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Five ways to deal with stress

Author: John McKenna

Five ways to deal with stress

Rather than being bad, new research is claiming that stress is good and can help us grow…a view found in the Bible for the past 2,000 years, says John McKenna.

On holiday recently my wife passed over the magazine she was reading and suggested I look at an article on stress.

Rather than finding the usual and predictable self-help rubbish that I was expecting, there was an interview with American psychologist Kelly McGonigal on her admission that for years she has been making a fundamental mistake: she has been telling her clients that stress is bad for them and something to be avoided.

As you can see by watching the TED talk video below (viewed more than 8 million times in the past two years), McGonigal discovered a number of studies that suggested that it isn’t stress that is harmful, but how we think about stress.

People who said they had experienced a lot of stress and viewed it as something bad had a 43% greater chance of dying, while those who didn’t view it as bad were no more likely to die than those who said they had experienced very little stress at all:

As I read McGonigal’s interview in my wife’s copy of Red magazine, it occurred to me that much of what McGonigal describes as healthy ways of dealing with stress have been a recommended part of Christian living for the past 2,000 years.

So, marrying modern science with ancient Christian wisdom, here are five ways of dealing with stress:

1.     Refined through the fire

McGonigal’s book The Upside of Stress goes against modern thinking and says that stress is not something that should be avoided. It should be embraced: the symptoms of being in a stressful situation are your body’s way of helping you deal with it. For example, faster breathing helps get more oxygen to your brain so that you can think more clearly.

The Bible is clear that stressful, unpleasant situations in life are not something to be avoided. Jesus in John’s Gospel says “In this world you will have trouble. But take Heart! I have overcome the world.” He encourages each of us to pick up our cross, not avoid it.

Our faith is not something to help us escape from our troubles, but to help us tackle them head-on.

Indeed, just as McGonigal claims stress is good because it helps us rise to challenges and grow as individuals, so St. Peter wrote in his first letter that trials and challenges help us grow in faith: “These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold.”

2.     Step out of the boat

Avoidance of stress can lead to the avoidance of taking risks, to avoid making decisions that may have stressful consequences. However, McGonigal claims that people leading supposedly less-stressful lives were shown in studies to be less healthy than those who embraced stress as something positive. This was because these people were normally placing themselves in stressful situations in the pursuit of something that was meaningful to them. It was worth the risk.

Likewise, Jesus is very clear throughout the Gospels that following him means taking risks. It means leaving behind safety and security and, like Peter, often stepping out onto the water in faith.

3.     Fellowship

In the Red article, the journalist interviewing McGonigal confesses to being stressed as she rushed to get to the interview on time. McGonigal admits that she too was worried she would be late, and says that this illustrates what she calls in her book the “common humanity” principle. Briefly, this advises the reader that instead of believing that everyone else is happier (or earlier) than us, we should remind ourselves that almost everyone else feels the same way.

If we are to grow in our faith, we have to build up fellowship with our Christian brothers and sisters through initiatives such as small prayer groups and spiritual mentoring. By having intimate, honest relationships with other believers, we can remind ourselves that we all face doubts, temptations and other struggles, and most of them are very common.

4.     Don’t worry about tomorrow

Stress can only be a force for good if you can do something about that situation. Worrying about far-off events outside of your immediate control is definitely bad for you. As Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel: “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

5.     Be a servant

One surprising claim that McGonigal makes is that oxcytocin – commonly know as the “cuddle hormone” as it plays a role in helping mothers bond with their newborn babies – is actually a stress hormone. When we are stressed, our bodies tell us to reach out to others for help. McGonigal advises her clients that if they are feeling overwhelmed by exhaustion or grief they should help others and be more generous with their time. This is perhaps the clearest echo among McGonigal’s research of Gospel values. Jesus calls us to love our neighbours as ourselves, and promises that “whoever loses his life for my sake will find it”.

This emptying of ourselves has an added benefit when it comes to stress: if I accept that it is God that is in charge of my day, I am far less likely to become stressed out about all the various little distractions that can set my day’s schedule off course – I am able to accept that God’s the one organising my diary, not me.

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