Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Managing Stress

One of the main triggering factors in the past years of my severe depression episodes which usually lasted between 3 to 6 months or sometimes longer, seemed to be prolonged stress and strain.

Recently, I was experiencing great stress and strain from several areas of my life, and was feeling very very tired and down at times. Thank God for hearing my prayers and comforting me through His Words. Thank God for sending family and friends to help me see things from different perspectives, reminding me how to manage stress or reduce stress, and how not to be discouraged by what I was going through. Thank God for drawing me nearer to Himself to learn once again to be more dependent upon Him, to hope in Him and look to Him, and apply His Words and promises to situations I am.

I am still learning to manage stressors in my life, to recognize early signs that I am getting too stressed and what I can do besides praying, to practically manage these stressors.

Recently, Jim, commented on one of my posts "The Stiller of my soul", on his view of stress
For me, I can handle stress and I love the challenges of stress. Without some stress to get me to focus on a problem we might do almost nothing and I do perform best while under stress. Stress can’t be avoided. The challenge is for me to keep learning how to reduce the level of stress by using it to work for me not against me.
I don't like stress but I can't avoid it. I can't function very well when I am too stressed. My challenge is like what Jim stated, how to reduce the level of stress to a level I can manage and use it to work for me and not against me.

I realized that I need to learn to manage stress otherwise, prolonged stress and strain, will bring about a relapse of severe depression episodes. Prolonged and excessive stress seemed to be one of my greatest triggering factors of depression and I realized now that I must learn to be more aware and to take necessary action to manage it, besides praying. In the past years, I failed to realized this, and therefore I keep going through prolonged stress and strain, and then depression episode without understanding why.

My Pastor wrote a very helpful article "Biblical Stress Handling". He said stress is always present with us because we are a thinking and emotional being. As a thinking being, we make choices based on what we perceive to be most satisfying, or having the best outcome in our reckoning. Such being the case, if we were to live in a vacuum, and we can do all we wants, we would always be happy. But man is a finite creature, who is not always able to control the environment we live in or the circumstances surrounding our life. Thus, we often finds ourselves in situations which we prefers not to be in. When that happens, stress results. And since every person is made differently, we can expect to be stressed in many different ways.

In fact, what may be relaxing to one person may be stressful to another, and vice versa. If you are a person who enjoys a fast-paced life, and cannot stand not doing anything for a moment, you may find it very stressful to sit at the beach to relax for a while, or even to go to the toilet without a book in your hand! But if you are a person who hates pressure, you can find it stressful just to see someone walking quickly across the room!

Stress is not all that bad. It is part and parcel of human life and is a manifestation of the very different ways in which God has made us and the many different circumstances that He providentially puts us in. Many of us are stressed because of work pressures: tight schedules, unreasonable bosses and colleagues, many late nights, office politics, etc. Some of us are stressed because of demands of the family: misunderstandings between husband and wife, financial strains, illnesses, decisions pertaining to the children’s education, the interference of in-laws in the family affairs, etc. Others are stressed at school: assignments and project deadlines, examinations, relationship problems, competition among peers, etc. Even driving or walking along the road can be stressful. The list of factors contributing to stress in the modern society is practically inexhaustible. They are part and parcel of our lives.

However, stress, if it leads to frustration and is prolonged, can be harmful spiritually and physically. It is a well-known fact that too much stress can result in physical and psychosomatic disorders such as high blood pressure, heart diseases, ulcers, insomnia, migraine, and even eczema. It is less well known that prolonged stress, if not properly handled, can lead to spiritual depression and desperation, which is sin (cf. 2 Cor 4:8). Stress may also lead to manic depression.

I do agree with my Pastor's writing above. My Pastor suggested the following on how to handled stress:

1) Be aware

Firstly, you should be aware if you are feeling stressed. You are probably stressed if you feel a great but inexplicable pressure upon you. You should suspect you are stressed if you find yourself becoming unusually impatient and irritable. You know you are stressed when you carry a frown all day long and find it hard to smile or laugh; and find that Proverbs 14:13 describes you very well: "Even in laughter the heart is sorrowful; and the end of that mirth is heaviness." Under such circumstance, you may even doubt your salvation because you feel miserable and loose focus of the purpose for your existence.

2) Pray

Secondly, and most obviously, you should pray. The Apostle Peter urges us to cast our anxieties upon the Lord because He cares for us (1 Pet 5:6–7). Come to the Lord therefore, with your burdens. Cry out unto Him as did the psalmist (Ps 18:6). Cry out to Him as your Abba Father who loves you and cares about every aspect of your life. Ask Him to grant you not only contentment in the midst of turmoil, but ask for wisdom and strength to handle the particular situations in your life. Pray for peace of conscience. Pray for guidance and help.

3) Be biblical

Many Christians are greatly stressed to the point of exhaustion because there is a general failure to observe the Lord’s Sabbath today. There is a certain sense in which the Sabbath is a primary means of stress-relief appointed by God. The Sabbath is the legislated rest day for all men, but especially for the child of God: "Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work…" (Ex 20:9–10).

4) Be God-centred

Fourthly, look away from self and man to God. Personal expectation and peer expectation are often the major causes of stress. If you are feeling stressed because of a sense of personal helplessness in a particular situation that you are in; then I would simply suggest that if you have already done what you could, that you should learn to submit the rest to the Lord. Some problems are simply beyond your control. Acknowledge your limitations and present your case to the Lord. When you have done so, you really have no reason to feel frustrated, as it would be to distrust the Lord.

The situation is quite different with peer expectation. Many of us are stressed because of what we perceived to be what others expect of us. This is not all bad, but sometimes we can become too sensitive so that we feel a tremendous amount of pressure when there need not be any. So, learn not to be overtly conscious about what others think about you. Rather than being concerned with what others think of you, be concerned only with what God thinks of you. Look to the Lord, not to man.

5) Communicate

Fifthly, learn to communicate. There is some truth to the popular adage: "A blessing shared is doubled; a burden shared is halved." Besides, it is imperative for saints to bear each other’s woes: "Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ" (Gal 6:2). So make sure that you share your burdens with brothers or sisters in Christ who can empathise or at least sympathise with you. This may be your spouse, your parents, your siblings or your friends. Make time for Christian fellowship. A healthy soul should generally experience much blessing from godly Christian fellowship.

Also, learn to speak your mind when you find that you are being stressed because of some decisions or actions by your bosses. I am, of course, not advocating cathartic philosophy of stress reduction by gossiping against the boss with others who view him as a common enemy. I am referring to speaking to your boss himself. Do not bottle-up and get more and more stressed-up and frustrated.

6) Relax

Sixthly, learn to make use of lawful means for relaxation. Remember that what may be relaxing for one person may be stressful for another. Sports and exercises are also legitimate means of relaxation, which are very helpful for stress relief.

Remember that man is a two-part being. Exercise is generally recognised as an effective stress relieving activity. Similarly, it is not wrong for Christians to have fun, though we may be amazed at why we should be allowed to have pleasure despite our sin. Learn to laugh at the appropriate time (Ecc 3:4). A Christian needs not and should not go about with a sorrowful countenance. Laughter and smiling are definitely good medicine for stress: "A merry heart maketh a cheerful countenance: but by sorrow of the heart the spirit is broken" (Prov 15:13).

7) Plan

Seventhly, planning your time well is a good preventive to stress built-up. But again remember that we are made differently. Some of us find it useful to have an hourly timetable, others prefer to plan by day or week. But some form of plan, however imprecise, is always useful. When you plan, however, always bear in mind that God is in sovereign control over all that happen and will happen in your life. So all your plans must be accompanied by a Deo Volente—God willing (Jas 4:13–15). As such, do not worry about what would happen if things do not turn out as planned. "Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof" (Mt 6:34). Learn to submit your life entirely to the Lord.

Learning to manage stress seemed to be a day by day experience for me as I learn to recognize what can stress me up and how much I can manage or what stress level works best for me to function optimally. And what I can do when I am overly stressed and how best to reduce stress to a manageable level.

Stress management can be a constant challenge to us who have bipolar, depression or other mood disorders. Minor stress can become major or prolonged stress, if not recognized and managed effectively and reduce to a manageable level. And major and prolonged stress will trigger off depression in us who have mood disorders. Others without mood disorders may not fall into depression due to prolonged stress but some of us will definitely find ourselves in the pit soon enough. So I thank God for teaching me through many ways and many people how I can manage and minimize stress before it become prolonged stress which may trigger off severe depression episode like past years.

Thanks again for your prayers and encouragements! Thank God for His mercies and faithfulness daily. I look forward to each day the Lord gives me in which I can know Him better, love Him more and serve Him and His people. To Him be the glory!

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