We were gathered over our Bonhoeffer biographies, ostensibly discussing Dietrich’s life story, but our words had skipped off trail into the lives we were living. We were talking about stress; how everyone seems to have quite a lot of it, how it becomes unbearable, overwhelming. How do we manage it, reduce it, live well with it?
As we spoke, I found I couldn’t fully relate to the levels of stress, anxiety, and it’s corollary, depression, that seem endemic in our society. Yes, I’d had stressful moments; I think of those times when the phone is ringing, the baby is crying, and someone spills the rice bag across the floor, but they are moments, not a chronic state of affairs.
“Is stress inevitable?” I asked. The question left a wondering silence.
“Stress is simply a reaction to a stimulus that disturbs our physical or mental equilibrium. In other words, it’s an omnipresent part of life. A stressful event can trigger the “fight-or-flight” response, causing hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol to surge through the body.” -Psychology Today
Certainly there will always be stimuli that provoke us to internal agitation, but can we determine the dominance of that energy? Can we contain that disruption and maintain inner peace? Are we at the mercy of stress? How does our faith, or lack thereof, inform our response to this malady?
I head to my bookshelf and open my 1970’s Webster Dictionary and look up stress.
stress: tension; strain
That was it. Wondering if “anxiety” would yield a more modern interpretation:
anxiety: worry; concern; disquietude; uneasiness
The modern version of Webster’s Dictionary defines it thus:
stress: a state of mental tension and worry caused by problems in your life, work, etc.; something that causes strong feelings of worry or anxiety
So is it, following Psychology Today’s wording, an omnipresent part of life, or is it a reaction to normal life that can be chosen or not chosen?
Clearly this isn’t only a modern problem; life’s stressors may have changed over time; we may no longer worry as much over marauding bands plundering us, nor famine, nor dying of a simple infection; but we fragile humans have always had provocations to worry. What has changed though, is how we regard this agitation, and what we believe about it.
Christianity has always taught that worry and anxiety are sins; a choice to not trust God.
“O men of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.” (Mt 6:30–34)
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; . . . not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” (John 14:27)
“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Philippians 4:6)
Today though, it seems, we are led to believe that stress, anxiety, worry, and depression happen to us, and that it is the norm. It is something, thus, to medicate, moderate, and live with. When did it go from being a choice to a chronic condition? I do not speak here for those with chemical imbalances in their bodies who wisely have sought medical treatment; I am not a doctor and certainly not an expert on mental health; I address only here the very common experience of being regularly “stressed out”, anxious, and/or depressed without an underlying medical condition.
Understanding stress, anxiety, and depression as external to choice would have been unfathomable to our Christian predecessors; if God had commanded us to not worry, nor be anxious and cast down, would He not also provide us with help to fulfill that command? Could it be that we are to take life’s stressors as good medicine for us, rather than reasons to fall into despair and fretting?
“Sometimes men are tested by pleasure, sometimes by distress or by physical suffering. By means of His prescriptions the Physician of souls administers the remedy according to the cause of the passions lying hidden in the soul.” -St. Maximos the Confessor
“You have anxieties about your life… Pray fervently to the Lord from your heart in this way: ‘I place my fate in Thy hands, O my Saviour. In the way that Thou knowest, arrange my life as is best. From now on I cut off every care about myself, having but one care, to do what is pleasing before Thee.’ Speak to God in this way, and by doing so you will already have placed yourself completely in His hands, not being concerned about anything, but calmly accepting every sort of situation, pleasant or unpleasant, as being arranged for you purposely by God. Your only concern should be to act according to God’s commandments in everything. This is all that is required of you.” -Saint Theophan the Recluse
“Without winter there would be no spring, and without spring there would be no summer. So it is also in the spiritual life: a little consolation, and then a little grief—and thus little by little we work out our salvation. Let us accept everything from the hand of God. If He comforts us, let us thank Him. And if He doesn’t comfort us—let us thank Him.” – St. Anatoly Zertsalov, 19th Century Optina Elder
That admonition, “Let us accept everything from the hand of God,” has changed me deeply, causing joy to seep into the cracks where despair and anxiety had reigned. If I truly trust God to be working diligently on my soul through the hardships, blessings, and day-to-day occurrences in my life, to make me more like Christ in all of it, then I have no reason to worry. Being captivated by worry and anxiety would be like turning away my face from Him, the Great Physician of my soul, and declaring that the prescription was all wrong, and that I’d take care of my self, thank You very much. I speak not as someone who has arrived at a constant state of peace, but as someone who has discovered a tool to help me get there.
Well, how do we learn this trust then? How do we stop the swirling, anxious thoughts, the mounting stress, and the harrowing depths of despair?
Here, as in many things, children are a good example for us. If they have good and loving parents they do not worry that they’ll not be fed, clothed, and cared for. They can look back and remember that all of their days everything necessary was provided for them with loving hands. In speaking with their parents they feel the love and kindness in their voices; they hear good words and feel assured.
So also with us, we must look back and acknowledge that God has been faithful to us, bringing us through, sometimes in spite of ourselves. We must speak with Him and listen to His loving voice. When thoughts swirl we must take them captive, holding on to truth, praying for God to help us. We must trust in His abiding love which does not let go.
“O Lord, I do not know what to ask of You. You alone know what are my true needs. You love me more than I myself know how to love. Help me to see my real needs which are concealed from me. I do not dare to ask either for a cross or for consolation. I can only wait on You. My heart is open to You. Visit and help me, for the sake of Your great mercy. Strike me and heal me; cast me down and raise me up. I worship in silence Your holy will and Your unsearchable ways. I offer myself as a sacrifice to You. I have no other desire than to fulfill Your will. Teach me to pray. Pray You Yourself in me. Amen.” – Prayer of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow
Is stress inevitable? The causes for stress, yes, however our reactions to stress need not follow a dark trajectory. We have, through constant prayer, a good defense from fear and melancholy, from anxiety and fuss. We choose, and we can learn to choose well.