So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows.
This has been one of the most stressful 15 months in my life that I can remember. I suspect I’m not alone. Difficult economic times have affected not only me, but the entire United States and the world. Terrorism, mass shootings, earthquakes, deadly diseases, famines, floods, monster storms, greedy selfish people… all the things Jesus mentioned would happen in the last days (Luke 21). We’ve always had these perils but, as one of my professors in college said, in the last days, they will be happening on a worldwide scale like we’ve never seen before. That’s what sets them apart from previous world history.
Then there’s our mashugana election (yiddish term to describe something crazy or bizarre) where both candidates are riddled with so many flaws in character, behavior and policy that one feels like throwing one’s hands up in the air and walking away.
For me, personally, having sold my home and all my belongings, moving to a state where I knew no one, and moving four times in as many months filled me with unsettledness and fear. Since one of my biggest fears has always been fear of the unknown, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to deal with this on a daily basis. Like many Americans, I had also gotten into debt and needed to drastically downsize to reduce my cost of living in order to pay these debts back. I am diligently working toward that end but it’s tough. Some creditors have been easy to work with. One is taking me to court. More stress.
The first thing well-meaning people say to me is, “Well, you need to get out there, pound the streets and drum up more work!” (I have.)
“You need to apply for a job!” (I have, many times over. Although I have been qualified and even more than qualified for the positions I have applied, I suspect my age is the disqualifying factor.)
“You need to save!” (from what surplus?)
Combine all that with extreme heat and humidity outside that makes even walking to the mailbox a dripping wet endeavor and I began to experience “stress storms” in my brain. Hyperventilation, blue lips, wildly racing heart and thoughts, inability to concentrate or sleep well, blurry vision, fearful thoughts that quickly turn to “awful-izing” every situation and imagining worst-case scenarios were the physical manifestions. My hands would cripple up, fingers bent and I was unable to straighten them. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. I would grind my teeth so hard at night that I’d wake up with significant jaw pain. The temptation to return to old methods of coping was a real one and sometimes I succumbed.
Dr. Phil talked about stress storms on his daily television program. He said stress storms happen in your brain when you are in a non-stop cycle of stress and anxiety. It is at a brain level and you have to interrupt these stress storms during the day by stopping what you’re doing, engage in deep, rhythmic breathing, exercise, learn to do other things like celebrating yourself (turns out the brain also runs on celebration), and get rid of the stressors in your life.
Stress is the body’s reaction to a demand. Stressors are the things that cause the stress.
He was working with one couple who had some major stressors in their lives. The wife had had a heart transplant and was advised by her doctors to keep stress to a minimum. She was dependent upon her husband’s medical insurance for all the medications she needed to stay alive and she feared he could lose his job because of economic pressures on his company. If that happened, she would lose her insurance and they would lose their home—everything they had worked all their lives for. This was causing unbearable strain in their relationship, in their health and in their brains.
Dr. Phil put things in perspective for them. He said, “YOU didn’t create the economic crisis in America. And you can’t lay awake at night stressing over it. Losing the house is bricks and mortar. It’s not the worst thing that can happen. The worst thing that can happen is that you lose your health, your marriage or your LIFE! You need to have the mindset of ‘I would rather be a hippie that lives in a van down by the river than keep this house with all its worry and stress.’ The real tragedy is not the loss of a house or job, the real tragedy is the loss of your health or the breakdown of a relationship.”
He’s right. Hanging on to stressors has no good ending… ever. I’m a spiritual person and I do a lot of praying. I wondered, If I am experiencing all this stress and I have a God in heaven who hears my prayers and gives me strength and encouragement, how do people who have no faith manage? It’s up to them to figure it out and if they don’t…?
I’m still not entirely convinced of that scripture about God not giving you more than you can handle, though. I think I’ve passed the “more” level on the Stress-O-Meter quite a few times in my life.
I learned that King David, as favored and loved by God as he was, had stress storms too.
“I am exhausted and completely crushed.
My groans come from an anguished heart.
You know what I long for Lord;
You hear my every sigh.
My heart beats wildly, my strength fails,
and I am going blind.”
King David cried out to God in his stress and he didn’t mince words.
“I am waiting for you, O Lord.
You must answer me, O Lord my God. (emphasis mine)
Don’t let my enemies gloat over me or rejoice at my downfall.
I am on the verge of collapse, facing constant pain.”
And then King David does something that goes completely contrary to human nature. He begins to praise the Lord.
There’s something about lifting your head, turning your eyes toward heaven and speaking positive words of praise that reaffirms your faith and interrupts the stress storms in your brain. If it’s a brain thing then retraining the brain to think differently is the key to recovery. For those who don’t believe in God but instead choose a Higher Power, the same thing can happen. Because it’s a principle in action. Since my Higher Power is Hashem (God), I focus on Him.
I decided to implement these things into my daily routine. I get up early in the morning and go to the pool where I swim laps and do water aerobics for 30 minutes at least four days a week, sometimes five. When I return, I spend time meditating on Scriptures that speak hope, promise and goodness, sometimes reciting them out loud. There is power in the spoken word. If you don’t believe this, just observe the lives of children who have grown up being told they are stupid or lazy or worthless by their parents, teachers or other significant adult. They hear these words, believe them and grow up living lives that amount to nothing. How much more do positive words affect our psyches and, indeed, the direction of our lives?
In the morning, I thank God for His mercies which are new for me each day. In the evening, I thank Him for His faithfulness in getting me through the day’s challenges. An attitude of gratitude retrains the brain too.
If stress is mounting during the day, I stop what I’m doing, lay on my back and focus on deep, rhythmic breathing. Sometimes at night, I wear ear plugs because then the only thing I can hear is my own rhythmic breathing. It’s amazing how this works to give me a deeper, more restful sleep.
Good sleep is essential to a healthy life. If you keep somebody awake long enough, you can break them down. Poor sleep is associated with high blood pressure, stroke, heart attack and diabetes. I feel sorry for people in the nursing profession or all night places of employment. Shift work is horrible for human beings. It interrupts the normal routine of daylight for being awake and darkness at night for producing melatonin.
Dr. Phil could not stress enough the importance of getting good quality sleep. He listed ways to accomplish this:
- Set a regular time to sleep and wake, and stick to it.
- Avoid napping.
- Avoid alcohol, caffeine, sugary or spicy foods
- No TV, no laptop or phone before bed
(blue light effect: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/q-a-why-is-blue-light-before-bedtime-bad-for-sleep/)
- No exercise before bed
- If you have a spouse or bed companion, reconsider your sleeping arrangements. It may be better to sleep in another room.
- Don’t try harder to fall asleep. Just let your mind relax.
I’m trying to incorporate these good sleep rituals in my own bedtime routine too, although the avoiding sugary foods and TV part is harder than I thought.
In ancient Biblical times, the Israelites were led by God through the wilderness, then across the Jordan River into the Promised Land. He went before them, always present, always leading, always guiding. Their job was to follow and obey. Whenever they had a miraculous deliverance from God, they were instructed to pile up stones at that place so that whenever they passed by there again, they would remember what God did on their behalf.
I’ve decided I’m going to start collecting stones and build a little pile somewhere in my room. Maybe I’ll go to Michaels and buy some of those smooth, black Zen stones and a cool Asian bowl to put them in. On each stone, I will write the miracle: Sale of home during terrible housing market, nice home to live in with a delightful roommate, debts paid off, health restored, answered prayer, etc. Because when times are good and things are running smoothly, it’s easy to forget how God came to my rescue time and time again. I’ve also typed up several verses of promise on a sheet of paper and posted them on the refrigerator where I know I will see and read them several times a day. And I choose not to give in to fear, sometimes on an hour-by-hour basis.
One of my favorite authors and speakers is Joyce Meyer. She just tells it like it is. I respond to straight talk more than smooth, easy pat answers. She writes about dealing with fear in her daily devotional, The Confident Woman:
“You can move from pain to power by reeducating your mind. The Bible refers to this process as renewing the mind. Simply put, we must learn how to think differently. If you have been taught to fear, you can be taught to be bold, courageous and confident.
“Rather than allowing fear to prevent your success and joy in life, you can accept that it is a fact of life. Fear has a large shadow, but fear itself is actually very small. When we fear we will suffer, we already suffer the things we fear. Fear brings torment!
“Instead of thinking that you cannot do things if you are afraid, make up your mind that you will do whatever you need to do even if you are afraid. Change your thinking about fear. We allow fear to become a monster in our thinking, but it is one that will back down quickly when confronted. Fear is like the school bully. It pushes everyone around until someone challenges it.”
So in my daily routine, I am also confronting my fears. I don’t know what lies ahead, for me or my country or the world. But God does. And I know He loves me, has a future and a hope for me, and is going before me, leading the way. It’s my job to follow and obey what He tells me to do. No matter what happens, it is the only safe place to be.
“The Lord is my strength and shield.
I trust him with all my heart.
He helps me and my heart is filled with joy.
I burst out in songs of thanksgiving.
The Lord gives his people strength.”