Stress kills. Stress makes you ill. Stress, it turns out, only does this if you actually thing it’s going to. Stress almost double your chances of dying but only if you think that it’s going to.
I am a stressy person, and I am not alone: a 2013 survey by the Mental Health Foundation revealed that almost half of the respondents felt stressed every day or every few days, and over half of British adults feel more stressed than they did five years ago. A recent article reported that ‘the average anxiety level of a Western teenager today is at a level that would have denoted a clinical anxiety disorder in the 1950s’ (Times Educational Supplement).
What do I mean by saying I’m stressy? I should explain that I was, until recently, quite seriously ill with anxiety and depression, and although I’m well on the way to recovery. I still get really stressed out by a lot of stuff, or at least more than normally stressed out by a little. Take last week, for example, when my car died completely. I was so instantly exhausted by the problem of how I was going to get to work, when and how I was going to replace my car that I became suddenly and totally physically wiped out. I could barely hold a conversation about the car without crying.
But why is it that something like this has such a profound effect on me and not on other people?
Well, first of all, we are a unity – body, soul and spirit – and so it’s hardly surprising that psychological stress has a physical effect or that physical stress (such as illness or exhaustion) has a psychological effect. Stress is not ‘all in the mind’ but neither is it ‘all in the body’
But I also think we’re confusing ourselves by using one word to talk about two things. We use ‘stress’ to describe things outside our control which happen: moving house, looking for a job, taking exams, managing money (essential items breaking unexpectedly), death or illness of a loved one… but we also use ‘stress’ to describe our response to this outside event.
So in the case of my car stress, not having the means to get to work is a real, objective stress. Being so stressed out that I need fourteen hours sleep for the next 3 nights just to be able talk about what to do about that stress is not. And this is because of the other ’inner’ stress, my response to the original stressful incident. That’s a lot of stress.
In my case, I know that my stress response goes something like this: my car is broken, it cannot be fixed, I will need to replace it, I don’t think I can afford this, I also don’t know how I’m going to get to work tomorrow, if I don’t go to work I will lose my job, if I lose my job I will be back where I was a year ago (when I was too ill to work), I will have no money, I will get ill again, I will never be able to get better, I will be ill forever, I will not have any friends, I will live with my mother until I die, my mother will die before me and I will be homeless.
Now, when I write this down in black and white I know it’s ridiculous – from engine failure to homelessness in less than a second – on the outside all I was facing a broken car with the immediate issue of how to get to work the next morning, and on the inside I was about to die alone on the streets. No wonder I was worn out!
Figuring out the difference between these two kinds of stress is important because they need to be approached in different ways. For the outside, objective, broken car kind of stress remember the following:
1. You cannot control everything. You are fragile and created and you cannot control everything (let it go, let it gooooo)
2. God never allows anything to happen to you that he doesn’t also give you the strength you need to live through it. Trust him.
3. This is a practical, definable problem, it may well have a practical definable solution: accept that you may need help in finding a solution and talk it over with someone you trust.
The inner kind of stress is a bit harder to pin down, especially because while it can sometimes be traced back to a specific cause, it is often something we create for ourselves out of more or less nothing which is rooted in an idea. For example, exams are stressful, they require study and our success or failure may well have a direct effect on our future. However, while failure may mean it takes a little longer to get on your desired career path, we often believe that tests and exams are also a measure of ourselves as a person. Failing an exam does not mean you are a failure any more than my car breaking down means that I am just a burden to everyone around me.
For dealing with inner stress remember the following:
1. God created you and he loves you. Your very existence is proof of his love, and is not dependent on exam results or having a job or your weight – he loves you for yourself.
2. Recognise that you are fragile and created. Everyone makes mistakes. This also does not affect your value.
3. Remember to be grateful. Thank God and the people around you for the good things in your life, however small they may seem.
4. Let other people in – talk to your friends, ask for help if you need it (recognise that you need it)
You might be wondering why I haven’t mentioned prayer, but I absolutely have, if not in so many words. Talk it over with others, let people in, recognise you need help – your first friend, the first person you can always go to for help is God himself.
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