“Taking the path less traveled by exploring your spirituality can lead to a clearer life purpose, better personal relationships and enhanced stress management. . .” – Mayo Clinic staff
“Adopting the right attitude can convert a negative stress into a positive one.” – Dr. Hans Selye
Stress has developed a bad reputation. High stress levels over a long period of time have been implicated in increased risk for many conditions including high blood pressure, heart disease, asthma, obesity, diabetes, cancer, infections, inflammations, headaches, digestive problems, lowered immunity, and accelerated aging.
Depression, anxiety and substance abuse have also been shown to be stress-related. So it seems that we really do pay a high price for having stress in our lives. However, if we look more closely we find that not all stress is bad. In fact, stress can be good, bad or neutral. If we look even closer, we see that we have the power to make choices that can greatly reduce the negative impact of stress and sometimes even turn stressful challenges into positive growth-filled experiences.
Stress is both outside of us and inside of us. Stress is the outer “stuff” that happens. Stress includes all of the changes that happen in our lives, all of the demands that we experience, and all of the challenges that we face. Stress is also inside of us. The inner experience of stress comes from the way we see the events that happen and the way in which we respond to the changes, demands and challenges in our lives.
The inner stress experience is the combination of our thoughts, feelings and biological responses to the outer “stuff” that happens. One person can run a long distance at a steady fast pace out of fear of being chased. Another person can run the same distance at a steady fast pace motivated by a dream of winning an Olympic gold medal. The outer activity may be similar, but the inner experience of each person is very different.
For the person motivated by fear, the outer demand of a long-distance run is made even more difficult by the inner experience of distress (negative stress). For the person motivated by a dream, the outer stress of the run fades in the light of the inner experience of hope and faith.
Dr. Hans Seyle is known as the “Father of Modern Stress Research.” Seyle began his life-long investigations into the impact of stress in the 1930s and he concluded that it is very possible to have stress without distress – stress without negative consequences.
Recent research is proving Seyle right, and spirituality may be a powerful tool with which we can turn potentially damaging negative stress into a neutral or even a positive experience.
Studies have been showing that prayer and meditation improve health and lower the health risks associated with stress. Meditation has been linked to reduced anxiety, lower blood pressure, reduced risk of heart disease and reduced risk for diabetes. Participation in a spiritual or religious community has been shown to be related to reduced stress, improved immune functioning, slower aging and increased life span.
How can spirituality reduce the negative impact of stress? How can spiritual or religious practice potentially change stressful challenges into experiences that help us grow? Our spiritual understanding can change the impact of stressful events by changing the meaning we give to those events. Our spiritual practices can keep us grounded in our values, faith, and hope – changing the way we see challenges before us and greatly reducing the inner experience of distress.
When stress is ongoing, prayer and meditation can literally interrupt the experience of chronic stress with moments of peace and renewal. Interrupting stress with periods of renewal greatly reduces the health risks generally attributed to stress. Spirituality can also transform the experience of stress because our spirituality helps us feel a part of something greater than ourselves. When we align with a Higher Power – with the God of our understanding, we are less likely to feel helpless in the face of life’s challenges. In a similar way, belonging to a spiritual or religious community can reduce the sense of being alone and helpless in the face of major stressors. It is well accepted that the support of a loving community softens the negative effects of stress.
It is probably a good idea to continue eating a healthy diet and exercising to manage stress. It is equally a good idea to use our spiritual practice to reduce the negative impact of stress in our lives. The world can begin to feel like a gentler place when we allow ourselves to feel a part of something greater than ourselves.
Finding meaning in the challenges we face through our faith and beliefs can reduce distress and create opportunities for mastery. The negative side of stress fades when it is softened by loving community, interrupted with the moments of prayerful peace, and experienced through the power of faith.