Chronic stress can affect the body the same way a cold or flu does—by taking over the immune system.
Stress can make muscles tense. It can trigger hyperventilation and increase the heart rate. It can wreak havoc on gastrointestinal health.
But there’s a way to tap into that anxiety and diffuse it.
The Institute for Spirituality and Health (ISH) works with people experiencing different types and levels of stress—from medical student burnout, to professional loneliness or fatigue, to death and loss.
“Some people can take time with their family, read a book and be fine,” said Stuart Nelson, vice president of ISH, “but others need an opportunity for something more in-depth. In those cases, we ask people to question in what ways they are yearning to express themselves, but feeling stifled. It takes some thinking.”
Susana McCollom, director of ethnography and workplace chaplaincy at ISH, has interviewed individuals throughout Houston and found that one of the underlying causes of stress is the longing for genuine connection with other people. Individuals want to be acknowledged by others, to share moments that say “we are all in this life together,” she said. In many cases, she added, this can be achieved by something as small as making eye contact.
McCollom encourages individuals to consider the word “stress” as an invitation to explore what stirs beneath. The word itself is so commonly used in society that people can risk losing touch with the emotions that fuel it.
“Recognize what is there and enter that space,” Nelson said. “Allow for that recognition to emerge, take a few deep breaths, allow the clarity of mind, and figure out what you are really feeling.” The body has an innate wisdom, he said, and can signal what is going on mentally, physically and spiritually.
“If you have tension in your chest, it might be because you sit slouched over at work, but it also could be that you are worried about something,” Nelson added.
Life at work can, indeed, be stressful, but so can life at home. People are stressed about myriad situations: they’re dissatisfied with their relationships, they’re worried about where their next meal will come from, they fear being singled out.
In group work, Nelson helps people cultivate the power of awareness. For two minutes, he asks participants to start every sentence with “I notice.” There is a stream of consciousness that happens, Nelson said, leading to an opportunity to clear out the distractions and allow participants to recognize what is going on in the body and mind, moment by moment.
“The powerful thing about simple exercises like this,” he said, “is that you can go and find a corner in a hospital that is quiet, take two minutes, ask yourself what is going on, and breathe.”
What story are you telling?
Susana McCollom, director of ethnography and workplace chaplaincy at the Institute for Spirituality and Health (ISH), and Stuart Nelson, vice president of ISH, explain how to unpack stress.
First, take a couple of breaths, relax your body, clear distractions and drop into the moment. This space serves as a foundation of peace and presence as you consider the following questions.
What do you long for? Longing can be linked to feelings of stress. This serves as a good place to begin because it is open-ended but also a specific feeling. We all know what it is like to long for something, but this feeling appears differently for different people.
Do you support this longing? Do you push it away? This is a reminder to consider the ways in which you deal with inner life as feelings, emotions and thoughts arise.
Where do you experience beauty? We may lose sight of beauty even when it is right in front of us. Sometimes, in the thick of a struggle, beauty becomes more pronounced if we take time to investigate.
What does “stress” mean for you? In some ways, this is the inverse of the previous question. At this point, you have considered longing, beauty and stress, each of which contributes to a narrative.
As the summer makes way for fall, what is the story you are telling? What is the story you’d like to tell? Consider the story you tell as you live your life and go through the motions. Now, turn to the imagined story—what might you be longing for?
Who or what can you call upon to help tell that story? This question points to moving somewhere with intention. It could be to a trusted relative or friend, a health care professional or to a place like the Institute for Spirituality and Health—any resource where you feel the most comfortable and able to tell a story that is more authentic, less stressed and more connected to what you long for.
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