“You don’t deal with stress, you just survive.”
The words wash over me and begin to sink in. They resonate with what I know to be true but have never given any time or thought to. I am joining my wife on a visit to a health coach to be a supportive husband. Rarely do I like being at any sort of medical office, so I am here out of love. Slightly annoyed with how involved I’m becoming in the conversation, it is clear this appointment is no longer just for her but for both of us.
A health coach is someone who educates on the effects that lifestyle choices have on your mental, emotional, and physical health, such as eating, exercise, and adrenaline-inducing activities. It’s surprisingly scientific and informed by blood work and DNA testing. The conversation has been predictable enough, but now it has turned toward stress management. She asks us how we handle the stress of our daily lives. We look at each other and shrug. We don’t. We do not take into account our stress or its effect on our lives and well-being; we simply grit our teeth and survive.
The fruits have not been good. That is why we are now visiting this wise woman.
The presence of stress in our daily lives has become so common in our culture it’s completely taken for granted. When I ask my friends how they are doing, nine times out of 10 “stressed” comes first, and it’s said in a nonchalant tone. We tell people we’re experiencing stress like we mention we stopped at the grocery store; it’s just something you do. Sometimes stress becomes a badge of honor in this broken world of ours; I’ve certainly witnessed it at work, on college campuses, and in certain churches. I’ve felt my own pride in being more stressed out than my colleagues.
Stress exists because there are stakes to our lives. No matter how big or small they may sound to others, they matter to us.
I don’t face my stress because I believe my being stressed fundamentally indicates I cannot handle my life. If I were more skilled at my job, if I were a better husband, if I were a stronger man, if I had what it takes to respond to all life is throwing at me, then I would not experience stress or its effects. At least, this is my hidden conviction, and operating under it is what led to my push-through mentality.
It is a crippling belief. Thank God, it is untrue. The presence of stress-related chemicals in our bodies, like adrenaline and cortisol, reveal that we came into the world “prepared” for stress, wired for it. Getting stressed out isn’t necessarily a character flaw. What matters is how I am handling it.
Our coach advises deep-breathing. It may sound a little hippy-dippy, but deep breathing releases serotonin, a neurotransmitter that balances our internal world and counteracts cortisol. The chemical effects of stress in the body can be helped just by taking 30 seconds and breathing deeply. Navy SEALs learn a technique they call “combat breathing,” which helps them control the surging emotions and bodily reactions to war. I begin to experience immediate relief.
Our nutritional Yoda also recommends moving, getting out, being active as a way to mitigate stress. So my wife Olivia and I pick up some gloves at a second-hand store and have rekindled our love of playing catch. These summer days have been perfect for standing in the yard and throwing a baseball back and forth. It is rhythmic, meditative, healing. So much better than my normal first reactions to stress—shut down, tune out, watch television, or spend hours on the Internet. Sure, it numbs. But soon my numbing begins feel like addiction.
Another big step for me this summer has involved addressing the toll stress has had on my soul. Three of my favorite remedies are stillness, beauty, and Scripture. Often I think I’m resting by “doing nothing,” but I’m never really doing nothing; I’m most likely numbing with some piece of technology or another. True stillness comes when I accept silence and let my thoughts and heart settle. It has been glorious to linger in the early morning and let my soul simply rest in the quiet. I am nourished by moving water under a canopy of leaves aglow with sunlight. I am nourished when I dig into the Psalms, not to study or memorize, but simply to enjoy and take in, let them wash over me and soak in.
Everybody’s got stress. Even those mighty disciples. I take a lot of comfort from this passage:
“The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” (Mark 6:30-31).
Summer is the perfect time to heal up from some of the stress in our lives. For me, I couldn’t enter into the rest until I began to let go my sense that “stress equals failure; just press through.” If you’re finding it hard to rest this summer, you might ask yourself why.