Stressing the Body


(system) #1

About a year ago at a family gathering, my siblings and parents confronted me about how stressed they thought I was. Up till that point I thought I was probably just busy. I figured my schedule would soon loosen up and that I’d get back to normal. This was, of course, self-deception of the most common variety. But the concern of so many of my loved ones pushed me to think about stress and how I might handle it. I’d like to say that I went straight to my Christian tradition, to the principles of Scripture in order to study how to handle it, but that isn’t what happened. I am still on the path of learning to trust God and to rest in Him, and as part of this I am grateful for this lesson’s reminder that our sacred texts have a great deal to say about how to prioritize and enter into the Rest of our Lord.

Bible passages that remind us that God provides our needs and that we should “cast our cares upon Him” are important. We must claim them. We have to speak truths to ourselves—remind ourselves of what is real and what isn’t. We don’t have the power to do all that we need to do. God is God and we are not. He loves us and His ultimate will is that we learn how to love better.

But such reminders, such intellectual exercises of repeating over and over that we are casting our cares upon Him may not be enough. They weren’t for me. I could tell myself that I needed to trust God, but in the meantime, my blood pressure was steadily rising. Literally. What I am learning is that I have to move beyond the continual intellectual assent and reiteration of these promises to living as if they were true.

My unfolding understanding of the spiritual disciplines as they relate to handling stress is that our physical, bodily behaviors are just as, if not more, important than our thoughts. Our brains are part of our physical body. As an Adventist, this basic observation also has a theological component—my soul is not separate from my physical being. My own mental stress began to manifest itself in physical symptoms—as it probably does for most people. Stress is a great count-example to the fiction of dualism (the split between mind and body).

Professional healthcare providers reminded me that most of my brain activity is spent taking care of my physical body—running my bodily systems. I realized that I have devalued this part of my life. Somehow I think that the “real” me is the one that exists in the processes of my frontal lobe. The more my frontal lobe tells my brain that I am in some sort of anxiety or stress, the more my brain tells my body to prepare for danger: fight or flight. So engaging in physical patterns of behavior that tell my body I’m not in danger are critical.

What is essentially happening is that I act as if I believe that I am not in danger—slow down my breathing, take time to sleep, pause to meditate and pray, exercise—and then my body and emotions will reflect my behavior-reflecting-beliefs. I can’t just tell myself I believe God is in control; I have to act as if He is. For me, this meant pausing to breathe, literally, during the day and prioritizing rest and exercise.

It also meant re-valuing the care of the body in general. As an academic, I often think what happens in our brains is most important. I value my intellectual work more than my physical work. I was re-reminded of how crucial is the work of those who care for the body—those who bathe the elderly, who feed the profoundly disabled, who clean up after the physical processes of us all. The body and its needs are no less crucial than the brain and its work. My theology tells me this and I need to start acting as if I really believe it.

Of course, this all seems like common sense, but what struck me this spring is how much these basic elements of physical and mental wellness were actually connected to my spiritual understanding. I need to act as if I have faith and that actually is how I know I have it. This is done in our physical bodies. We are not physically separate from our spiritual beliefs. For me, acting as if I have a loving, redemptive God means taking time to act in ways that reflect His priorities. Knowing I am forgiven and loved means not spending more or less time than I should on projects or getting involved in situations/problems that I don’t need to. First come the actions, then come the mental and spiritual benefits of those physical activities.

We live in bodies; we live out our faith in our bodies. How are we actually communicating to our bodies that we are loved and safe and trust in God? Because we don’t have trust or faith in some purely mental, disembodied state. The Scriptures for this week talk about actual physical ways that people trusted God—specifically how they went places where they could trust Him and be with Him. I found that when I actually took time to move my body intentionally in worship, rest, refreshment, and connected that activity with my trust in God---my blood pressure lowered and my capacity for enjoyment, relaxation, and hope for the future increased.

It takes discipline to rest in God, to allow Him to take our cares. And it happens in the choices we make with our physical bodies. This is why Sabbath rest, for instance, is actually connected with making choices about what to do or not to do with our bodies. Where are our bodies on Sabbath and what are they (not) doing? The same is true throughout the week. Sabbath is not just in our minds, it is in our bodies. All of this discipline requires slowing down.

I’m learning not to pretend that I can trust God through faith while still acting in ways that alert my brain/body to prepare for danger (stress). I can do this partly through allowing others to share my burdens, as Scripture dictates, and to help hold me accountable for behaving as if I am not stressed. This past year, for instance, this has included lots of time spent holding my new-born nephew. I’m interested in how others make time for treating their bodies as if they aren’t in danger, as if they have time to trust and obey, as if God is actually in charge in the world. How do you engage in bodily practices that reflect your “casting your cares upon Him”?


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2864