FOR MANY YEARS engineers who designed various types of machinery have depended on stress tests on metals. It was important for them to know just how much pressure or force a particular type of steel or other metal could take before it would break.
But it was only recently that people became aware of the effect of stress on human beings. How much pressure can a person take before he or she has to give up? How much “constraining, urging or impelling force” (New Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary, 1980, p. 829) can the human mind and body withstand in a given situation?
Obviously, there will be no standard tests that can be made on people, but there is increased interest in the subject and a whole new emphasis on the place of stress in the life of the individual and the effect of the stresses of modern living on all of us, mentally, emotionally and physically.
Understanding the effects of everyday stresses, we can begin to protect ourselves from their debilitating effect, and, through the use of spiritual methods, we can so condition our minds and our whole being that we do not succumb to the pressures that defeat others. Stress is an individual matter. The situation that causes one person to become mentally, emotionally and physically depleted may spur another to increased joy in activity and overcoming. But all people have conditions to meet that can be stressful unless handled with wisdom and love.
This is not to say that stress itself is something new. Think of the pressures suffered by the cave man as he sought to find food for himself and his family and to escape the wild animals that threatened his existence! And what of the later, more civilized people who accumulated treasures of gold and precious stones, valuables that must be protected from thieves and marauders? Could they not have suffered strain as they worried about someone stealing their possessions?
But today, more than ever, it seems that the pace of life has been speeded up, and, along with the concern about things and money and power and position, there is, perhaps, more hurry and worry to add its effect. But there is also a greater understanding available, to enable us to recognize the dangers of stress and to reveal to us effective ways of dealing with the pressures of living in our world today.
In 1950 Dr. Hans Selye, director of the Institute of Experimental Medicine and Surgery at the University of Montreal, first called attention to the physical results of stress in a report of his laboratory experiments on the subject. He pointed out that many diseases are the result of the individual’s inability to adapt to life, and he made it clear that we all experience stress at one time or another.
Since that time many books have been published on the subject, some dealing with the physical effects of stress, others approaching the subject from the mental viewpoint. Now let us look at the spiritual methods which can be employed to deal with the everyday pressures, ranging from the urgent pressures of time and competition to the stress caused by changes in environment or human relationships.
Of course, the situations that cause one person extreme anxiety may simply be stimulating and exciting to another. But for each person, there is some need for a built-in ability to cope with life. And the same principles that work for one in a situation of decision-making will work for another where patience is required. Whatever the need, the principle works, when applied to relieve stress.
Stress is not something that happens to us, but rather something that happens through us. We might say, then, that stress is a form of wear and tear on mind (soul) and body, which results from the individual’s reaction to inner and outer circumstances.
Physical ailments may cause unaccustomed stress. A heavy schedule of activity or the dependency of others may bring about a sense of pressure or urgency. Times of change, such as divorce or a move or change of job, as well as loss of a loved one, may produce mental, emotional and physical reactions. Even such a simple everyday activity as crossing a busy thoroughfare can cause tension and anxiety.
However, let us remember that it is not the event itself that causes stress. It is our reaction to it. If we can learn to watch and to control our reactions, we will be able to prevent a debilitating build-up of stress, and we can maintain our inner poise and peace, no matter what is happening around us.
Knowing ourselves as the image and likeness of God, we are to be in control and at peace. Knowing ourselves as expressions of God, we will make it a point to handle stress before it handles us, staying in charge of all situations by staying in charge of ourselves, including our thoughts, emotions and reactions to life.
The Bible offers us many examples and stories that instruct us in handling stess in everyday living. The prophet, Elijah, was a man who had to deal with stress. Most people today would agree that he was justified in feeling pressure in his life, but he had to learn how to handle his feelings in a better way.
The period in which he was living was a time of great material prosperity but a decline in religious worship in Israel. The king, Ahab, was greatly influenced by his wife, Jezebel, who had brought with her from her native country, Tyre, the pagan practice of Baal worship. Not content simply to practice her own religion, Jezebel built a great priesthood in Israel for Baal and used her position to see that many temples were constructed for this form of pagan worship. Then she tried to convert the Israelites from their worship of the one God, Jehovah, to worship of Baal.
Baal worship was not at all in keeping with the Hebrew religion, which placed great emphasis on a moral code and spiritual tenets. And Elijah, as the spokesman for Jehovah, came into conflict with Jezebel on more than one occasion. Sometimes he triumphed. Sometimes he simply retired to the desert.
When he first heard of the threat posed by Jezebel and her priests of Baal, Elijah came to the city and predicted a three-year drought as a judgment on the people who were forsaking Jehovah. He declared to Ahab, “As the Lord of the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” (I Kings 17:1 RSV).
Then the prophet retired and for the next years lived as God directed him, while the drought and resulting famine took its toll in Israel. Though he searched, Ahab, the king, was not able to find him.
When he was directed to do so by God, Elijah returned to speak to Ahab and informed him that the famine was the result of the disobedience of the Hebrew people.
Elijah challenged “the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table” (I. Kings 18:19 RSV) to a contest of spiritual strength. So Ahab gathered the people of Israel and the pagan prophets at Mount Carmel for the test.
The prophet of Jehovah addressed the people, asking, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him, but if Baal, then follow him.” (I Kings 18:21 RSV).
Two bulls were brought to be used for sacrifice. First, the 450 priests of Baal chose one bull, prepared it for sacrifice and then prayed to their god to send fire to consume it. They danced about, cried in a loud voice and slashed themselves with their swords, but nothing happened.
Elijah was in his glory, mocking the other prophets with their fruitless efforts. At the end of the day, he prepared his sacrifice and even poured water on the offering. As he prayed, “the fire of the Lord” (I. Kings 18:38 RSV) consumed the offering and the water as well. The people responded by declaring their return to the one God. In the joy of success, Elijah killed all of the 450 prophets of Baal. It was a high moment in his life. He followed up by praying for rain to end the drought, and a most spectacular deluge came.
All in all, Elijah had every reason to feel happy and successful. But many times spectacular success in the material world may be followed by a period of letdown. And so it was with Elijah.
When Jezebel heard that Elijah had killed her prophets, she sent word to him, promising his death by the next day. From the heights of victory, he was plunged into the despair of fear. Jezebel was angry, and Jezebel was still queen! Elijah fled for his life.
Discouraged, he went out into the wilderness alone. Suffering from acute stress, he prayed to die. Finally, in his prayer he released his life to God and went to sleep. When he awakened, he had received spiritual guidance as to the next step he was to take. Not only that, but he was fed and given water to drink as he prepared to take that next step, the journey to Horeb, known as a mountain of spiritual revelation.
At Horeb he hid in a cave (again subjecting himself to the stress of discouragement). But even there he was able to hear the voice of God, and he told the Lord about his good intentions and his good work, and ended, feeling sorry for himself, “and they seek my life, to take it away” (I Kings 19:10 RSV).
Elijah received no sympathy from God, but he did receive the guidance to go and stand on the mountain top, where he might rise above all doubt and fear. It was then that he had the great experience of his life, the hearing of the “still small voice” (I Kings 19:12 RSV). There were spectacular phenomena of strong winds, an earthquake and even a fire. But it was in the inner voice that God gave the prophet his instructions. Elijah was to handle the situation by appointing two new kings (for Israel and Syria) and a prophet to continue his work.
It is significant that Elijah’s stressful feelings were not resolved in the storms around him, but in the stillness within him. At peace, the prophet went on to continue God’s assignment for his life.
Elijah had learned a great lesson in dealing with stress. He was a good man with good intentions, but somewhere along the line he had started trying to do it all himself, letting the stress build up as he attempted to cope with a human threat in a human way. In his Horeb experience, he learned a better way. So we can take a lesson from Elijah in learning how to handle everyday stress in our lives.
If we, in our daily activity, find ourselves caught up in discouragement, anxiety, fear and doubt, we can restore our spiritual equilibrium by taking the same steps that Elijah took. Let us look at these steps.
Don’t try to force your own way.
Much stress is caused by determination to have your own way, to make others do what you think they should. As Elijah discovered, there is a better way. There is God’s way, and it can be followed without stress, strain or force.
Elijah had a way of justifying himself to God. He really did want to do God’s work, and he frequently tried to use force to make the Israelites worship Jehovah. When he prayed to die, he explained that he was all alone, that nobody cared, and that some were even seeking his life. It just didn’t seem worthwhile anymore! He was carrying great burdens and feeling dejected, because he was working in a human consciousness, feeling that he worked alone. He had to learn to relieve the pressure that he had built up, to release the tension that he had accumulated through trying to do it all himself. And so do we.
Many times we must simply release the human pressure we have built up in order to call forth our good from a given situation.
One time I had a car with a trunk that was very difficult to unlock. Finally, my husband discovered a secret. If we leaned on the trunk as we turned the key, the trunk popped up easily. Leaning on the trunk relieved the pressure.
Sometimes we need to “lean on the trunk” as we unlock our strong human feelings of force and frustration. When we relieve the pressure, then we are better able to pray about it and receive our guidance, as Elijah did.
Don’t talk a lot.
Usually the first reaction of people who have challenges is to talk about them. They complain about other people, the situation, the happenings of the day and so on. And the more they talk, the more weary and frustrated they become. They complicate the situation even further if they begin to ask advice of their friends and associates, because no two people will agree on just what should be done to remedy the situation.
Excessive talking is a common result, as well as cause, of stress and fatigue. The power center is in the throat, at the root of the tongue, and the more one talks, the more he depletes the power supply in his body. As Dr. Selye showed, when the energy level is low, the stress level is even higher.
Even in the cave Elijah continued to talk, to complain, to express self-pity and generally use up the power God had given him. As he learned, God couldn’t really help him until he stopped talking and started listening. Then good things began to happen! And so it is with us.
The sooner we stop talking, the better we will fare. The sooner we relieve the pressure, the better off we will be. We can decide to continue our self-indulgence, blaming everybody and everything, or we can take control and stop pitying ourselves, complaining about our lot and so on, and let God take over in our lives.
In our human way, we will always be limited. We can never really be successful. We will always have stress and strain. But when we let God through, we will find, as Jesus did, that “he who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone” (John 8:29 RSV). And, taking God as our partner in the small events of everyday, as in the large undertakings of our lives, we will be free of the stress of human striving and straining.
How many people go through life with busyness and noise, never taking time to be still! Entertainment may be considered a form of relaxation, but there is no relaxation where there is much noise and activity. We all need times of absolute stillness of mind and body. And if we try to go too long without such times, we will find ourselves building up irritability and strain, which may grow into stress of mind and body. The human being is not constructed for continued motion. We are made for the rhythm of life, which includes times of activity and times of quiet and rest.
Stillness of mind and body goes beyond simply not talking. It is a quiet relaxation that is passive and yet expectant of good, relaxed and yet alert to God.
“Stillness breaks” in our lives are most effective when they are also “prayer breaks”, times of getting in tune with our Source, remembering why we are here and returning to our higher purpose. (It is so easy to forget — in all of the rush, activity and conversations of the day.)
As we stop and become still, we can assume control of our whole being by speaking to our thoughts, as well as our nerves and muscles, words of peace and stillness, quietness and harmony. When we have formed the habit of quieting our thoughts and emotions through times of prayer and receptivity to God, we will find that we can stop, wherever we are, whenever we begin to feel the tension and stress rising. We can stop, and become still.
Elijah did not find his answers in the storms around him — even the violence of the wind, earthquake and fire. It was in the stillness that his answer came. And so it is with us.
Let God make the decision.
If we insist on making our decisions in a logical way of human reasoning, we will always be assailed by doubts and fears. And doubts and fears add up to stress and strain, tension and pressure. It is only when we learn to listen in prayer and then go God’s way that we travel in peace and safety, without concern for the future.
Decision making can be one of the greatest causes of stress. Not only are we concerned about decisions we are making at this time. We may be wondering whether certain decisions of the past were the correct thing. How many times we may ask ourselves, “Did I do the right thing?” If we are working in a human way, we can never be sure! Or we may be anticipating decisions that must be made in the future.
Elijah had a way of trying to force his own opinion on others, but when he learned to stop, become still and listen to God, he made the right decisions, and everything worked out easily.
The best way to make any decision is to pray about it first. Then we must listen to God’s guidance. When it comes, we must follow it, trusting in Him to make all things right.
And, when we are acting on God’s instruction, we cannot afford to be concerned about what others may think or say. We avoid much stress simply by trusting God and going His way without looking around to see who may be watching us. God’s way is the easy, divinely ordered way. It works for us when we work with it.
The best time to handle stress is when it is first noticed, when it is beginning to arise. At this time it will be most amenable to direction.
But even if it has built up into enormous figments of the imagination and great emotional upheaval, such as Elijah suffered, it still can be dissolved by relieving the pressure, turning to the God power within, becoming still and listening.
God is speaking to us now, and His direction is always perfect!
© 1985, Winifred Wilkinson Hausmann
All rights reserved by the author.
Reprinted with permission.