be better are simply the attacks of evil to take away our Christian joy and witness. (Sorry about the soapbox, but God loves us as we are and that is enough!).
I heard a priest one time describe evil not as being the opposite of love but as the total absence of God’s love. In that sense, I like to think of worry not as the opposite of hope but rather as the absence of hope and trust in God. If love drives out evil, then hope and trust in God drive out worry.
A final point about worry. When we begin to worry, we should quickly ask ourself if the situation is life threatening. If we often worry about non-life-threatening situations, for example how many friends we have online or how many people like our post, we should consider professional help.
Avoid harmful ways of dealing with stress
Let’s return to the point that stress must be managed and not relieved. There are ways of reducing “the feeling of” stress that do more harm than good. These stress reducers have a high tendency to cause addiction. They include:
- Compulsive spending
- Emotional eating
- Sexual relationships
It iS true, all of these reduce the feeling of stress. They create a sense of happiness that relaxes nerves and makes us forget about the stressful situation. But the problem is none of them resolve the situation that causes stress. Since the stress does not go away and the stress is not managed, we must continually engage in the harmful act to keep the feeling of stress away. Thus, causing addiction.
Some Ideas for Managing Stress
I do not have a psychology degree and am not qualified to give a “how to” guide on managing stress. But I can offer ideas as one who has had his share of stress in life. Here are some of my thoughts. I hope they help.
- Be aware of stress and do not ignore stress of any level
- We cannot manage what we do not know, and we will not manage what we ignore
- Accept stress as a call to action
- Acknowledge that it is ok for you to feel stress, because stress is a normal part of life
- Acknowledge your stress is ok even in situations where others do not feel stress
- Do not feel guilty about stress and do not put expectations on when you need to get over it
- Make good decisions
- Decide that, no matter what, you will avoid harmful methods of relieving stress
- Decide that, even if the stressful situation is not your fault, it is up to you to manage it
- Decide that, even if you have no control over the situation, you will manage it somehow
- Decide that in all things you have no doubt that God still loves you and will lead you through it
- Put the situation into perspective by asking questions
- Am I expecting too much out of life? Am I unwilling to accept situations I do not like?
- Is there any way (hope) this situation will have a positive or better outcome in the course of my whole life?
- Is there a solution and I know what I need to do, but I just don’t want to do it? [like study]
- Have I faced this type of stress before, can I draw on past situations and what I learned to help me through it? [social situations or embarrassment]
- Is this something normal and natural that will just take time to heal? [grief]
- If another person is hurting me and will not change, can I learn to accept it and adjust my expectations until the situation changes?
- Be honst and ask if the stress is self-induced and you need to change something
- Is my schedule too busy for what I can actually accomplish?
- Are my priorities in life appropriate?
- Have I given too much priority to things that really are not as important?
- What would be the result if I just let some things slip? Is the stress worth achieving my goals?
- Avoid worry
- The moment the word "worry" comes out of my mouth consider:
- Is the situation life-threatening and worth the extra anxiety of worry? If no, cast out worry.
- Am I really worried or just concerned? Don't talk yourself into worrying.
- Find any consolation, help or scripture to increase your hope and trust in God, as hope casts out worry.
- Consider medical assistance
- We do not hesitate to call a physician if we have the flu or have severely cut ourself. The physician assesses the situation and prescribes medicine or stitches. These simply assist the body to get into a position where it can finish healing itself. So, why not seek professional help if we just cannot handle the stress?
- Know that you are not a failure if you need professional assistance. Keep in mind you cannot set your own broken bones or put in your own stitches.
- Seek the Lord for help and trust Him
- If you are not praying for strength, then pray…every day, not just once.
- If you are not praying for guidance, then pray…every day, not just once.
- When you pray "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done" mean it. Don't just say the words.
- Be willing to accept God's solution and not try to make God do your solution.
“No trial has come to you but what is human. God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13).
Stress comes to all humans. We cannot avoid it. Even Jesus felt stress. During your hard times, meditate on Luke 22:39-46 about Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Compare His stress to yours and ask Him to give you the strength He had as He faced his upcoming death.
If you feel you cannot bear it, ask why. Are you open to God's will and solution? Are you managing things or just "numbing the pain? Do not reject professional help. God gave us physicians (both physical and mental) to help us. He does not always perform miracles and sometimes just gives us the tools and guidance for success and wants us to use them.
To end on a spiritual note, never forget “With God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26).