Stressing Out About Stress: The Issue of Chronic Stress and the Cure

Technology is a useful thing. For instance, I sit here writing this on my iPad. Meanwhile, I have Spotify playing on my phone through a cheap Bluetooth speaker. It’s a delightful ambiance, and sometimes I do something like this while have Netflix playing in the background. I probably suffer a mild anxiety when things are too quiet, but that’s neither here nor there.

Speaking of my phone, I follow an Instagram account that, well, with which I might just be a tad obsessed. It’s called “icanteven”. It’s an account that only has a bunch of reposts of dogs doing what they do best, being dogs. The thing that fascinates me about dogs is one minute they get all hyper, and the next minute they just chill. Humans? We don’t do that too well, in fact, we are terrible at it.

In his book “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” Dr. Robert Sapolsky talks about the autonomic nervous system. Specifically two subcategories of this system, the sympathetic nervous system, and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is the one that ignites our stress response, “fight or flight.” The parasympathetic nervous system is the one that ignites our “chill” response, “rest and digest.” Now, when the parasympathetic nervous system is on for too long, we may run into issues. However, I will not spend time on this, because quite frankly this is not an issue for many if any of us. Instead let’s talk about this sympathetic nervous system, when this system is on for too long we run into a whole bunch of chronic health issues ranging from indigestion to higher risks for heart disease and everything in between. In fact, Dr. Sapolsky makes a case for why chronic stress may affect diseases like diabetes and different forms of cancers.

Stress is not always bad. I just want to put that out there. The issue is chronic stress. The worst part is humans are unique compared to any other animal, we think, a lot. We think about past events and stress about what we could have done differently, we think about future events and what we are going to do. Such thoughts overwhelm us and add to the chronic stress. However, it does not stop there.

Going back to technology, this can be a massive source of stress as well. Gone are the days where people had to try to contact us. With the advent of smartphones and even smartwatches we are now accessible 24/7. For many of us, this means that if we don’t take work home with us in the form of our thoughts, we will take it home with us in the way of our technology. Shoot, I have to try hard to ignore texts from clients and coworkers on my day off. I don’t know about you all, but I am getting a little stressed out just writing all of this. See? Our thoughts can cause us to get carried away.

For those of you that claim technology is not a stressor, think about the time that you lost your phone or left it somewhere. How much anxiety did you suffer? My guess is quite a bit, I know I have misplaced my phone and experienced some panic.

The good news is there are strategies we can incorporate to help us combat stress; we just have to be careful about what we choose. I will briefly touch upon one such approach, but even more so I believe there is a principle to combating chronic stress that I think may be the most impactful, hence why I call it a principle.

One strategy is exercise. However, this plan must be approached with caution. The training itself is a form of stress, and if outside stressors are not adequately managed then exercising will only add to it and may cause sickness or injury. Further, you will fail to experience the results that you were hoping to achieve.

However, I do think there is one way we can powerfully combat stress. Just allow me one word, presence. What does that mean? Simple, be present, wherever you go there you are. Writing this, I will admit, I can be one of the most distracted people in the room. I am addicted to my phone, and I get lost in my head a lot. But I have been practicing getting better at being present. Honestly, when I am truly present, I find myself to be at the most peace, and it is a wonderful feeling. Furthermore, the people who are with me when I am present have felt more loved and cared for, and when it is just me in the vicinity, I can get far more done then I could imagine, all the while feeling significantly more relaxed.

There are ways to practice being present, including light exercise. Some of my favorites include: reading a book, meditation, or even playing my guitar. The bottom line is you need to find methods that help keep you present. Maybe that means starting slow and going a period without any technology, or perhaps one of my plans will work for you. Whatever it is you must find what works for you but make sure that it helps you stay present.

Granted, we must also deal with the matter of thoughts. How do we let our thoughts go so that even without technology we are not distracted? One thing that is profoundly powerful is writing it down, perform a “brain dump” and just put all your thoughts in a journal, close it, walk away, and promise yourself that you will look at them at a better time. Or, if you don’t feel like there’s nothing you need to write down, practice treating your thoughts like clouds. You watch them pass by, but you don’t go chasing after them. I think the latter is a little more difficult but becomes very useful when you do not have a journal handy.

As you will notice, all of this leads back to the art of being present. To be honest, this is not something that you can fix overnight. Learning to be present, just like anything worth something, will take time. Start small, don’t stress yourself out about doing it all at once, but find something that works for you and consistently practice presence, because being present is the only way that you can turn off your chronic stress response and enjoy life.

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“Talking About My Generation”

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The other day I was posed with a question geared towards my generation, especially people like myself who were raised in the church. I know many peers and have friends who have forsaken their upbringing and have declared agnosticism or something of that ilk.

As someone whose identity is built upon my belief in Jesus Christ, it might disqualify me to speak into why this happens to those who have led similar lives as myself and yet have gone down different paths. Understanding where I stand does paint me with the potential bias, but I value objectiveness and will use this as an opportunity to step outside of myself and explore my own experience.

Before I continue, I love my parents. By desiring me to love and believe what they love and believe they did nothing different than any other loving parent in these regards. I also do not intend this to bash the Church. By saying “the Church” I am referring to the kingdom of God, and the community of my fellow believers. I very much believe we belong to Christ as imperfect as we are. Ultimately, this post is intended to merely explore what is going on in the minds of my generation regarding our stance in this day and age.

First, it is essential to observe my upbringing briefly. I was raised in the church, you might not take me literally, but being a pastor’s kid for the better part of my youth I lived in a parsonage next to the church. Furthermore, I remember going to Sunday school, the evening service, Wednesday kids club, youth group, etc. I was at the church at least three days a week, not to mention going with my parents on various errands that involved praying and ministering to members of the congregation. So yes, I was raised in the church.

As I mentioned earlier, many loving parents desire their children to share their beliefs and passions. You see babies wearing onesies representing their parent’s favorite sports team, and even at a young age parents will take their kids with them to religious gatherings; as is the case with my childhood.

As a result, growing up, I was inundated with being told what to believe. Whether through flannel graphs, or cute little songs, dixie cups with short verses on the bottom you name it and I’m pretty sure I could still sing some of those songs. The god of my parents also became my god. All the while there never honestly felt I had an opportunity to ask questions or doubt, and even when it seemed like I was being encouraged to ask questions, there was often an implied answer expected of me to find. Maybe this was a lack of curiosity on my part. However, there is, I would say a bubble that surrounds youth, parents want to be there for their children, and they want them to feel safe. Although these desires and actions can only last for so long before the child becomes exposed to different views and beliefs. However, what are the implications of this experience for my generation?

In his book “The God Who Is There,” D.A. Carson touches upon something very profound. Absolute truth is no longer championed like it once was. Instead, my generation seems to value opinion over truth. In other words, many of my age believe truth is relative to the person holding the truth. And if you attack our reality, we take as an affront to us, whether or not we are right. Even Dale Carnegie points out that no one enjoys being told they are wrong. So when faced with someone who says they have all the answers and access to the only truth and they do not take the time to listen to us, then we will most likely be turned off to such an individual.

We must also consider the political climate. Much like generations past, my age is drawn towards social justice, and we want to see something change. Whether or not we honestly want to be a part of that change is another topic for another time. However, many of us feel like we do not see that in the American Church right now. We feel like the American Church is missing the mark on subjects like race, and gender equality, and yet they champion their god who is a just god. We sense a disconnect. If you don’t believe me, I encourage you to google about Christian hip-hop artist Lecrae and his sentiments about separating himself from “white evangelicals.” It is eye-opening to see how many believers in Christ feel the American Church has ignored their needs in so many ways. Just like how our country is more divided than we were once willing to admit so is the American Church and it is hard for my generation to disassociate a loving God from this after all our whole life was spent learning about the god of the American Church.

Finally, growing up in the church, one of the messages that seemed to pervade was an idea that doubt meant you did not have faith. Whether or not this was intended is neither here nor there. However, this is how we felt. As a result, any questions led to a feeling of shame, a sense that we should not have even let those questions come into our head. Our faith was our parents not our own, which is not the best foundation. So when the time came that we felt the freedom to explore questions of faith many of us did not have a stable identity on which to seek answers.

All this to say, it has become hard for us to think of God as loving, just, merciful, and gracious, when we start to feel like the church we grew up in doesn’t reflect that. When many of us Christians have a voice that seems to be politically motivated, blind to social iniquities, angry, and loveless, then my generation struggles to believe in God. When a faith that has no real identity becomes challenged, does it become any wonder why so many of my friends and peers have turned their back on the god they associate with all of this?

The real question then becomes, how do you approach my generation? How does someone in my position reach out to my generation?

The first thing to do is remove any agenda. Do not approach us with the sole intent to persuade us. We will see past any niceties and immediately be turned off.

The second thing is to have an open mind. I am not saying you can’t have your beliefs but we truly value when we have a conversation with someone can objectively look at both sides of the coin. Even though I hope that you are rooted in your beliefs, it is refreshing to have a discussion a person who won’t reject where we are coming from just because it does not align with where they stand.

The third thing is to be willing to accept and GENTLY guide our curiosity. We have lots of questions, and we desire answers, but we value discovering the solutions ourselves. We have doubts, please don’t shame us for them. Instead be open to merely hearing our misgivings. If we recognize that you are willing to see both sides and that you are eager to listen to us, we will be more responsive to what you have to say. Especially if you do not try to give us answers but rather guide us to explore the answers for ourselves.

Finally, love us. Just authentically be there for us, be gentle. Love will not have an agenda, and it is patient. We need you to be patient.

I will admit, this is not a perfect formula, and I guarantee it will work all the time. I am sure much of what I have said will probably leave you with more questions than answers. But I think many of my generation is looking for a church and a Christianity that feels like and is the love. I just think we all have become confused about what love is.

  • Dave

p.s. You may have noticed times that I wrote the word “god” instead of “God.” This is not a typo but intentional. I feel there is much truth when Mark Twain once said, “God made man in His image, and man being the gentleman that he is, has returned the favor.” I feel that we (myself included) try very hard to make God what we want, instead of accepting who He is. I think we may find that we do not have as many answers as we would like to think we do.

p.p.s. Identity is huge, I know I will sound like a broken record. But if we do not help others discover their identity then when they explore questions and doubts they will be more likely to be shaken. The trickiest aspect of identity is that we cannot force someone to have the identity we want them to have, they must be willing to accept and discover their identity themselves. We can only guide them and lovingly help them.

Identity – Cause I Couldn’t Think of Anything Clever

One of my favorite movies, as it appeals to my juvenile sense of humor, is Zoolander. In it, we meet Derek Zoolander, male model extraordinaire. In fact, right at the start, we can tell that this guy is so wrapped up in his own little world that he barely acknowledges anyone else around him. Unless of course, they are there to cater to his beck and call.

In one of the first scenes of the movie, he is a favorite to win yet another male model of the year award. He is just that good at modeling. As it so happens the two favorites are him and this up-and-comer Hansel. We quickly learn from the sinister Mugatu that “Hansel is so hot right now.”

*SPOILER ALERT – kind of* When Lenny Kravitz announces the award, Zoolander kisses the girl he brought with him and starts to strut his way up to the podium. As he begins his speech, he is met with an awkward silence only to realize that the award is meant for Hansel. Not only is Derek humiliated, but he is devastated.

Up until this point, his life’s purpose was built upon him being “really, really, ridiculously good looking.” In fact, his life has been constructed upon him being the best at it. This was the source of his identity, and when he was no longer the best he was forced to ask possibly one of the most profound questions any of us could ask ourselves, “Who am I?”

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I will argue that our identity is one of the most powerful forces in our life. Our actions reflect who we are, it is that simple. Thus, whoever or whatever we get our identity from owns us, controls us. When that source of our identity is lost, we are lost.

Think about my above example, Zoolander was controlled by being the best model, in fact, his whole entire life revolved around modeling. When he finally lost, he was lost. And it’s not just in comedies.

Let’s look at the topic of work. Many of us joke around saying we just have to pay the bills. However, in social situations, when we meet someone, one of the first things we ask them is, “so what do you do?” Our work is a source of identity. I don’t believe we work to live, rather we live to work. Anecdotally when people retire from work, most people around them always comment on how quickly they’ve aged. This is because they have lost a part of their identity, a significant part, usually at least 30 years worth of identity.

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Going back to my little phrase, whoever or whatever gives us our identity owns us. Here’s a scary thought, what happens when the source of your identity is taken away?

All this talk about identity, but what’s the point? The truth is simple, theologian G.K. Beale wrote a book entitled “we become what we worship.” This is profound. Our identity comes from what we worship. Now before you write me off, just know, you do not have to be “religious” or “spiritual” to worship something. John Mark Comer in his book God Has A Name argues that it is the human condition to worship. To worship simply means to treat something or someone with reverence, to be devoted to something or someone.

What are you devoted to? For people that don’t see themselves as religious a good way to examine what you worship is to look at your calendar or your bank account. Where do you spend your time? What do you spend your money on?

To discover the source of our identity I believe it is important to ask these questions:

  1. What do I worship/revere? – How do I spend my money and where do I spend my time?
  2. How does the object(s) of my worship affect my daily life?
  3. If the object of worship were suddenly taken away from me what would happen
  4. Am I happy with my answers, or do I want to change?

These are four powerful questions that require introspection and brutal honesty with ourselves. We cannot answer them one and done. I know that for myself I have to re-evaluate my priorities constantly.

All this to say, there is something beautiful about it all, and it is this truth; we can change our identity.

Is it scary to do so? Absolutely. Is it difficult? Of course. However, we can choose the source of our identity. It starts with figuring out that one thing that you want to focus your life upon, and continues by saying “no” to anything that may take away from your number one priority. However, this is a topic for another time.