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Posts Tagged ‘stress’

I practiced meditation for a half hour each day after school as a kid in elementary school.  Sometimes I fell asleep, but mostly my mind raced.  I learned the rosary as an adult to help fight off panic attacks.  Despite not being Catholic, it occurred to me because of movies about exorcisms because panic is like a demon inside of me.  After using this method for more than a year, I discovered that repetitive prayer or actions can actually help meditation.

I have a hard time sitting still and letting go of my racing thoughts when I try traditional meditation, but I’ve discovered that doing certain things at the same time can help me stay in that state of mind.  For instance, if I just think about a bible verse on worry, it’s not enough to hold my attention, and I’m soon pulled under again by whatever anxious thought is stalking me.  However, if I visualize in my mind writing that verse out in cursive, it’s a sufficiently difficult task that I can focus on it.  I have to think hard about how to make some cursive letters, and the visual component of this makes doing it in your mind absorbing.

Another example is the rosary.  I used to just say the prayers over and over again during panic attacks because repeating something I had memorized helped distract me.  Then I learned the way the rosary was meant to be prayed by people who are actually catholic and don’t just suffer from anxiety.  After you say the creed, on the first 3 beads above Jesus’s head you say one hail Mary each for the increase in the world of faith, hope, and love.  That’s my very favorite part.

While your mind is babbling (I prefer to say my rosary in Spanish) the same repetitive prayer, you can hold the intention in your head of there being more hope in the world.  I think of something different all the time – children in armies in Africa who need to believe there is life outside of war, people who’ve made such terrible mistakes that they think no one will forgive them, families who don’t know where their next meal will come from.  I imagine the hope growing in their hearts while my mind carries on with the prayer.  I can hang onto this train of thought without getting sucked back into my worry because saying a prayer in Spanish while you visualize sending hope to the hopeless is complicated.

When you get to the decades of the rosary (the 10 little beads between each big bead in the chain), Catholics meditate on one mystery per decade.  (There are luminous mysteries, joyful mysteries, sorrowful mysteries, glorious mysteries…there’s a schedule for each day of the week.)  For instance, if they were doing the joyful mysteries, they would meditate on the first decade about the annunciation, on the second decade about the visitation, on the third about the nativity, then the presentation of Jesus at the temple, and then finding Jesus at the temple.  I don’t know the mysteries unless someone is announcing them (which they do when you pray the rosary in a group), but I like to think about one problem per bead or per decade, depending on how big the problem is.

Thinking about both the prayer and the problem simultaneously helps my mind not to wander off.  I don’t need a rosary to pray this way anymore – I can do it in my head or on my fingers, in English or in Spanish.   I think I associate the litany now with peace and calm, so even if my mind is too full of racing thoughts to meditate, trying to think of two things at once is just my (manic) speed.  When I start to feel panicky, I find myself automatically reciting the words in my head and I begin to calm down.  Dios te salve Maria, llena eres de gracia, el senor es contigo…

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I think the trickiest part of the verse I’m studying (Proverbs 3:5-6) is the section that discusses “in all your ways acknowledging [the Lord].”  What does “acknowledging” even mean in this context?  I like what Chuck Swindoll said about recognizing that God is “sovereign.”

I picture entering the audience chamber of some liege lord where his people can bring their problems to him for judgment.  I imagine the relief at saying, “I can’t pay off my debts,” and him listening carefully and then saying, “I’ll take care of it.”  What would it be like to know someone so powerful that he really could just take care of it – someone who ruled the entire realm so thoroughly that he could pay your debts or make a deal with your debtor with just a word to some lackey?  Obviously feudalism wasn’t romantic like that, but I’m fantasizing about that notion of absolute power.

This week I have been practicing being mindful of the idea that God is sovereign over my problems.  That word – sovereign – is exactly the word I needed.  I’m running late…but it’s okay, because God is sovereign over this traffic.  He will clear it up, or he won’t, but whether I arrive on time or late, he owns this land and this car and this problem and he is powerful.  Maybe this sounds like echos of Nectar in a Sieve.  Maybe you’re thinking it smacks of defeatism and I should care more about my own agency.  If that’s what you’re thinking, I’m pretty sure you don’t have the kind of anxiety they’ll give you the good drugs for.

My life feels like it’s spinning wildly out of control all the time.  I don’t trust other people to do things the way they should be done – it’s probably easier if I just do it myself.  I’m not arrogant – I’m afraid.  The concept that this chaotic world is in someone’s control, and it’s not in my control, helps me slow my racing heart and unclench my fists.  It’s a trust like falling.

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I’ve been working on a series of posts relating to anxiety because I feel like I’ve been doing a pretty good job of coping with my anxiety.  The strategies I mention in the posts I’ve written have been helping me a lot, but today it feels like nothing is working.  Today feels like one of those days where despite all of the progress you’ve made, you still fall flat on your face.  Since all else has failed today, here’s what I’m going to do:

(1) I am going to take a lunch break.  A radical notion, right?

(2) I am going to put off some unpleasant tasks until tomorrow.

(3) I am not going to work late.

It’s kind of sad that that’s all I can think of since prayer just doesn’t seem to be helping me today, but I think this is going to pass.  I think giving myself this permission to rest is going to helpful and tomorrow will be better.  What do you do when you’re struggling with worry and you can’t seem to let your problems go?

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The next insight I had this week regarding stress concerns the amount that I can accomplish each day.  I like to pray in the morning for my husband and for me the same things as I walk to work:

That we would have the energy, efficiency, attention and optimism to accomplish what we need to accomplish today, but that most of all we would be your hands and your feet and the words that you speak.

I’ve prayed this prayer for about 2 years faithfully, but I had a flash of insight this week reading that packet by Chuck Swindoll.  He noted that Jesus’s ministry on earth ended when there were still lepers wandering around.  People were hurting and needed to be healed.  There was suffering that he could have relieved, but when he died, he said, “It’s finished.”  How can this be?  There was more to accomplish.  It seems that it wasn’t his task to heal every leper in the whole world before he died.  He had that whole dying for our sins gig going on and when God asked him to, he didn’t argue.  He just came home because his work was done.

It occurred to me that I may think I need to accomplish x, y, and z today, but maybe God only needs x from me today.  If I get x done, then I have lived successfully today, regardless of how much I have crossed off on my to-do list.

I stay late at work and my husband calls me to see when I’m coming home.  So often the answer is that I need just another half hour, just another hour, and then I’ll be home.  How do I decide that these things are so urgent?  I mean, I’m not even healing lepers.  If I didn’t finish it all today, maybe I finished all that I was supposed to, and that notion gives me peace.

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I’ve been studying a packet my grandmother gave me a few years ago by Chuck Swindoll about the classic bible verse Proverbs 3:5-6.  (Trust in the Lord your God and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight.)

The first thing that jumped out at me was his exposition of the story of Mary and Martha.  In the text, Jesus visits Mary and Martha. Mary sits at his feet and soaks up everything he has to say, but Martha runs around in the kitchen trying to cook for all the disciples who randomly showed up and gets angry at Mary for not helping.  She complains to Jesus and he tells her that Mary is doing what she needed to do – what was important for her to do.  Martha is not stressed out because Mary is shirking her duties – Martha is stressed out because she has decided that the most important thing is to live up to her own expectations of being a hostess.  She assumed that responsibility herself when it was not actually the priority at that moment.  Chuck Swindoll brings up this story because he is trying to point out that you should not blame other people for your stress – you may be accepting worry for things that are unnecessary.

I manage complex research projects and I feel angry at people who have easy projects.  I feel angry at the woman in my office who has one project and rolls into work at 10:30 AM and leaves at 4:30 PM because she’s (presumably) a nitwit and can’t be given complicated projects, while I have three projects and I work from 8:30 AM until 6:30 or 8:30 at night, and on weekends.  I think “angry” is an understatement – I hate her with the fire of a thousand suns.  I hate my clients who make me do stupid things to data.  They are arbitrary and they don’t understand research methodology and it toasts me that I spend so much time catering to their misguided whims.

When I read that exposition on the story of Mary and Martha, it occurred to me that I am not stressed out because my clients are crazy or my coworker is lazy.  I am stressed out because I internalize the crazy demands my clients make and the obvious injustice of my coworker’s schedule.  I still think my clients are crazy sadists, but it was enlightening to realize that their madness does not automatically deserve my stress.  I don’t not have to take that inside of me – I can choose not to internalize their agenda.

Today I learned that they want me to make extensive changes to a research project that is in the field.  I am so proud that my very first thought was, You do not deserve my cortisol.  Each time my body makes cortisol it shortens my life expectancy and I will be damned if I do that over your stupid changes.  My life is not about making these changes happen tonight (or about being someone’s idea of a perfect hostess).  You cannot force me to feel that unrelenting responsibility that threatens my sanity – I refuse to take it up as my burden.  Fuck you.

I think that’s what Jesus meant, and that’s why religion is helping me.  (Clearly it’s not helping me avoid words like “hate” and “nitwit” and “fuck,” but we can deal with the plank in my eye on another post.)

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I suffer from anxiety.  I don’t just have anxiety – I suffer from it.  In the past I have taken medicine to help control my anxiety, but currently I’m wandering around au naturale – I’m like an organic crazy person.  Being on anxiety medication actually caused me to have anxiety; I was disturbed by the fact that it was a Class C drug and I could accidentally get pregnant and have a flipper baby.

People who don’t have anxiety confuse it with normal worry and stress.  For instance, my job is very stressful, and I often come home from work very tense.  In fact, I wake up a few times a night thinking about work.  It’s as though even while sleeping my mind is gnawing on my work problems and will periodically wake me up because that demented corner of my psyche that never sleeps has just realized something that I should remember to do tomorrow.   My husband confuses my inability to relax with everyday stress and tells me to just leave work at work, but it’s not that simple for me.  My mind races and I physically feel different in my viscera – it’s a feeling in my throat and my chest and my belly.  If I could “just leave work at work”, believe me: I would do it.

I’m telling you this because if you feel tense, you should really consider adopting a religion.  I’m hanging onto sanity by my fingernails and I think I maintain that precarious perch through medication or religion.  I was not religious until I was 18, so I have a good basis for comparison.  To my way of thinking, it doesn’t even matter if there is a God.  So what if religion is a fantasy that people use as a crutch or a coping mechanism?  If you’re coping, I say forget reality.  And if there actually is a God, so much the better.

I’ve been doing an extensive study on a bible verse relating to anxiety this week and I’ve discovered a few things that have been helping me to get off that merry-go-round of compulsive thinking.  My biggest hope tonight is that if you also suffer from craziness, you will find some relief in science or religion or love.

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