There are some practical ways to help handle stress and anxiety. Know your stressors and develop plans to avoid or diffuse stressful situations. As much as is possible, get enough sleep. Eat well. Drink plenty of water. And, of course, there is the usual Christian advice that is so common we might forget how important it really is — remember to start your day by spending some time with God.
Having said all of that, we all know there is no way to avoid every stressful situation. Especially if you are smack in the middle of caring for babies and toddlers, your days will be marked by stress. If you have children with special needs, you will have stress. If you’re caring for aging parents or if you have a child off at war or if you’re battling an illness or if you’re grieving a loss, you will face anxiety and stress.
At some point, I’ve seen a system for rating your stress level. You give yourself so many points for certain events — a move, a job change, a death, a new baby, an illness, change in financial situation, etc. I am pretty sure I’m high up on that scale because of all the changes we have experienced in the past year or two. We moved. We changed churches. We enrolled the children in school. We’ve faced some learning delays with one son. Another son has shown full-blown symptoms of Tourette Syndrome and ADHD. The changes have increased our daughter’s Tourette Syndrome tics. We down-sized financially. My grandmother recently died. Actually, within the span of a year and a half, about 9 people we loved have passed away. I had major surgery that involved a great deal of grief. Some good friends have dealt with mental illness and a marital separation, which impacted us. We sold our home. We moved into an apartment, which brings all sorts of stress to the equation. And there are even more stressors that push us up that scale.
I say all that to assure you, I know stress and anxiety. I also am telling you that I don’t always handle it well. Just this morning, I lost it when I made a huge pot of oatmeal for breakfast and more than half the children didn’t want to eat it. One son even told me it was disgusting. For the record, it wasn’t disgusting. He just doesn’t prefer oatmeal this week, it seems. And though I needed to address his attitude and bad manners, I can’t say my reaction was based on a love for him and concern for shaping his character. Take it from me, I do not always respond to stress in the way Paul recommends in his letter to the Philippians.
In Philippians chapter 4, Paul writes,
Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I will say, rejoice! Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is at hand. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
This admonition comes just after Paul has addressed a disagreement in the church. Two women were divided in opinions, and Paul wanted them to reconcile and find unity because of their relationship in Christ. This was, undoubtedly, a stressful situation not just for the two women involved but also for the whole Philippian church; and perhaps, since the news of it had spread all the way to Paul, this situation was causing stress and anxiety for believers in other towns as well. Paul’s advice for this particular situation, inspired by the Holy Spirit, is good advice for us in our stressful situations.
Begin by rejoicing. Choose to find joy. If joy isn’t at all obvious to you in the midst of your anxiety, ask your Father to show you joy. And then rejoice.
Do not be anxious. I think this means, refuse to live in a constant state of anxiety. Choose not to dwell on worries. You know, I don’t even realize I’m doing this until I start to get headaches and become unbearably irritable. So it’s not even a matter of taking every thought captive because so much of it is subconscious for me. But I can be aware of my indicators. If I am having daily headaches and my family runs away when I walk into the room, I probably am living in a constant state of anxiety, and I need to move.
How can we obey this instruction to not be anxious? I think the how-to comes just after the command. “. . . in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.” When I pray with thanksgiving, I acknowledge God’s sovereignty and the situation loses its power over me. I would guess that most of us know to pray about stressful situations, but I know that I often forget the part about praying in thankfulness. Choosing to be grateful is a key component in not being anxious.
I have a friend who kept a gratefulness journal during one especially stressful period of her life. Every night, she made herself write down some things for which she was thankful that day. When we choose to look for blessings, for things to thank God for, our stress levels will lower. We will be less anxious. And “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” When we remember God’s sovereignty and thank Him and ask Him for help, He will guard our hearts and minds (from worry, from divisive attitudes, from sin).
Once we’ve emptied our minds of worry, we need to quickly fill our minds with something else or the worry will creep back in. So Paul goes on to tell us (and the Philippians) what to think about.
Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy – meditate on these things.
When the stresses of life are closing in on us and threatening to choke us, we can choose to think about things that are pure and true and lovely and praiseworthy. We can learn and recite psalms or other passages of scripture. We can sing hymns or listen to praise music.
It’s important to remember that we are in the middle of a spiritual battle. Our enemy is the father of lies, and he whispers lies and accusations all the time. But we can know the truth and counter deceitful thoughts with truth. That is what part 3 will be about — thinking about truth.