Stress Management: A Friar’s Perspective

Joseph Nangle, OFM Features

The Province’s Wellness Committee provides information about stress management from one of its members, Joseph Nangle, OFM. Since its establishment in 2006, the committee has offered articles and resources about various health issues – both physical and emotional. Information about the committee and about health concerns is available through chair J. Patrick Kelly at 201-280-7644 and member Sr. Vicki Masterpaul at 716-373-0200, ext. 3304.

Some years ago, I got annoyed at the fact that I had to take medication to control a mild case of hypertension – borderline high blood pressure. When I expressed my frustration to the doctor who was treating me, his response was enlightening: “Well, you could bring down your pressure if you lolled around a beach most of the time; but somehow I don’t think that’s the way you want to live your life.” 

Not long afterwards I was coming up on open heart surgery for blockage in a major artery and the same doctor commented that the condition was life threatening. When I asked, “if that’s the case, how come I feel so good, he once again came through with a valuable insight: “you feel good because you’re a happy person.”

Those two little stories provide bookends for a reflection on the phenomenon of stress in our lives as ministers. On the one hand most of us probably wouldn’t trade our vocations for anything in the world, even knowing that by definition we shall constantly encounter stressful situations. (Indeed, as I sat down at my computer just now to write this article, one of our Hispanic parishioners called to tell me that the husband of a friend of hers had committed suicide this morning. She wanted to ask me what she needed to do as she took over for the distraught widow and her four young children. Stress writ large.) On the other hand, as the second story illustrates, stress and happiness can exist side by side.

Vulnerability to Stress
I believe, also, that a certain age group in our country is particularly vulnerable to stress. The cohort which finds itself taking care of aging parents seems to have more than its share of tension as they try to juggle careers with home care, medical attention, hospitalizations and the ever-present spectre of the nursing home or hospice for the parent(s). And religious may be particularly susceptible to this terribly demanding set of circumstances in their everyday lives, given the fact that we are seen by other family members as uniquely “available” for our parents.

So, we’re not going to suggest here the elimination of all stress from our busy lives, that would be folly. What may be helpful for us is some insight into the effects of stress on our bodies and emotions, a few tips on stress management, and some resources for followup reading and reflection. Knowledge is always a freeing experience and the more  we know about this necessary evil in our lives, the better we can cope with it.

According to literature on this subject, as well as personal observation, stress in one’s life contributes to higher or unhealthy cholesterol levels, depression, headache, sleep disturbances, irritability and less obvious symptoms like ringing in the ears, frequent and urgent need to urinate and even difficulty in swallowing. A report from the Harvard Medical School states that stress can influence cancer and chronic lower respiratory diseases. Thus, it’s almost a truism to say that stress underlies a lot of what can go wrong with our bodies.

Reducing Stress
How does one manage stress? There are probably as many techniques for handling stress as there are people who try to do something about it in their lives. They range from relaxation practices, proper nutrition, physical exercise, breathing exercises, repetitive prayer and on and on. Each of us has to find what works for him and there are some wonderful resources available to help us do just that. One that is recommended is titled: “Stress Control. Techniques for Preventing and Easing Stress” and may be obtained form Harvard Health Publications, P.O. Box 9306, Big Sandy, TX 75755-9306 or online 

Finally, it is important to note that professional help can mitigate the effects of stress in our lives. One report on this subject recommended that we turn to the psychologist or psychiatrist if symptoms of depression such as disturbed sleep, changes in appetite, feelings of hopelessness, sadness, irritability, guilt or anxiety which last for more than two weeks and are interfering with our normal routines. These classic signs of depression can result from situations of stress in our lives and talking them out with a professional counselor could quite possibly be the remedy we need.

But to go back to our first point, for us who minister to people often in their moments of peak stress and to a greater or lesser extent take their stress on ourselves, we should be aware that we’ll never be free of stress ourselves. And we wouldn’t want to loll around on beaches for the rest of our lives to avoid stressful situations. We’re simply not wired that way.  It is probably helpful to conclude with what my doctor said about my feeling good despite a pretty severe coronary artery problem “you feel that way because you are happy”. Happiness is achievable and is the great remedy for stress in our lives.
 — Fr. Joseph lives in Washington, D.C.