Tag Archives: Resilience

Awe as a Resource for Coping with Stress

What do you do when you face a stressful life event? Strategies obviously vary, ranging from getting drunk to binging on Netflix to talking with a friend. Individuals differ in their habitual responses to stress, and these differences significantly impact well-being. 

I’ve realized as of late how I often deal with stress by seeking a source of awe, something vast that stretches the sense of what’s possible in the moment. The experience of awe seems so distinct from the experience of stress, but reflecting on the intersection between my life experience and some new research just published by the American Psychological Association, I’m realizing how this response contributes to the ability to successfully cope with difficult times.

For instance, a few weeks ago, while a loved one underwent a long and intense surgery at one of the Mayo Clinic hospitals in Rochester, Minnesota, my wife and I decided to go for a walk. Whereas our feeling inside the hospital involved fear, agony, and dread, the simple act of getting into the sunlight and seeing the nearby trees brought us some calm. We eventually came across signs pointing us to the Plummer House – former home of Mayo partner and founder Dr. Henry Stanley Plummer – so we walked in that direction, ultimately finding the breathtaking English Tudor mansion. We explored the grounds but came to a stop, transfixed, at one of the most unusual buildings we’d ever seen – actually the old water tower for the mansion – but which my wife and I referred to as “Rapunzel’s Tower.” The architecture of the tower truly “blew our minds” for what was possible with a building, and we were lifted out of our troubles for just a moment. When our attention came back to ourselves and the situation at hand, we returned with greater clarity, strength, and connection to face the difficulties to come. 

Watertower at Plummer House, Rochester, Minnesota

In a recent article, six studies demonstrated how awe experiences diminish feelings of stress. For instance, in one study, participants were brought to the top of a 200-foot clock tower on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. Half were randomly assigned to the awe condition, which involved gazing out the tower upon the Bay, San Francisco, and the Golden Gate Bridge; the other half were randomly assigned to a control condition, which involved gazing upon the inside of the tower. Although both groups experienced less stress associated with the hassles they reported having than before being brought to the tower (consistent with research showing the stress benefits of taking a walk outside), individuals in the awe condition, in particular, experienced greater reductions in stress, compared with individuals in the control condition. In part because of this, participants in the awe condition also reported higher satisfaction with their lives.

Why does awe decrease stress? Based on their results, the researchers suggested that:

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Settling Into Winter

Sometimes, after dinner, the dishes washed and the kitchen reasonably cleaned, a window of time opens. My family disperses into their various corners of our home, allowing me to settle into the living room. I switch into comfortable clothing and I wrap myself in the soft, oversized blanket my wife gave me for Christmas.

Tonight, I look outside, into the darkness, where the only light comes from the faint glow off the newly fallen snow. I listen to the breeze shaking the trees, rattling the house, causing the chimney to whistle. 

Unsplash | Takemaru Hirai

During an awful pandemic that mostly restricts, in the midst of a Minnesota January, freedom can sometimes be found. There are options for what to do I don’t remember always having.

There are times when I light a fire in the fireplace and drink some herbal tea before settling into some pleasure reading, writing, or Netflix. Occasionally, a family member joins me for a game of Yahtzee or Quirkle. Some nights I go upstairs and settle into my tub, surrounded by candles, smells of lavender, and classical music played by Alexa.

In the past, I probably would have interpreted these unstructured, unplanned, unexciting nights as “boring.” However, I’m now finding power in reframing them as opportunities to “settle.”  

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On Living in the Age of COVID-19

For anyone who regularly reads this blog, you might remember me writing a post in March of this year about C. S. Lewis’s essay “On Living in an Atomic Age,” from his book “Present Concerns.” As it’s become clearer to me that COVID-19 – particularly in the United States – is likely to continue to be a source of concern well into next year, and as my family increasingly exposes itself to the risk of contracting the virus (especially as school opens), I’ve continued to reflect on this essay as a way to come to terms with my feelings of anxiety.

Although I recognize the atomic bomb has substantially greater risk to humanity than COVID-19, I’m going to take the liberty to replace Lewis’s references to the atomic bomb with references to the COVID-19 pandemic to make the connections as clear as possible:

“In one way we think a great deal too much about COVID-19. ‘How are we to live in an age of pandemic?’ I am tempted to reply: ‘Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night… 

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before COVID: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways… It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are going to catch COVID, let the virus when it finds us doing sensible and human things… Disease may break our bodies, but it need not dominate our minds…

What the wars and the weather… and COVID have really done is remind us forcibly of the sort of world we are living in and which… we were beginning to forget. And this reminder is, so far as it goes, a good thing. We have been waked from a pretty dream, and now we can begin to talk about realities.”

There are three main insights I gain from this.

First is one of radical acceptance. In addition to the painful consequences of racism and job / financial insecurity that this year has brought to the forefront of our minds, COVID-19 teaches us how this world is broken.

This leads to a second realization, that I am in a state of mourning. And, I’m not the only one. In fact, Michelle Obama recently labelled her experience “low-grade depression.” I personally wouldn’t go that far, but there is a sense of loss I feel this year with my realization of the true state of the world. The more people I talk to about the state of the world, the more common I believe many people are grieving.

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What If We’re Not Waging “War” Against COVID-19?

As the number of cases of COVID-19 continues to increase in our region, I continue to think of this excellent article from Christian Century. It challenges the presumption that the most productive metaphor for what we’re doing as a society is “waging war against the virus,” and instead raises some very thought-provoking questions:

christopher-sardegna-CMOa3H1SXG0-unsplash

Christopher Sardegna | Unsplash

“What will it mean for our country and world to live well with this pandemic?”

“Will we be patient and kind?”

Will we be able to truthfully accept and faithfully bear this tragedy, even as we try to conquer it?”

“How will we care for those who cannot be cured – a question made painfully difficult by the six or more feet of space that separates the dying from their families?”

“How well will we grieve – privately in our own homes, locally in shifts of ten, and collectively as a human race?”

Lessons from the Monks for the COVID-19 Pandemic

When people ask me how I’m doing in this time of “shelter-in-place,” I sometimes will make an attempt at humor and respond: “I’ve always thought I could have been a monk.” 

I’ve long been intrigued by monks and by monastic living.

Whenever I’ve had the opportunity, I’ve tried to learn what I can about monks and monastic living and to incorporate those insights into my daily life. Many years ago, for instance, I participated in the sunrise chants of the Benedictine monks living at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, and this taught me something about the vitality of intentional prayer, particularly early in the morning. Since it aired 13 years ago, this On Being interview with Shane Claiborne about “a monastic revolution” has challenged me to be a “real Christian” and follow the sometimes very straightforward and radical teachings of Jesus. Similarly, I’ve been struck by this publication of “the Monk Manifesto” a few years ago, particularly principle #3: “I commit to cultivating community by finding kindred spirits along the path, soul friends with whom I can share my deepest longings, and mentors who can offer guidance and wisdom for the journey.”

As I think about this, I wonder if part of the challenge many of us are facing right now is this: we’re living sort of like monks as we “shelter-in-place,” but without the knowledge of tradition, support, or intentionality that typically comes with monastic living. 

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What To Do When Stressed

A few weeks ago, while watching old episodes of Grey’s Anatomy on Netflix before going to sleep, I noticed my right eye felt drier than usual. I tried different tactics to adjust to this and fix my dry eye problem, but none really worked. Then, one morning, I woke up to find this same eye felt kind of sticky. It would improve after a few minutes of heavy blinking but, about a week later, I noticed it felt grittier when I blinked. A few days later, my left eye was starting to show some of the same symptoms, and also was bloodshot. How aggravating. I then discovered some kind of yellow-headed growth on the underside of my upper eyelid of my right eye. What was that? I found that thoughts and worries about my eyes started to interfere with my ability to be fully present in my daily life. I was distracted and less effective than usual.

My eyes are on the mend now. I went to my trusty eye doctor who prescribed a few eyedrops everyday, and the inflammation she discovered is going away. The yellow-headed growth? A benign calcification. So, everything is good, really, and my problem only illustrates a minor inconvenience. Nonetheless, this story illustrates how even one small stressor can negatively influence someone’s life.

Anything requiring a new response can be stressful. Stressors can involve loss, challenge, the anticipation of loss or challenge, or even something positive. In the classic social readjustment rating scale, stressors range in severity from minor (such as a speeding ticket or major holiday) to major (such as divorce or the death of a spouse). Traumatic life events can be even worse.

When we experience stress, our sympathetic nervous systems are activated. Our bodies direct stress hormones such as adrenaline to respond. Salivation decreases, perspiration increases, breathing quickens, heart rate accelerates, digestion slows, blood pressure increases, and immune system functioning lessens. Although this fight-or-flight response often protects us when we face an immediate, tangible danger, it causes problems when chronically activated, as typically is the case with modern stressors. This helps explain why many distressed individuals regularly experience symptoms such as dry mouth, sweaty palms, labored breathing, irregular heartbeat, nausea, high blood pressure, and vulnerability to sickness. Problems such as headaches, depression, and heart disease all become more likely as a result of chronic sympathetic nervous system activation.

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Religious and Spiritual Struggle During Adversity

Marian Fontana was living a good life. She had been happily married to her husband, Dave, for 17 years, with whom she had a young son. Marian had frequent “conversations with God,” as she put it. As a normal part of her daily life, she would thank God for all that was going well and ask God to bless others in need.

Then came September 11th, 2001.

When Marian saw the World Trade Center crumble on television, she knew her life was crumbling as well. Dave was a New York firefighter who was called to the scene. After sensing his death, her initial response was to wander into every church in her neighborhood to pray and pray and pray for Dave’s life. But, this prayer was to go unanswered.

After several months of total grief, Marian started to see beauty again. However, her spiritual life was different. As she stated in the PBS documentary, “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero:”

“I couldn’t believe that this God that I’d talked to in my own way for 35 years could… turn this loving man into bones. And I guess that’s when I felt that my faith was so weakened… My conversations with God that I used to have, I don’t have anymore… Now I can’t bring myself to speak to Him… because I feel so abandoned…”

Years later, Marian is doing better. She has written a memoir about her experience (“A Widow’s Walk”), and she reports being less angry. Yet, as she said in a live chat organized by PBS 10 years after Dave’s death, “[I] still don’t have conversations with God the way I used to.”

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