Rattle not OK

When I was young, my parents had bought something for me for Christmas that had a sign on the outside of the box saying “Rattle OK”, meaning that if you shook the box and heard loose pieces rattling about, that it was normal – nothing was broken. But for us, a “rattle” is not a good sign. If we are scattered – if pieces of our selves, our souls, are loose, it is a sign that we need help.
Think of God as the good parent that God is. If you are carrying a heavy burden (of worry, stress, fear, anxiety…) hand it over to God to take care of it. It is too heavy for you alone, you cannot bear it. But God, the kind and capable parent, can carry whatever is weighing you down and knows what to do with it.
We are trained by the world to be independent, to bear up under incredible stress, to solve our own problems. However, Jesus teaches us that God is more than willing and able to help us if only we ask. We are not made to be alone, to do everything ourselves. To rely solely on your own ability is to put yourself in God’s place. This is a form of idolatry – it is to say that you do not need God, because you are enough. Instead, give your burdens and brokenness to God, the faithful and capable parent, to take care of.

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Values

I know a couple where the husband said to the wife that they have to make a certain amount of money a year. It is a very high amount. They have only one child and live in an apartment.

Meanwhile, the wife is miserable, stuck at a job that she hates, where her manager is abusive to her. She is so stressed out that she has begun pulling out her hair. Doctors have put her on anti-anxiety medicine, but it isn’t helping because it is treating the symptom, not the disease.

I believe that the husband has his priorities wrong. It isn’t about money at all, and it never should be. If his wife is so miserable that it is affecting her health, then something has to change. They need to evaluate everything that they are spending money on and how much money is coming in. Perhaps he needs to get a second job. Perhaps they can trade out a car for a cheaper one. Perhaps they can move back in with a parent.

But there is no reason that a spouse should ever put money before the health of their spouse. No money is worth more than your spouse.

My husband was very stressed out recently about extra responsibilities with his job. This is a new job, but suddenly he is being expected to do things that he did not sign up for and is not trained in. He wants to do well, but these added expectations are not reasonable. It was obviously very overwhelming to him.

I chose to play the biggest card and speak of my fears. I told him a story that I’d just read about a woman whose husband was very stressed out over his job. He was so anxious over all that was going on that he had constant pains in his stomach (the stomach and the head are the most common sites for stress to manifest). Doctors, as usual, gave him medicine to treat his stomach pains but did not advise him to seek help about his job. She woke up one night to discover that he’d killed himself while she slept.

I told my husband that I don’t want to live through that. No job is worth that kind of stress. If his boss got angry that he wasn’t able to do what he expected him to do – a duty that was not on the list of expected tasks when he was hired – then perhaps he needs to find a new job. We can make do. We will work it out. We have before. But his health is worth more than money.

Don’t ever put money before your spouse. Remember “forsaking all others” as part of the vow? It normally refers to intimacy – that we promise to only be intimate with our spouse. But I take it to also mean that their well-being should be seen as important and valuable.

It doesn’t make sense if you have a lot of money but your spouse is miserable. It doesn’t make sense to demand that your spouse work at a place that is harmful to their well-being. Even if that man’s wife doesn’t kill herself from the stress, she’s living a half-life already because of it. It is not right for him to demand that. But this is her battle to fight. If he cannot see that, then she must speak up for herself.

Heart Exorcise

While waiting for my cardiologist, I heard his comments with the patient in the room next to mine. The walls are very thin and so I was able to hear almost all of the conversation. Things weren’t going well for the patient. I could tell it was also very awkward for the doctor. He is fairly young, this doctor, in a field where he sees very sick people all day long.

I had seen the patient before in the waiting room. I suspected he had cancer by the color of his skin. It also looked like he had gone bald from chemotherapy. He was also being pushed around in a wheelchair and had oxygen. So there was far more than just heart problems going on here.

The doctor started off by saying “Sorry to hear about the diagnosis and stuff.” And then he asked the patient if he wanted to continue treatment he was on, assessing what was valuable and what wasn’t. With a stage four cancer diagnosis, you have to reassess everything. Some treatments are just more hassle than they are worth. Some are worthless. They had to make some hard decisions. Cure wasn’t an option. Just easing symptoms. Palliative care.

I thought how hard it has to be to be a doctor and go from patient to patient, from hard thing to hard thing. Of course he’s a cardiologist and people get sick and die. They’re not here because they’re well. I am one of the few patients who is well and is doing well. In part I go to a cardiologist because I want to stay well. But I am unusual. I believe in prevention, rather than cure.

The doctor came to visit me next. He was in a rush and wanted to get right into the exam. I asked the doctor when we had a pause how he goes from one patient to another when it’s a hard thing. He looked at me briefly and he said “You just get used to it.” That really wasn’t what I was expecting. I was hoping he would say something useful like “I pray” or “I do yoga”. But he just said “You get used to it.”

I could see later that he was shaking. You don’t get used to it. You don’t get used to carrying heavy burdens. And when you know that someone you know, even if it’s just a patient and not someone you love, is going to die soon and in a ugly way then it’s a heavy thing to have to carry.

The only way of getting rid of these feelings that are hard is processing them. It’s not about ignoring them or about running away from them. That it is not dealing with them.

Hard feelings are just like having to go to the bathroom. We have to know what to do when we have that feeling in our body. Stress is the accumulation of a lot of hard feelings that have not been processed. Stress is like poop. If you don’t get rid of poop it will build up and you will become very sick. If you don’t get rid of the anger and the sadness and the fear it will back up and you will also become very sick. There are ways to process it at the time, but the best thing is to learn how to not store it at all.

I do that by my practice. Part of that is exercising and by eating well daily. I get enough sleep. I make sure that I am strong enough to be able to handle these feelings when they come to me. Praying and reading the Word daily helps too. When something does surprise or overwhelm me, I remember to return to my routine and my practice. I remember to pray. I remember to do yoga. I remember to do art. I remember to write.

When something extra difficult happens, not the everyday sort of stress, I make sure to set aside a little extra time to do all of those things. I may paint a painting specifically for that purpose. I may write a poem just on that issue. I’ll write more, even though I may not publish it. I have to process it or it will process me.

Think of a food processor – something is going to get ground up into little bits. I’d rather have some say as to what gets ground up. You don’t just “get used to it”. If you don’t process something hard, it will use you up and wear you out. It will wash you away until you are nothing.

Waiting to quit

When I quit smoking pot, that very morning a patron verbally attacked me. It was a real test of whether I had really grown up and decided to quit. It was a very vicious verbal attack and I was emotionally scarred. I went in the break room and I sat down and cried for a little bit. And I prayed as well.

I said “God, if you really want me to quit then why would you test me by giving me this evil woman who says that she “is a Christian and she treats people in a Christian way’?” Of all the ways I could have been attacked, that was the most difficult – for a “Christian” to yell at me because she broke the rules and I had to call her on it.

If I have been stoned I wouldn’t have even noticed how hateful she was. It wouldn’t have affected me at all.

I briefly considered going back to smoking and then I realized if I did then I was letting her win. At the time I was smoking not only pot but clove cigarettes to escape my feelings. I realized that I could not continue smoking pot because I wanted to buy a house. There was way too much paperwork and too much preparing to do to be stoned.

In the past, every time someone would upset me I would look forward to having a smoke. Every time I would smoke I would forget how much they upset me. But the problem was that I was polluting my lungs and fogging my mind. I wasn’t harming them at all. I wasn’t getting back at them. I was harming myself. It became important to me to stand strong.

There are many people who say “Oh, I can’t quit smoking cigarettes right now because I’ve got too much stress going on.” You will always have too much stress going on.

Here’s the crazy part. Smoking is what causes the stress. Or, better said, smoking is just putting off dealing with the stress.

We all have stress. Smoking just delays it, and then the problems multiply. Smoking doesn’t make them go away. Then, you have the worry over the fact that you are smoking to add to it. And your lungs don’t work as well, so that it stressful.

Smoking becomes the reason for your stress. It is a stupid cycle but it’s a very human one. We all do it.

If you wait until life is simple and easy, then what are you going to do when times get difficult again? You gave up your pacifier, your teddy bear, your security blanket. So what are you going to reach for when things get difficult again?

You have to learn how to take care of yourself when times are hard. You can’t wait until life gets easy.

I know a guy who is not taking care of himself after his wife died. He is doing all the wrong things and he knows it. He is eating badly and not sleeping well and he says he can’t take care of himself now. This is the time he must take care of himself. If he doesn’t do it then it’s just going to get harder.

The time to
learn how to fly
is when
you’ve been kicked
out of the nest,
not when you’re safe in it.

It is absolutely insane that our human bodies are designed to crave all the wrong things when we are under stress. The things we desire – extra salt, extra fat, extra sugar – are all things that make us feel worse in the long run. These things keep us drowning.

Rather than
dragging us
to the shore
they drag us
under.

But maybe that is our animal nature. Our human nature is to know better and to learn from our mistakes. Our human nature is to rise above and use our minds. Perhaps that’s the difference – our animal nature hurts us but our human nature helps us.

When we are under stress, we are said to have a fight or flight reflex. All our lizard brain wants to do is run away. And certainly run away is a great answer to pain. Who wants to be in the middle of pain? But running away sometimes only causes more pain. Often we run away with drugs, alcohol, smoking, and food.

Interestingly, the stuff that we humans take into ourselves that harms us was made by humans. It isn’t natural. We crave caffeine and processed sugar and excess fat. We crave things that come in packages and have labels. The more we go for healthy things the healthier we are not only physically but mentally.

Ideally people would never ever experience processed food. The moment a child eats a candy bar instead of an apple all he is going to want is the candy bar. And because it makes him happy and excited that’s going to be what he reaches for when he is under stress.

The cyclical effect of pain – stress/pain/tension/pain

Our bodies feel pain in ways other than pain. Pain is the last part. Pain means that the problem has popped the fuse and we are now desperate.

When a baby is hungry he will make signs. He’ll smack his lips or suck his fist. Crying is the last thing he’ll do. If his mother doesn’t notice the signs in time he will get frustrated. His needs aren’t being met.

Pain is the same way. It has subtle signs at first. Our body wants to protect us from pain. Our adrenal system races to the rescue when we hurt so that we don’t feel it. This is backwards, because then we don’t know that there is a problem. We find out later when the adrenal system gives up and we are just like that baby, crying and miserable.

Pain has a cascade effect. It affects everything. It is kind of like dominoes. One thing leads to another. If we are in pain, our stomach will get in knots, our teeth will clench, and then we will get headaches. Our breathing will get shallow. We will become irritable. Then the tension from all of that will only make things worse.

Tension causes pain, and pain causes tension. Anger can cause tension which causes pain. Pain can cause irritability which leads to anger. It isn’t just a domino effect, it is circular.

You can feel pain in other areas than where the actual pain is. Acupuncture teaches us this. If you’ve ever gotten a tattoo you know this. If you get a tattoo on your ankle it can hurt on your lower back. If you get a tattoo on your upper arm it can hurt on your face. So be mindful that just because you feel pain in one area doesn’t mean that is the source of the pain.

You can head things off at the pass. You can learn to recognize the signs of pain before they are off the charts. You can stop the cycle.

Do a body scan every now and then, several times a day. Just pause for a moment and see how you are feeling. This is useful to do at least once an hour. You won’t remember to do it that often to start with – that is normal. Just do what you can.

How is your breathing? Deep or shallow? Fast or slow? You can change a lot by changing your breathing. Intentionally breathe in slowly through your nose, on a count of ten. Exhale slowly through your mouth on a count of ten. Do this for a minute at least. See how you feel. Do it again if necessary.

How do you feel? Do you have tension in your back or shoulders or face? Are you clenching anywhere? Intentionally release it. We tend to hold tension in our bodies. Tension raises our blood pressure.

Check your tongue. Are you pressing it up against the roof of your mouth? This is a sign to your body that you are under pressure. It will raise your blood pressure the same way that breathing shallowly or clenching your muscles will. Do your best to relax your tongue from the roof of your mouth as often as possible.

Remember that whenever you are checking your breathing or tension, you are making a positive change for yourself. Don’t get mad at yourself for having shallow breathing or clenching your muscles. This is totally normal. To get mad at yourself only causes more tension. Instead, focus on the fact that you are doing something good about it. Every little step towards health is something to celebrate.

Find activities that you enjoy to reduce stress. Do something creative. Draw, paint, bead, write, garden, cook – the list is endless. Pick one, and if it doesn’t work for you, try something else. Get regular exercise, and don’t make it “exercise”. Children don’t “exercise”, they play. They are better off for it. If you find some way to move your body that you enjoy, you are more likely to do it.

Look at the things that cause you stress. What can you do about it? Can you make a change? Can you ask for assistance? Can you tell someone that what they are doing is harmful to you? People can’t read minds – you have to ask for what you need. Sometimes just thinking about this can make you feel more stress! Pick a book in my “survival” books list and read it. They are lifesavers.

I wish you well on your journey. We will never be stress-free. Life is all about challenge and growth, and stress gives us opportunities for that. Stress and pain are just signs that we need to slow down and reassess things. In this way, they are blessings. Otherwise, we’d not grow, we’d not ask for help, and we’d forget to be thankful for all the many gifts that we have.