Are you experiencing any stress?
That was the question posed to me during a visit to the doctor for some odd symptoms I was trying to sort out. I was immediately annoyed at the question, not because I don’t think stress is relevant (I give stress plenty of credit for the sneaky ways it affects our physical well-being). I was annoyed by the way the question was stated.
Stress is part of living life on this broken earth, in these broken frames. Genesis 3 recounts the introduction of pain, sorrow, toil, frustration, and futility as a result of Adam and Eve’s rebellious choice to trust the serpent’s counsel instead of God’s. Our days are full of stress.
Maybe that’s why the question was so frustrating to me. It presumed the option of a negative response, as if it’s possible to float through our days without stress. I think stress and anxiety affect everyone, just in different ways. A better framing would have been something like what sort of stress are you experiencing right now or what’s currently contributing to your stress.
Acknowledging the presence of stress and anxiety makes it easier to dissect its impact upon us. That’s why Hannah and I invited freelance writer Laura Turner to this week’s Persuasion, “Hopeful Thinking.” Laura writes about stress and anxiety and is currently researching the cultural history of anxiety for a future manuscript.
In addition, Laura’s got skin in this game—she’s wrestled with anxiety since childhood, so she knows plenty about its power. But she also knows plenty about God’s grace to meet her in the middle of it.
This is the message of hope we need, because stress and anxiety can overwhelm us, head to toe, blurring our thoughts into a muddy mess. Even more, stress/anxiety become the way we operate, the foundation for our mental frame. So before we even have a decision to make, our disposition has been shaped by stress/anxiety, pointing us toward particular decisions and reactions. Whatever we choose has been driven by unseen forces, leading us in a particular way, toward a particular end.
By acknowledging the common presence of stress and anxiety as part of the human experience, it no longer becomes something for only the weak or the immature. We can readily admit the ways that stress is affecting us today, knowing that tomorrow there may be a reprieve and next week there may be different presenting symptoms.
In talking with friends and loved ones about stress and anxiety, the symptoms are varied and many: insomnia to restless sleep, overeating to not eating, gut and stomach troubles, emotional outbursts and meltdowns, functional paralysis, low productivity, and more. Some of these are outwardly obvious signs, but many are not and many could be attributed to other factors. My stress is most typically related to being overwhelmed with work and professional responsibilities, showing up as hyper-productivity and a sore jaw from nighttime teeth clenching. These are signs that stress is particularly active in me at the moment. I can then be aware that stress is probably the main driver of my thoughts and decisions.
Being aware of these signs makes it easier for me to answer questions about the presence of stress. But it doesn’t make living with them easier. Stress and anxiety highlight our great need for something—Someone—stronger to hold us up when everything starts to sway, not if we have stress, but when.