Five Ways to Lessen Stress this Advent and Beyond
Yes, it is about that time of year when panic sets in and gift-buying looms over the horizon! Christmas is coming, and if we are not careful, the stress of this commercially busy time can overshadow the joy that our Lord continually wants to bring into our lives. Take Santa Clause for example! Have you ever heard why the banks never give Santa a loan? Well, as cruel as it may sound, it’s because his accounts are all frozen! Yes, even Santa gets stressed out during the build up to Christmas!
How many of you are feeling stressed-out at this very moment? If it’s not work, it’s maintaining the home, and if it’s not keeping up with the family and those responsibilities, it’s trying to keep healthy… and on and on the list goes.
Experts and analysts in psychology have done much studying and research to try and provide some very practical advice on merely a human level as to how we can deal with our stressors from day to day. They give five suggestions which can be very helpful. However, we will imitate Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas in the way they ‘Christianized’ the ancient Greek philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. We will briefly do the same with each strategy proposed to us from the merely secular, analytic, and scientific world of psychology and bring it home within a more spiritual and profound level pertinent to the gift of the Catholic faith which God has graced upon us.
Take a break from the stressor. “It may seem difficult to get away from a big work project, a crying baby or a growing credit card bill. But when you give yourself permission to step away from it, you let yourself have time to do something else, which can help you have a new perspective or practice techniques to feel less overwhelmed. It’s important to not avoid your stress (those bills have to be paid sometime), but even just 20-minutes to take care of yourself is helpful.”
In the spiritual world, we call this a retreat or some kind of getting away to be with God whenever you can. Step away from your everyday routine, to regather your strength with the Lord’s help, and return to face your challenges and your stressors with renewed vigor. Retreating helps in acknowledging that the particular problem in question is beyond my coping ability for the moment and I am going to have to step away to strategize and understand that the Lord is able to see me through this and transform whatever the difficulty is into a teaching moment and an opportunity to mature and gain wisdom.
The Lord Jesus, also took this precise kind of care with the Apostles, namely, that they step away for a while. “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 6:31. What he said to the Apostles, he says to us.
2.Exercise. “The research keeps growing — exercise benefits your mind just as well as your body. We keep hearing about the long-term benefits of a regular exercise routine. But even a 20-minute walk, run, swim or dance session in the midst of a stressful time can give an immediate effect that can last for several hours.”
The spiritual counterpart to this is looking after your body as God’s temple. St Paul reminds us with a question: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you received from God? You are not your own. You were bought at a price. Therefore, glorify God with your body.” 1 Cor 6:19. We look after our bodies because it is a gift given on loan, and not our own. It comes from God, who is the source of all things. He is the primary owner of our bodies, and yet, we all know the benefits on so many levels that keeping healthy affords us. We also look after our body while we can because with time it will naturally begin to deteriorate, and we would hope that this process is as gracious and clement as possible. On this note…
There was an elderly couple who realized they were getting forgetful in their old age, and so they went to ask the doctor asking what they should do. After reassuring them that this was absolutely natural, he suggested something that could help: “Write things down.”
They got home and the wife said to her husband, “Honey can you get me a bowl of ice cream, and you may want to write it down.” The husband said, ‘I can remember that.’ She said, “Well, then can you put some whipped cream on the ice cream? And you may want to write it down.” He said, “No problem! Ice cream with whipped cream on top.” She said, “Yes, but do you mind putting a cherry on top of the whipped cream? You may want to write it down.” He said, “Honey, no problem. Ice cream with whipped cream and a cherry on top.”
He went to the kitchen and spent an unusually long time in there. After half an hour he came out and handed his wife a plate with bacon and eggs! The wife looked at the plate, frowned, and said, “Where’s the toast?!”
Now hopefully this has brought you and us to the next suggestion our gifted psychologists recommend:
3. Smile and laugh. “Our brains are interconnected with our emotions and facial expressions. When people are stressed, they often hold a lot of the stress in their face. So psychological studies have shown that laughs or smiles can help relieve some of that tension and improve the situation.” Great…
During Advent, when we hear words like “gaudate” (rejoice) and see rose-coloured vestments and candles that remind us of the joy God sends with the season, what can be the spiritual and deeper counterpart to smiling and laughing? The beatitudes… all those reminders to us that begin with the word “happy!” All of those show what kind of joy God intends for us. We all want to be happy and filled with joy, something that truly only God can give, yet in our human nature we find substitutes for God.
Thomas Aquinas said that the four typical substitutes for God are wealth, pleasure, power, and honour. The classical term for this errant desire has always been “concupiscence,” but the more contemporary term, as Bishop Robert Barron points out in Catholicism, is “addiction.”
“When we try to satisfy the hunger for God with something less than God, we will naturally be frustrated, and then in our frustration, we will convince ourselves that we need more of that finite good, so we will struggle to achieve it, only to find ourselves again, necessarily, dissatisfied. At this point, a sort of spiritual panic sets in, and we can find ourselves turning obsessively around this creaturely good that can never in principle make us happy.”
Thomas Aquinas said that if you want to see the perfect exemplification of the beatitudes, you should look to Christ crucified. He also said that being happy and filled with joy will entail detesting those things Jesus detested on the cross (wealth, pleasure, power, and honour), and loving those things that Jesus loved on the cross—the Father’s will. An example of what He wills: forgiveness. Jesus embraced forgiveness even from the cross because he knew this brought great glory to the Father. If we too make it a point to forgive, notwithstanding how difficult he knows it can be, we allow him to liberate not only the other person from a world of guilt and shame and sadness, but also ourselves from a prison of anger, bitterness, and hate. Through God’s grace, he sets us free, and taking a huge sigh of relief, we are able to receive once again the joy that will help us laugh and smile… and ultimately relieve stress!
4. Get social support. “Call a friend, send an email. When you share your concerns or feelings with another person, it does help relieve stress. But it’s important that the person whom you talk to is someone whom you trust and whom you feel can understand and validate you. If your family is a stressor, for example, it may not alleviate your stress if you share your works woes with one of them.”
The spiritual and more profound consideration of this understands that we journey forward to the “promised land”, to Heaven— together. We are the one body of Christ, made up of so many different members moving forward together. We all need each other, but we all need the right people to help get us through difficult times to more tranquil places in our lives. The company we keep will have a bearing on the people we choose to become.
The seven Sacraments, given to us by God, manifest this truth in a powerful way. They serve for this life, but ultimately lead us to the next where they will no longer be needed, but if you notice, in every one of the seven, there is a common denominator: it always involves one person helping another get to a better place. This is God’s grace which guides us in a collaborative journey to heaven and an eternity with Him. When participating correctly and appropriately in the Sacraments, you are uniting with people who are making an effort themselves to get closer to God. This is the right company to keep. These are the people who can help you in profound, life-altering ways. Have recourse to such people, for God will be helping you through them.
5. Meditate. “Meditation and mindful prayer help the mind and body to relax and focus. Mindfulness can help people see new perspectives, develop self-compassion and forgiveness. When practicing a form of mindfulness, people can release emotions that may have been causing the body physical stress. Much like exercise, research has shown that even meditating briefly can reap immediate benefits.”
We have saved the best till last. Jesus once pointed out to Martha that she was concerned (stressed out) about many things in this passing world, while Mary chose the wiser concern of building a relationship with God through prayer. “Martha, Martha, the Lord replied, “you are worried and upset about many things. But only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen that thing.” Luke 10:42.
Many of us are like Martha in these days leading up to Christmas. We forget to sit in the presence of Jesus and spend time speaking to him and listening to his words. You are his treasure, and his plan for you extends beyond this life. You need to listen for it. You need to see with the eyes of faith. Take time to discover its beauty. Step away from whatever it is that is stressing you out, so you can gather your resources and God will reinvigorate your spiritual resolve. Go slow. One day at a time. Take Jesus’ solid advice and, “do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” Matthew 6:34.
This Christmas, know that you have been loved from all eternity by the One who promised to be with you every day. He knows what your needs are. Trust him. Give all your stress to him and hear him say to you as you retreat a while: “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:28.
Have a blessed Advent Season, my dear sisters, and may God continue to bless you and your loved ones, especially those who are sick and in difficult situations. Though some of our days may be dark, the Light has entered into our world. Celebrate the Birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is our joy and peace. In the words of Habbakuk: “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.
The Sovereign Lord is my strength.”
Merry Christmas and God bless you all. +
Note* The five psychological suggestions I proposed to you above are taken from the American Psychological Association website and can be found here: http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/manage-stress.aspx