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Faith Bloopers | Christian Living

When Stress is Your Friend

Christina Walker

Saturday, September 05, 2015

The last month and a half I’ve gone through a spiritual growth spurt.  The last month and a half has also incidentally been the most stressful few weeks I’ve faced since December 2011.  

A little over a month ago, I went on a week-long trip with a small group of volunteers to restore a section of trail in the San Juan mountains.  A week of isolation with a group of strangers in which the 8-mile hike in was one of the easier days of labor!  I froze every night in my sleeping bag, listened as a bear walked within feet of my tent each night, fell into a river on the way to the bathroom, and had to wear the same pair of pants for 3 days of rock-lifting, dirt kicking, and tree scrapping work.  And I loved it!  

Then I returned at the start of August to a change in position.  Before, I spent 19 months as an Emergency Response Therapist.  I was on-call to respond to mental health crises that people within my 3 counties experienced.  Crises such as suicide/homicide thoughts, mania or psychosis, self-harm, acute intoxication or dementia that resulted in suicidal thinking, and others.  It is meaningful work, but very isolating in a remote region.  It’s also difficult to only see people in crisis.  I am now working as part time ERT and part-time normal therapist.  I do nearly the same number of on-call hours out of necessity, but I am also putting in 3 days a week for therapy.  And I love it! 

This past month was more stressful than others because I was getting used to a new schedule, meeting new clients, learning new therapeutic techniques, struggling to get paperwork done each day, listening to traumatic stories, witnessing pain and grief, planning for sessions, and sometimes not sleeping at night due to an emergency call.  On top of this change, a family member went through a traumatic event, and I had a confrontation with someone.  As a non-confrontational person, this last one was a big stressor.

So how in the world, through all the hassle of the last six weeks, did I go through a spiritual growth spurt?  About two months ago, my supervisor suggested I read The Upside of Stress by Kelly McGonigal.  I got the book in the same, almost begrudging, way that you get school books.  But when I started to read, I was blown away.  

My entire life, I have viewed stress as the bad-guy.  I mean, sure, stress is important for survival if you’re running from a bear.  But how often is that the case in our lives?  Hopefully not often!!  Though if you need to learn how to hang your food in a tree, I can teach you that now!  Stress is toxic, we are told.  It’s worse than second-hand smoke, they say.  I lived a life stressed out about stress.  Because no matter how much yoga or deep breathing I did, stress found me.  

So it blew my mind when Kelly introduced scientific study after study showing that stress can actually be beneficial to us, and not just when running from a bear!  She learned through hers and others’ research that stress is not the bad guy, the belief that stress is bad for you is actually the villain!  People who believed that stress helped them to overcome obstacles experienced just as much stress as others.  But instead of getting the harmful side effects of stress, such as increased blood pressure, feelings of nausea, and chest pain, they instead had increases in attention, hormones that build bonding relationships, and joy in their work!  And all it took was viewing their stress differently.

Interested to see if her work was bogus, I applied the exercises to my life and incorporated my faith.  And I can testify that I feel like a completely different person!  I’m not sure if others can see a change in how I feel or act, but I suddenly have a ton of energy!  I push myself everyday to overcome obstacles, and I’ve been successful.  Meaning is such an important aspect of our lives and faith, and I re-evaluated the meaning of my work, relationships, and hobbies.  Instead of working just to get by until I can afford to look for another job, I’ve found encouragement and strength in the job I have now.  Strength!   The activities that once depleted me now strengthen me!  I have been able to establish a good workout routine, and actually look forward to working out because I know that the pain of exercise is making me stronger!

For me, this viewing of stress as helpful would not have been effective without my faith.  The way I see obstacles now are as opportunities to grow in my faith and to serve Christ.  I have become more connected and in tune with Christ.   I no longer dread doing the work He has called me to.  It’s stressful, yes.  There are still the feelings of anxiety and stress Every. Single. Day.  But I do my work with and for Christ, not because I have to.  I used to beg and plead with God to change His gifts to me, because I didn’t think I wanted to be in the helping profession any longer.  I felt like a modern-day Jonah, begging God not to send me to the people that he has.  It felt like such a burden, to carry the weight of everyone else’s traumas and pain, their fears and hopelessness.  

But Christ showed me that he is the ultimate Counselor.  He already knows everybody’s story, and carries their burdens.  So I don’t have to.  I can place the burdens of my clients, friends, and family in his arms so that I am free to help them without being weighed down by countless stories.  I still remember all the traumas and fears and tears and pain, but I no longer feel the weight of them. The blessing of this change in mindset is that I can now see the meaning in the work I do, and I know I am blessed that God has called me to this place.

Countless accounts in the Bible show people coming closer to God during incredibly stressful times.  Paul became a Christian after being struck blind, Mary was blessed by God during an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, David demonstrated his faith when confronting a giant, Job remained faithful and was blessed in the midst of losing everything he had.  James writes

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters,

whenever you face trials of many kinds,

because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  

Let perseverance finish its work

so that you may be mature and complete,

not lacking anything.”

James 1:2-4.  

God works in mysterious ways.  Maybe it’s because when we are doing OK we forget about Him.  But when we face trials, stress, and anxieties, we are given an opportunity to trust and lean into Him.  The stressors and traumas are every bit as difficult, and we don’t wish for anything bad to happen.  But when bad things do happen, because they will, try to find some strength from the situation.  Remember that you can only grow and become stronger when stretched and tested.

I would encourage anyone who feels that life is too stressful, that your worries and anxieties are overwhelming, to read The Upside of Stress.  It won’t take the stressors and difficulties away, but you may find yourself becoming stronger despite the obstacles in your way.  

And then please share, whether with a friend, family member, pastor, co-worker, social media, or in the comments below, how God is using the difficulties in your life to shape you into the person He has called you to be.  He does not cause our pain and troubles, but He will certainly use them to help us grow if we allow Him to.

I pray that each of you grows and learns through whatever circumstances you find yourselves in, and that you are able to remember that Christ is present with you even in times that He seems not to.