Humans live incarnate—and the stress on our minds will inevitably transfer to our bodies. When we’re overly stressed, we pour toxins into our systems. Why are we then surprised by the resulting back ache, indigestion or migraine? Deep breathing has been part of every major religious tradition. Many use it to replace the venomous retort, to gain a few minutes to think, or to restore inner calm. In Genesis 1, God breathes life into humanity. In John 20:22, Jesus breathes courage and forgiveness into a confused and frightened group of friends. Yet when we’re nervous, we take short, shallow breaths, not the deep, relaxing ones that could bring peace. Breath is intrinsic to yoga, which can be moving meditation. It helps relieve chronic stress which for most people collects in the neck, back and shoulders.
Collaborating with the Inevitable
Sometimes a difficult situation is beyond our control. If, for instance, our work involves tax preparation, we know that the weeks preceding April 15 will be full. In such times, Piero Ferrucci, author of What We May Be recommends an attitude of acceptance. We can ask in prayer not to descend into self-pity, but to freely choose what we can’t change. The same God who gives the pleasant Sunday picnic also sends the midnight deadline. Can we learn from both, finding enrichment in radically different circumstances, trusting that God knows what we need? One unexpected blessing of the recession has been that with so many people out of work, those who have jobs appreciate them more—even the stressful ones.
The Strange Benefits of Stress
Oddly enough, stress is a mixed blessing. Without it, we might not get much done. Indeed, some folks look forward all year to their two-week vacation. They dream of lounging around the pool doing nothing. Inevitably, the novelty wears off. In a few days, they’re organizing activities: a tennis match, a shopping trip, a hike. They’re consulting the movie schedules and piling the family in the car. Hmmm—almost as if humans were made for action!
So too some who retire to the tropics grow tired of the sameness: one sunny day after another. Nothing like a good blizzard to get the juices flowing and the snow blower humming! With the right amount of pressure—not too much nor too little—we get organized, make efficient use of time, and accomplish great things for God.
As long as we sail through life untroubled, we don’t feel much need for God. But when we start coming unglued, we know how precarious our hold on sanity really is. If stress brings us to prayer, it may not be so bad. No matter how tired, frustrated or frazzled we are, we can end the day with compassion for the self.
I once gave a talk about prayer in a church basement to an audience seated on folding chairs. One plumber told of his experience. He’d met many people confronting the dire situation of sewage back-up. But he commented wryly, “if they’d just say a prayer instead of cursing the flood, they’d be in much better shape when I arrive!” I smiled in response: “you may be the answer to their prayer.”
To be continued…
Originally published in EVERYDAY CATHOLIC, St. Anthony Messenger Press