Dr Luisa Dillner wrote in the Guardian recently that many debilitating illnesses are linked to stress, including depression, irritable bowel syndrome and insomnia.
I’m interested in helping people become aware of stress because of my own experience of it. I’d known about stress at work through working in the banking industry. However, my experience of it in a more acute form came about after seven years in pastoral ministry.
I only became aware of how acute my stress had become during a family break in Paris. I was sitting outside a cafe with my wife, and our two young children were playing in the square in front of us. However, I couldn’t relax. I was filled with an irrational anxiety that they were going to be snatched. I couldn’t let them out of my sight.
Just a few days later, a lecturer on the counselling course I was on realised that the most frightening aspect of the stress I was feeling was that I was terrified of falling apart. I was also afraid to talk about it. Finding someone to talk to who could tolerate that and normalise the feeling helped enormously.
Fortunately I was due a sabbatical, and that enabled me to let go of much of the anxiety I was feeling. Finding out about Christian contemplative practices also helped.
Whilst I was on sabbatical, a small book jumped off a bookshelf at me. It was The Jesus Prayer by Simon Barrington Ward, former Bishop of Coventry. This simple but profound ancient contemplative prayer enabled me to step back from the anxious thoughts and see them for just that, rather than a direct readout of reality.
At the same time, during the counselling training I was doing I came across mindful awareness practices, such as paying attention to your breath. All of these things enabled me to deal with the stress I had been feeling.
We are often unable to do anything about many of the external pressures that put us under stress. However, I learnt that one of the major contributors to excessive pressure can be our faulty interpretation of external events – often catastrophic, negative and automatic interpretations. Totally identifying with our thoughts and feelings makes us, according the writer Martin Laird, victims of our thoughts rather than witnesses to them.
Using contemplative practices such as the Jesus Prayer, Lectio Divina (a slow prayerful, meditative reading of Scripture), as well as reality-focused mindful awareness practices enabled me to find an interior freedom from my afflictive thoughts.
Whilst reading up on the Jesus Prayer I came across a reference in the writings of a fifth century Bishop Diadochus of Photike to ‘mindfulness of God’.
Out of the research and personal experience I wrote A Book of Sparks – a Study in Christian Mindfullness. Along with helpful psychological treatments for stress, I believe that contemplative practices also help alleviate stress, and they can bring us into the healing presence of God. This awareness of the presence of God is what I have called mindfullness.
These contemplative practices increase our awareness of what is going on in our minds, bodies and emotions and help us de-centre from them. They also help us move from doing to being, and move out of the fight or flight response which stress keeps us in. That means we can respond rather than react automatically to stressful events.
The benefits of contemplative practices is attested to by neuroscience. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist in the US, has written about this in his book How God Changes Your Brain.
Finding somebody I could talk to who could tolerate my stress levels was very helpful. Becoming more aware of what my stress symptoms were was another important step. Learning what my afflictive thoughts and feelings were and how they contributed to my stress enabled me to find an interior freedom, which is one of the benefits of contemplative practice. Do you see stress in somebody else? Could you help them to reduce their stress levels? Do you see it in yourself?
We are doing a stress-awareness event at our church on National Stress Awareness Day. Let’s all raise awareness of stress for National Stress Awareness Day. It’s for people outside the church as well as in. As we sit round and eat curry I’ll talk about ‘Feeling the Heat’ of stress. Stress is a silent killer, so let’s make a noise about it. You might just save somebody’s life.
Find out more at www.isma.org.uk/national-stress-awareness-day/
Shaun Lambert, is Senior Minister of Stanmore Baptist Church, and part of the New Wine leader’s network, and Premier Mind and Soul network, and the author of A Book of Sparks, A Study in Christian MindFullness, published by Instant Apostle.