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The Stress of Living and Being Human

November 8, 2015

A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Caregiving Sunday, November 8, 2015

Psalm 23     John 14:25-27

‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

Ah, the peace which passes all understanding, the untroubled heart. It’s quite elusive isn’t it?

I mean, I know Edna Shaw enters this building every Monday morning as a “nifty thrifty” and declares that she is “too blessed to be stressed,” and maybe she is. To see Edna sing and dance her way to work in the sorting room is to witness someone who knows in a profound way that the presence of God and God’s people in her life makes it possible for her to face whatever challenges may come her way, and, more importantly, they help her accompany others through their troubles. I thank God for Edna.

But on a day-to-day basis – from hour-to-hour and minute-to-minute, how many of us could say we are too blessed to be stressed?

This is our third year observing Caregiver Sunday. November is National Caregiver Month (as I was reminded when I picked up my free issue of the Westchester Healthcare News at the bus-stop – a special issue dedicated to family caregivers). The Presbyterian Church marks the second Sunday of November with an invitation to remember that it is not only patients, but caregivers, who also need the comfort and support of the church community, and to encourage the caregivers among us accept the help of any who can competently offer it. It has been said that there are four kinds of people in the world;

  • those who are caregivers,
  • those who will be caregivers,
  • those who have been caregivers, and
  • those who will need

In other words, this is – sooner or later – about all of us. More than 65 million people, 29% of the U.S. population, are providing care for a chronically ill, disabled, or aged family member or friend during any given year. How many of you are or have been the primary caregiver for a loved one? Then you know that the responsibilities and challenges of caring for a loved one can cause significant stress for the caregiver and the caregiver’s family. This morning I’m not going to talk about the particular challenges caregivers face in dealing with loving someone who may no longer recognizes you, the exhausting ups and downs of chronic mental illness, the interminable navigation of medical and legal issues, loneliness, compassion fatigue, and guilt. Instead I want to start a conversation about stress and stress management. Because caregivers are stressed people. And that’s something we could all use help with.

3D Character with head in hands, sitting on the word Stress

Stress is a normal part of life. We are blessed to be stressed! It is our body’s response to stimulation. It is impossible to live without stress. Without stimulation and stress, life would be boring. I’m told that if you look at an EKG of a normal heart and then look again – the heart’s response to the emotions of both fear and joy is the same. Stress is simply part of living and being human.[1]

But not all stress is the same. Positive, healthy stress might include “being with a loved one, getting married, getting a job promotion, receiving a college degree, having children.” I know that buying our first home was a major stress on my family last year, manifest in all forms of irritability, anxiety, and headaches. It is said that a healthy body can handle about three major life-stressors at a time, generally within a twelve-month period, which is a good reason to monitor even these positive stressors.

Then there is negative stress, the type that undermines our mental and physical health. Prolonged, excessive stress comes from many different sources but certainly includes “work, family life, unexpected change, natural catastrophe, loss of job, financial problems, and sexual problems, to name just a few.” Caregiving is certainly a cause of persistent stress. We often speak about caregivers with great admiration, applauding their commitment and compassion, their sacrifice and long-suffering, but what we are really talking about are stressed-out people.

Stress word cloud concept in red capsIf there are both positive and negative forms of stress, there are also positive and negative ways of coping with stress. We are familiar with the more obvious negatives: smoking, excessive drinking, legal and illegal drugs. Almost every week prayer requests come forward during worship for people who are coping in these ways. On the other hand, we tend to overlook (or even admire) the workaholic, or the over-committed volunteer. But addictions such as work, sex, shopping and eating can all be ways of coping with persistent stress that actually undermine our well-being and health. Positive coping includes regular exercise (or even a quick walk), time outdoors in nature, meditation, prayer, journaling, eating a healthy diet, and time spent with good friends.

The problem is, many of us aren’t very good at recognizing the signs of stress, even though our bodies speak clearly to us. Physical signs of stress include

  • Headaches
  • Muscle tension or lower back pain
  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue
  • Stomach upset, or
  • Sleep problems.

I experience stress physically in my legs. When I ignore or deny the stress I am experiencing for too long, my legs get heavy and sluggish and ache constantly. That means I need to stop and ask for help.

But stress also appears as

  • A general anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Lack of motivation or inability to focus
  • Irritability or anger
  • Sadness or depression.

These are, of course, the symptoms that others notice first, our family and friends. They are also the symptoms that make it particularly hard for us to ask for help. Restless and anxious people try to help themselves, unmotivated people don’t even try, and when we’re angry, of course, we are disposed to see other people as the source of our problem. Every caregiver, whether parent, spouse, or adult child, has experienced resentment for the person they are caring for, no matter how much they love them.

When I recognize that I am experiencing stress, I go for a walk outdoors or a hike in the woods. It is especially beautiful to walk at this time of the year, with the leaves changing color, and the squirrels stocking up for winter, and the sound of nuts cracking and leaves crunching beneath my feet. I also listen to music – anything I can dance to, but mostly the Grateful Dead. And I read, a lot – novels and history – and seek out people to talk to about what I’m learning. I am actually quite good at making the physical symptoms of stress dissipate by simply finding a place to sit quietly and breathe, getting back into my body as a form of prayer. This is why Sabbath is so central to my own spiritual practice. And of course, no one complains when I want to clean a closet or a room as a form of stress reduction.

Then there is the need for community, for other people. Stress isolates. Each of us need to develop or utilize a support system: friends, colleagues, and relatives with whom we can share our struggles.

I talk to a lot of stressed out people. In fact, that’s often why I’m talking with someone – they have recognized one of the signs above and want to talk about what’s going on in their life, what they’re going through, what they’re dealing with. The talk itself may be the most powerful thing they could do. “There is a catharsis involves in sharing our stresses. Often new insights are gained simply through the process of articulation.”[2] And talking with others makes it more likely we will avail ourselves of other healthy habits of self-care.

What stressors are you facing right now? What are the symptoms? How are you dealing with them?

My hope with this sermon this morning is simply to start a conversation about how we coping with the inevitable stresses that are part of living and being human. I have had the most interesting conversations all week long that began with little more than my saying I wanted to preach about stress, and then letting the conversation lead where it will. Everyone has had something to say, to offer, often opening up parts of their lives (and my life) we didn’t expect to the talking about.

You know, the best way to learn self-care is from people struggling to take care of themselves.

self-care

On Friday, I spoke with a woman who is experiencing an unexpected trauma in her immediate family. We talked a long time, but when we were done she said, “You and I know something, don’t we? Something not everyone knows. We know the peace deep down in our souls that only God can give, that despite all we must go through, we are loved and capable of love, and all will be well.” And I do know. Peace not as a panacea that makes everything better, or as a narcotic that numbs me to reality, but the peace that truly passes all understanding that comes from the presence of God and God’s people in my life. A peace that makes it possible for me to face whatever challenges may come my way, and, more importantly, help me accompany others through theirs.

And I began to sing,

I’ve got a peace-that-passes-understanding down in my heart. Down in my heart. Down in my heart.

I’ve got a peace-that-passes-understanding down in my heart. Down in my heart today.

Do you know this peace? Do you want to know this peace? Start with good self-care and a caring community. And you will find God always near when you cry out.

[We then sang Precious Lord, Take My Hand]

[1] Dr. Al Tatarunis, “The Mind Game Called Life and How to Play It.” Presentation to Vanderbilt Presbyterian Church, November 6, 2015.

[2] Anthony Pappas. Pastoral Stress: Sources of Tension, Resources for Transformation. Alban Institute.

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