Escape the stress trap

Stress seems to be an inevitable part of life, but we can learn to manage it, says Mary Southerland

While waiting for the red light to change, I noticed a bumper sticker on the car in front of me. “Just when I thought I was winning the rat race, along came faster rats!”  My thoughts immediately drifted to the absurd schedule through which I had hurled myself that day. It was a schedule without margins or boundaries, every moment assigned to something or someone. My stress level had grown with every task. My head was pounding and my stomach was churning.  I couldn’t wait to get home, change into my comfort clothes and escape to a quiet place of solitude and rest.

Stress, however, was eagerly awaiting my arrival at home! Dinner had to be prepared.  Children needed clean clothes and help with homework. Any hope of relief vanished when my husband got home.  One look at Dan’s face told me that he desperately needed peace and quiet, too.  Everywhere I looked and every person who crossed my path seemed to be fighting the same battle with stress.
Stress is a familiar companion, an unavoidable part of life common to us all.  It doesn’t matter where life takes us, we will encounter stress. We can neither run from nor avoid stress.  Unless we learn how to manage and deal with that stress – God’s way – we will find ourselves trapped and become an easy target for the enemy.

A friend recently told me the story of a farmer, the owner of a large piece of land along the Atlantic seacoast, who constantly advertised for hired hands. Most people were reluctant to work on farms along the Atlantic because of the terrible storms known to plague the area, destroying buildings and crops. As the farmer interviewed applicants for the job, he received a steady stream of refusals. Finally, a short, thin man, well past middle age, approached the farmer, seeking employment. "Are you a good farm hand?" the farmer asked him.  "Well, I can sleep when the wind blows," answered the little man.  Although puzzled by this answer, the farmer, desperate for help, hired him.

The slight man worked hard around the farm and the farmer was delighted with the man's work. Then one night, a howling wind blew in from offshore, signaling the approach of a monstrous storm. Jumping out of bed, the farmer grabbed a lantern and rushed next door to the hired hand's sleeping quarters. He shook the little man and yelled, "Get up! A storm is coming! Tie things down before they blow away!"  The man rolled over in bed and firmly responded, "No sir!  I told you, I can sleep when the wind blows." 

Enraged by the seemingly impertinent response, the farmer was tempted to fire him on the spot. Instead, he hurried outside to prepare for the storm. To his amazement, he discovered that all of the haystacks had been covered with tarps. The cows were in the barn, the chickens were in their coops, the doors were barred and the shutters were tightly secured. Everything was tied down. Nothing could blow away. The farmer then understood what his hired hand had meant, so he, too, returned to his bed to “sleep while the wind blew”.

Stress management is a spiritual discipline that begins with diligent preparation in every area of life – mental, emotional, physical and spiritual.  We must be ready to deal with stress before we are required to deal with stress.  Sometimes the most familiar passages of scripture are also the most overlooked.  Psalm 23 is one of those passages.  I often find myself rushing to this psalm for peace and comfort in the aftermath of a stressful situation or for guidance and shelter from the storm that I see barreling straight for the unprepared shores of my life. However, I have also discovered that Psalm 23 is a powerful tool for dealing with stress on an everyday basis. 

God delivered a profound message when he sent his son, Jesus Christ, to live among us each and every day.  Jesus could have come to us in many ways, but he chose to interrupt the ordinary with the extraordinary!  Jesus could rightfully have been born in a palace.  He was, after all, a King.  Yet his life on earth began in a manger - a smelly, dusty, dirty and definitely common barn.  The simplicity of his birth is one of his most precious gifts to us and a constant reminder that he really does care about everything that touches our lives - no matter how insignificant it may seem. God wants to be involved in the ordinary happenings of each day. 

When I find myself wishing I could have been there that holy night when Jesus was born, he gently reminds me that I had my own manger experience, when God became a personal reality in my life. I have my own holy moments each and every day as I reach out to him and he is there, right in the middle of my common, ordinary and often smelly circumstances. 

Most people who know me well would describe me as a strong woman.  It took a complete physical, emotional and spiritual crisis for me to realise that I was only as strong as my human personality and abilities would allow me to be.  I was, in short, looking in all the wrong places for the deepest needs of my heart to be met. When all was stripped away by a two-year battle with clinical depression, I was left with nothing but broken dreams and unanswered questions. There, in that dark pit, surrounded by the meager remains of a shattered life, I discovered that God really is my Shepherd  .  .  . and he is enough.

Stress has no place in a heart that kneels before the manger.  Stress is powerless in a life that continually seeks God and chooses to surrender to his love and care – like the sheep surrender to the love and care of their Shepherd. 

While I cannot imagine my world without the presence and power of Jesus Christ, I am often guilty of living as if he doesn’t exist.  The result is a stress-filled life.  A trial comes and I try to handle it on my own. Loneliness empties my heart and, instead of reaching out to him, I withdraw into the darkness where stress is waiting to fill that emptiness with anxiety and fear. Still, God is faithful.  His peace is a soothing balm that leads me once again to the manger and away from stress.  Emmanuel, God with me!  He steps into my life and changes everything.  When he comes, stress is stripped away and tranquility given in its place.

* Mary and Dan Southerland will be leading daily Bible studies and seminars at the Detling Summer Conference, Kent, 8th-13th August 


Beginning today, read Psalm 23 once a day for a month. The powerful truths of this psalm will calm your fears and reduce stress.

The Lord is my shepherd,  I shall lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”  Psalm 23

Beat that stress

Mary Southerland has a ministry in  helping women manage stress and enjoy peace in their lives, here’s five practical things you can do to de-stress

* Mini-massage: Lie on your back and position a tennis ball under the tense points - your lower back, between your shoulder blades, etc. Roll gently up and down and side to side.
* Heat wrap: Soak a hand towel and microwave for two minutes until steamy. Place on back of neck, on face or computer-achy hands.
* Finger exercise: Tap the tips of your fingers together to clear your head. Then hold one finger at a time between your other thumb and finger and roll the finger like a pencil. Believe it or not, this is thought to relax neck muscles and improve circulation.
* Flower power: Pick up a bouquet of purple lisianthus and light blue or green hydrangea, which have a calming effect. Place in a glass bowl so you can see the water, and keep it on your desk.
* Hand therapy: Briskly rub your hands together until they feel warm. Then cup them over your closed eyes for five seconds while you breathe deeply. The warmth and darkness are comforting.

And 14 fun fixes

* Laugh more.
* Pop some bubble wrap. Can't find the real thing? Go to
* Live in the present.
* Learn the art of taking a nap.
* Journal.
* Rid your life of clutter.
* Blow up a balloon in slow, three-second puffs.
* Take a class in belly-dancing
* Stare at the blue sky (a calming color) and watch the clouds float by.
* Hug an animal.
* Take a bubble bath with candles and soft music.
* Go for a 15 minute walk.
* Remember that it’s never too late to have a happy childhood.
* Learn to say “no”.