Oct 5, 2016

Stress Management: How to Avoid the Self-Destruct Button

A year ago, I couldn’t have even watched the Presidential debate; I probably would have had a coronary just from the hairstyles alone, much less any reflections upon how on earth our country got here and speculations on where we could possibly be headed now.  I was fragile, anxious, and just about ready to snap in half from a variety of reasons.  I wasn’t sleeping well, eating well, or praying well. You can substitute “at all” for “well” in that last sentence.

I will spare you the specifics, because you already know them; you or people you know have been suffering from some or all of the following: financial stress, health struggles, feeling overwhelmed by caring for aging parents, for small children, for older children, for adult children. Toss in cultural chaos, uncertainty and division within our country and even the Church, and the current political climate, and you have a recipe for a kind of Cortisol Candyland, where stress rules, and peace is impossible.

One of the worst things about stress like this is it can rob us of our ability to effectively do the things we need to do to conquer it.  I can’t tell you how many times I told myself (and was told by others) that I needed to pray more, and better.  Sometimes in this valley, prayer can feel like booming echoes that do little but emphasize one’s sense of isolation, and give you a headache.  Hello? Is anyone there? Never mind.

“You need to sleep more, eat more, take care of yourself.” Agreed. How do I do that, again?

The truth about managing stress is not that we need to do more; it’s that we need to do less, and do what we do in a different way.

My training as a young mom was to do one million things every day.  I don’t think this is terribly different from people with challenging jobs outside the home: the wonderful boon of technology means that not only can we do more faster, but that we are expected to do it all faster, and never stop.  Now, truthfully, many of those things are non-negotiable in certain circumstances: when babies and little kids need to eat, you need to feed them; change them, bathe them, etc., and it all has to happen when it needs to happen. Schedules help, but let’s face it: there is just a lot to do.  As little ones get older, the immediacy of their needs lessen, but we insert more needs: playdates, activities, and hey! Younger siblings with all of the original needs!

Thank Heaven babies and toddlers come with their own built-in hormonal stress relieving system. We cuddle them, smell their heads, get kisses, and have these joy surges that largely help to counterbalance the strain.

As kids age, we have less access to that kind of relief, particularly if we are Marthas, concerned with many things: help pay the bills, care for the folks, help others in need- and woe betide if we should happen to fall ill.  The stress builds, and the relief fades.

We are like frogs in hot water- we don’t notice until we’ve boiled to death.

There has got to be a way to stop the madness, for ourselves and for our kids. ‘Cause guess what? We model stress for our families as we model everything else. We have to learn to calm down so that they can learn to handle what life has in store without breaking. But how? you ask.

Fortunately, I have done the breaking down for you! Having been almost completely physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually wrecked myself, I have been given the gift of more time to figure out how not to do that again, and I am delighted to share the fruits of my personal destruction with you.

So without further ado, Nan’s Hard-Won Keys to Stress Management:

1.  Do less. 
Ruthlessly hack away at your schedule. Pare it down, Chuck things out the window, even good things. Especially good things.  Focus in on what’s absolutely vital. Let the rest go, at least for now. No more extracurriculars, or fewer.  I had to get seriously ill to achieve this- hopefully you are less pigheaded and can manage it before your body breaks down. Stop helping everybody all the time! You will do nobody any good by having your head explode.

 2. Live deep, not shallow. 
I find that when I was most stressed, I was skating over the surface of life, no time for a story, no time to be goofy, no time to stop and look deeply into a child’s eyes, or Heaven forfend, my husband’s eyes. “Oh yeah, they’re green!” I actually said this recently, mostly kidding, as my husband and I stopped and took a minute to gaze at each other. Sit in the sandbox; stare at a wall, or a flower.

3. Stop kicking yourself for the cruddy quality of your prayer.  
So your prayer stinks. God’s used to it.  He is not booting you in the face, you are.  Stop trying so hard. Take more time for it, and flail around less. Shut up. Listen. Just snuggle with Him for awhile, He’s not going anywhere. He doesn’t need you to compose the new prayer of St. Francis. He’s already got one, and it’s fine.

4. Stop kicking yourself at all. 
Life will kick you plenty.  Do we need to examine our consciences? Of course- but limit it to once a day, preferably not at night.  And try to remember why God loves you. Because He does, which is weird, but there it is.

5. Stop dieting. Please, stop dieting. Please please please stop dieting.  
So many of us have developed hideous relationships with food and with our bodies- it’s a cycle of self-loathing that becomes a vortex. This food is bad, that food is bad, I am bad, it’s all bad, meals are occasions of guilt and punishment, instead of refreshment and gratitude. This is from the soul of the Italian in me: love food. God wants you to eat good food.  If you are having trouble digesting, get some nice expensive high quality supplements, preferably with enzymes to aid in breaking down that good food so you can get the benefit of it.

6. Touch people, as much as you and they can stand. 
Hug, caress, stroke hair- and try to remember to do that with kids, especially adult kids, as a replacement for talking, as often as they will allow. Sometimes we talk, and the words are good, and we mean well, and we are being very instructive, and all everybody needs is just some proof that they are loved well. I am not saying never talk; but how many times have words gotten us deeper into the woods, and love has gotten us out? Start with the unconditional love- and maybe stop there.

7.  Love rest, love leisure. 
These things are restorative, and God intended them for blessings. Slow down and enjoy things. I had gotten to the point where I could not stop working. I could hardly sit still at the dinner table- those dishes were waiting and it would be better if I could get to them right away. Sleep? Who could sleep? There were so many things that needed doing, and so many things to beat myself up over not having done. God wants you to love His gifts.  When you do move, move because it feels good to use the body that God gave you, not because you have an emotional gun pointed at your head.

Make yourself do a fun thing. So the cows won’t get fed for a half hour- will they DIE? So a doorbell or phone will ring unanswered- it probably isn’t the FBI or your long-lost aunt- let it ring, let them go away. So you’re unshowered and look like the wrath of God- your kids will adore you for sitting down for one half hour and playing with them. DO IT. STOP DOING OTHER STUFF. STOP STOP STOP. YOU HAVE TO STOP!!!

8.  Read for relaxation.
Not everything has to be spiritual reading.  Read you some Jane Austen! How about a buddy series set in the British navy during the Napoleonic wars? (Patrick O’Brian- oh yeah!).  Even St. Francis de Sales would tell you, enough already.  Relax.  Ok, maybe it would be Padre Pio or St. Philip Neri telling you- they are paesanos- they get it.

9.  Here’s a weird one: try for awhile not to read any books about saints that aren’t written by saints. Saints are very honest about themselves.  Saints tell the whole deal, how they screwed up, and continued to screw up after their conversions.  Biographers tell us how perfect the saints were, how pious, how gifted at prayer, how instinctively holy.  We get a lot about bilocation and the stigmata- well guess what? You’re probably not going to bilocate or get the stigmata, and if you do, it won’t be because you read about it somewhere.  I am not saying lives of the saints have no value; but when you are stressed, they can seem more like accusations or confirmation of your own hopelessness. Actual saints talking about themselves don’t have that effect. They talk about what brats they were as kids or the struggle to love somebody unloveable- the real stuff.  It helps. And it’s funny!

10.  Give yourself a break. 
Teach your kids that it’s ok to give themselves a break. And I mean this in two senses: one, take an actual break. And two, when you mess up, apologize, forgive yourself, and move on. Everybody messes up. Every-single-body. There were two who didn’t, but since you and I are not called to be Lord or Lady of the Universe, we can probably afford to make a few mistakes, like St. Augustine, like Pope John Paul the Great, like every other person who ever lived. Say out loud: “I am sorry. I forgive myself.” Yes, I know it’s God’s forgiveness that really counts, but He really doesn’t have much trouble forgiving. Forgive yourself; say it out loud even if you don’t really mean it. MRI research has shown that saying these words has a physically calming effect on the brain.  Every thought has a corresponding physiological action: it can be a cortisol eruption, frazzling your mind and body; or it can be a peaceful, antioxidant spa.  Say positive things out loud. “It’s going to be ok. God loves me. God loves you. Get me some Doritos.”

Oh, I’ve got a bunch more to say to you. But I won’t, because I am taking my own advice, and stopping. In closing, allow me to point out that almost every rule above has the word “stop” or “don’t” in it.  These rules do not demand more of you; they beg that you demand less of yourself.

Yes, I realize that the general cultural failing is not that everyone is trying too hard to be holy; but if you are stressed out from trying to live a good and holy life, you don’t need the same admonitions most people need.

You gotta STOP. Get somebody to give you a hug. Breathe. Snuggle with God; let Him do the heavy lifting. He’s got you.


  1. This is a perfect post. Great tips in here, Ma Nancy. I couldn't have said it better! <3

  2. Thanks so much, Lis. God bless you! <3

  3. You were holding out on me tonight ;)...love this!! Didn't we talk about #9 like, 100 years ago?! So happy to see you getting better my friend.

    1. Yes! :) Saints are painfully honest about themselves, and I appreciate that! Had the best time last night. <3 Everybody go see Sully as soon as you can!

  4. Such good pointers. Can you recommend any good saints by saints books? I think my husband would like a good, honest, saint book.

    1. Thanks Jennifer! Right off the top of my head, I love St. Augustine's Confessions, also Come Be My Light, the widely misunderstood letters of Mother Teresa (very helpful to me as a guide to how to behave when you're not feeling the consolations), and the Life of St. Teresa of Avila written by herself (subtitled by me "Life of a Doubting Hothead"). There are others, of course, but these leap to mind. To me it seems that the thing that sets saints apart is not their perfection, but the fact that they want so much to be close to God, and commit themselves to not letting other things get in the way. We can all do that, even if we mess it up on a regular basis. God sees the desire and the successes, and the failures fade away in the light of our repentance and His ineffable Mercy. God bless you and your husband!


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