Taking stress in stride

Once you discover what your greatest causes of stress are, you can begin to deal with them and limit your stress level. Your sources of stress may lie closer to home than you imagine.

Petra Sukau, Ph.D., serves as a health counselor and consultant at Tidewater Memorial Hospital in Tappahannock, Virginia. Her most recent project is development of a stress management seminar for government and professional groups.

Nora's mother was of nobility by birth, but Nora was ugly, slow to learn, uninteresting, touchy, sensitive, bossy, and really hard to get along with. No one I know of liked her. She is dead now, so I can talk freely about her problems. Her father was handsome, but poor, uneducated, and not accepted in the aristocratic home. When Nora's parents married, they moved many miles away to her father's home. Then, just when economic hard ships became severe, Nora came along. Not needed or wanted, she was peculiar from the start. She screamed day and night and soon broke out in boils. By the time she was 6 months old, she had had 380 boils lanced at the local hospital. Her mother was sure that this ugly, scarred critter was a punishment sent from God. The only God she knew was vengeful, unforgiving, and severe. Try as she would, she could not accept the child that reminded her daily of her sin. Nora's father, not a Christian, also rejected his child, for Nora was not only ugly but slow at school and very naughty. No whipping, deprivation, or verbal humiliation seemed to change her. Nora soon learned that she was "no good," and she ran away from home. At least, in the youth movement there was a group worth, and she felt somewhat accepted. The German war machine was running fast, and through propaganda boys and girls age 14, 15, and 16 were encouraged to join the ranks of fighting men and women. Nora responded and arrived at the front lines. How frightening and terrible was the reality of war, but a "good" German was not afraid and did not show any emotions.

When the war ended, Nora joined the stream of refugees- fleeing westward. During the next eight weeks, without food or shelter, Nora covered 536 miles. She experienced unbelievable hardship, unkindness, cruelty, ugliness, filth, and destruction; but the horror was mingled at times with beauty, kindness, and actual miracles.

Although she had no spiritual concepts by which to live, Nora asked one question over and over again, "If there is a God, why?" Later in England she had to witness the destruction and tragedies her former government had caused on the "other side of the fence." "If there is a God, why?" she asked again. She found no answer until one day she surrendered her life to the Lord.

Authority to teach

My seminars have taken me through many states and Canada, but prior to conducting a two-day presentation at the federal court in the District of Columbia, I was once questioned about my authority to teach seminars on stress. "What do you know about stress?" I was asked. "You are not married and have no children. What gives you license to teach the subject?" My answer was simple. "I am Nora."

Nora did not die as soon as I met the Lord. Though I accepted the Lord as Saviour, for twenty-eight years I continued to misunderstand His identity. I believed that He was loving when I was "good" and obedient, but vengeful, angry, and a severe disciplinarian when I deviated from the narrow path.

I had learned to afflict self-punishment by deprivation, criticism, and self-condemnation, and I attributed such behavior to God as well. I believed that He was pleased to mete out punishment. But the Lord did not give up, and through different ways—classes, study, and the examples of many dear friends—the "old god" and "Nora" both died when the glory of a loving, forgiving, compassionate, heavenly Father re-created a new person—Petra.

What is stress?

The level of stress brought on by a given event depends on the individual's perception of and reaction to it. Our perceptions and reactions are based on past experiences. To illustrate, suppose you are in the mountains far away from civilization having a great time at a family reunion when your favorite relative suddenly collapses with a heart attack. Since you are the only person trained to administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation, you go to work while others rush to telephone for an ambulance. You have tremendous strength because of the stress hormones that have been released into your bloodstream. But you don't have much endurance. The minutes seem like hours, and you are almost exhausted when you hear a siren far away.

How would you perceive that sound under those circumstances? Help is coming! it shouts. It is music to your ears. A few more minutes with renewed energy and then the medics take over. The battle is won—your loved one is saved. What kind of a response will the sound of a siren cause repeatedly after this event? You will relive the positive reaction again and again.

For me it was different. Ten years after the end of the war I was sitting in a college English class when the siren went off for a fire drill. Even though my war experiences were ten years behind me, I became utterly "unglued" and had to leave the classroom. Why? My perception and the intensity of past experiences caused violent negative physical and emotional reactions.

Stress-causing events are called stressors. They can be external, such as disasters, war, and other hardships; or internal, such as sickness or relationship and situation-oriented problems at home, in your profession, or in your social environment.

What or who is your greatest stressor? Your finances? Your boss? Your spouse or children?

Actually we ourselves are our own greatest stressors. So real stress control must begin right where the stress originates—with ourselves.

Stress is closely associated with what we believe, with our personal value system. What is the mental picture you see of yourself in relationship to cultural and social norms? We are constantly compared to, and compare ourselves with, the same limiting yardstick others, especially authority figures, have used on us in the past. We learn and accept these values and then act and respond in accordance with the opinions we have formed about ourselves. Many of the mental images we have formed are negative. They don't come up to the "standard" we or others have set up, so we have learned mechanisms for coping. Our lifestyles, our attitudes and behavior, chemical escapes, or rigid, exacting spiritual exercises all betray telltale signs of a low level of self-worth.

Most of the coping mechanisms we adopt are stress-producing. We are constantly trying to protect ourselves. Is our own evaluation correct? Are some of our coping mechanisms inappropriate, or even destructive? Who has the only right standard by which we are to measure ourselves, our loved ones, others? Who is painting the picture but the Master Artist, and listen to what He says: "Many who are qualified to do excellent work accomplish little because they attempt little. . . . One reason for this is the low estimate which they place upon themselves. Christ paid an infinite price for us, and according to the price paid He desires us to value ourselves." ' Then of how much value are we, each one of us in reality? We are of infinite value.

Producing a self-portrait

A painter produces his work on the canvas stroke by stroke. It may take him years to complete a masterpiece. This is how the Lord works on us as we allow Him access through our mind. Our thoughts are expressed in three ways. We think in words, pictures, and emotions. Try this little exercise: As you read each word in the following list, notice whether you have a positive or negative reaction to it. Here's the list: apples, cats, vacation, rattlesnakes, children, exercise, durian. Some of the words no doubt give you an immediate positive reaction, while others may send shivers down your spine. But what about the word durian? If you've been to the Orient, perhaps you pull your nose at the very thought. But most people have no mental or emotional picture to draw on with the label "durian. " It is a fruit that many people love, while others despise it because of its smell. Whether you form a negative or positive image will depend on who first describes durian to you.

Everything we learn goes through a process of becoming associated with a word, a picture, or an emotion. By repetition we form stronger and stronger pictures and opinions, because each time we repeat an action or thought we are actually forming pathways through the nerve synapses in our brain that make the thought or action come easier in the future. This is especially significant as it relates to our self-image.

Do you know what two-letter word children hear most often after 6 months of age? No. We say No to teach them to mind, we say No to protect them and teach them right from wrong. Children believe anything and anyone and form pictures that are never erased. Later, in our adult life, we keep our own mental tape recorder going and repeat what we have so frequently heard before. And since we believe it and have the "picture," we reinforce it over and over again we keep on making the same mistakes because it is a law. As he/she thinks in his/her heart, so is he/she (see Prov. 23:7). What fruit does the deluge of negative, belittling, critical words and attitudes some of us have heard for years bear?

And what about the words we say to ourselves? What do you say to yourself when you miss the mark? "How can I be so ... [finish the sentence yourself]?" Do you speak kindly to yourself? Or do you put yourself down? Why?

Have you ever been stung by a bee? How many times did you have to be stung before you learned to keep your distance? Once! How many negative words by a loved one does it take for you to feel hurt?

I have heard it said that unless a person has a strong enough self-image to be able to disregard negative remarks, it takes forty-six positive affirmations to counterbalance just one negative statement. The problem is that so many of us have believed the unkind, untrue evaluations of us for so long that if anyone pays us one honest compliment, we respond by disregarding the positive.

"That is such a nice dress you are wearing, the color is so striking."

"Oh, this old thing? I got it at a garage sale for a couple of dollars."

"The roast you brought for potluck was delicious!"

"This? It's not really as good as it should have been; I forgot to add this or that."

Sound familiar? Whom are you hurting? Both yourself and the person giving the compliment. Is this humility? Not really. It is a negative put-down, and is destructive.

But how can we stop having such negative thoughts?

I would like to make a very strong but true statement. The mind, yours and mine, is incapable of processing or obeying a negative command. Please follow my illustrations in your mind. "I don't want you to think of big red juicy strawberries." Can you do that? No. Your mind goes automatically to what you hear described. If someone shouted "Watch out for the stump" when you were learning to ride a bike, where did the bike go? Why? Because your mind went to what you heard described. The point is that I can't stop my negative thoughts by concentrating on stopping. All I can do is stop adding new negative thought pathways through the synapses in my brain. And I can keep from reinforcing old habits of thinking and, by God's grace and power, start new ones.

Some scientists state that we have about 100 billion nerve cells in our brains, but use only about 5 to 10 percent of them. When I learned this, I was ready for a new start. Are you interested?

I was encouraged by two sentences from the book The Desire of Ages: "Christ is sitting for His portrait in every disciple. Every one God has predestination to be 'conformed to the image of His Son.'" 2 I decided I wanted to change the portrait of Christ that I was portraying. But how could I change? Most of my negative thought patterns, attitudes, and behavior were unconscious and habitual, so I first needed to become aware of what I was doing. I began praying, "God make me aware of what I am doing," and He did. When I heard myself using a derogatory expression when I had failed, a red light would come on in my mind. "Stop it, Petra; this is not like you." I would remind myself, "I intend to be careful and say it or do it this way next time."

By emphasizing future performance and describing a positive, correct outcome, I was able to stop the process of negative reinforcement. Then I began creating new pictures, imprinting positive words, actions, and attitudes. Since by beholding we become changed, positive behavior naturally followed. At first it was hard for me to produce new, positive mental pictures of myself, because they seemed phony. But I wanted so badly to change and be happy, kind, cheerful, trusting, loving, helpful, gracious, compassionate, courageous, that I wrote my new picture in short sentences on 3 x 5 cards: (a) Personal "I," (b) Present Tense—"am," and (c) Positive—"courageous," or "It is easy for me to be a good listener." "It is just like me to be patient and understanding with people's mistakes." "I am warm and loving toward myself, and I treat others with courtesy and respect." "I enjoy moderate amounts of food twice a day and am very satisfied." "I am excited about exercising daily for thirty minutes and / feel great."

Making affirmative statements in several different areas of need is very helpful and keeps the new picture more balanced.

The imprinting of the new picture is accomplished in the same way the old negative self-images were. Only now I am in control of which pictures I want to strengthen. The old negative images had been put into my mind without my even realizing what was happening. I had learned later to reinforce them automatically.

In order to get the desired results quickly, I keep these cards by my bed and read them mornings and evenings, picturing the successful end result as if I have already reached my goals. I actually imagine the feeling of success.

As soon as I become aware of fear, anger, resentment, false guilt, or inferiority feelings, I (a) turn them over immediately to the Lord, (b) ask forgiveness, and (c) thank Him for changing my attitudes. It works, friends! How grateful and happy the past few years have been as I have experienced the Lord changing and healing me.

Epilogue

My dear mother, on my last visit, still told me what to eat, when to go to bed or get up; and one day she literally shouted, "I cannot love you." My arm went around her shoulders, and I assured her that I loved her. I felt no resentment, anger, or pain, but rather pity for her suffering. Now that my picture of God had changed, I assured her over and over again that He loved her very much and that I did also. One day in response to my "I love you," she answered, "I do too." After fifty-five years of waiting, she finally spoke the sweetest words I ever heard her say to me. Last year, on my birthday, she actually called me for the first time. Her voice sounded different. Instead of bitterly spilling out her misery and negative feelings, she spoke almost cheerfully. She sounded young, free, light, and almost happy. I told her how good she sounded and shared my joy and excitement with her. One month later she was gone. The Sabbath school quarterly at that period dealt with forgiveness, and the Lord gave me the assurance that Mother had finally seen the right picture, that her God too had changed—that she had accepted His forgiveness and forgiven herself.

God wants us to learn these lessons sooner than one month before our death. He wants us to depict His portrait in a happy, healthy way, dealing with our problems in mature, appropriate manners. But only you can ask God for awareness. Only you can select desired alternatives and start new pathways by repetition. But as you do these things, you will bring one of your greatest—stressors—yourself under control. That is true stress management.

1 Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing
(Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publishing
Assn., 1942), p. 498.

2 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain
View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publishing Assn.,
1898), p. 827.

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Petra Sukau, Ph.D., serves as a health counselor and consultant at Tidewater Memorial Hospital in Tappahannock, Virginia. Her most recent project is development of a stress management seminar for government and professional groups.

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