Counselor’s Corner—Psalm 23 & 3 Tips to Handle Stress
It’s been a strange and difficult year. As soon as I feel adjusted to one new hard thing, another shows up. And I know that it’s not just me who’s experiencing life like this.
We are experiencing stressors stacked up, one on top of each other. And the bigger the stack, the worse we feel. Each of us has different stressors in our stack. Things like going to college for the first time, a heavy class load, balancing work and school and ministry, worries for family and friends, a global pandemic, racial injustice, and civil unrest. And the list goes on and on.
Thankfully, there are things that we can do to deal with this stress.
Stress is a normal and inescapable part of life. In times of stress, our brains are designed to give us the energy and resources we need to deal with the pressure and weight of the stressors we encounter. When everything’s working right, we are equipped to deal with stress.
It becomes a problem when the stress doesn’t end, when it goes on for too long or at too high of an intensity, and we don’t have time to recover. In our current reality, most of us are experiencing this kind of stress. It’s more than we were designed to bear. The solution to this overbearing stress is to introduce intentional times of calm relaxation and deep connection to help us rest and heal.
Psalm 23 includes powerful images of both calm and connection. The beginning of the Psalm paints a picture of what calm looks like. It evokes a pastoral setting of green pastures and quiet waters, where God, the Good Shepherd, watches over his sheep.
The second half of the Psalm is less sunny with images of dark dangerous valleys and being surrounded by enemies. But even in these highly stressful places, the psalmist emphasizes God’s presence, abundance, and care. He concludes the Psalm with the assurance that he will never lose God’s presence and knows that he can never outrun God’s loving-kindness.
1. Practice Brain Calming
You know that moment when you loudly sigh, drop your shoulders, and for just a moment, close your eyes and are still? That’s a brain calming moment, just like the psalmist describes: “He leads me beside quiet waters; he refreshes my soul” (v. 2–3). What causes each of us to relax is different and requires us to explore and experiment to see what works best.
Once we’ve discovered that, we need to practice doing those things in our day-to-day lives. Then they will be familiar and easy to apply during more difficult times, like when we have stressful deadlines for class or experience a family emergency. Work to identify a few short five-to-ten-minute practices you can implement every day as well as longer, more extensive ones.
I know that it can be challenging to identify those things or to practice them. Luckily, you don’t have to do this on your own. Get together with your small group of friends and make a list of things that work for each of you. Then commit to doing one small thing each day. Get back together and talk through what worked and what didn’t.
Possible brain calming strategies include:
Yoga and exercise
Listening to a song all the way through, reflecting on a piece of art, or watching a dance
Cleaning or organizing
Doing things that make you laugh
Spending time outdoors and playing
2. Connect with God
In Psalm 23, the psalmist makes it clear that God is present with us in the lush verdant pasture, in the valley of deepest darkness, and in the midst of enemies. That knowledge allows the psalmist to say that he lacks nothing. God is with us, desiring to connect with us and providing abundant life for us in the quiet, in despair, in battle, in the midst of a global pandemic, racial injustice, and unmanageable stress and anxiety (Jn 10:10).
As we struggle with stress, we need to know that and take the time to connect with the God who both loves us and is mighty to save. Many of us are used to practicing the presence of God in ways that are wordy and active. But God also powerfully meets us in ways that require us to passively receive without a lot of talking. I think these are the more powerful practices to deal with stress.
Here are some practical suggestions you can do alone or communally with friends in your chapter or your family:
Read Psalm 23 once a day every day for a week.
Practice breath prayers (breathe in, “The Lord is my Shepherd;” breathe out, “I lack nothing”).
Pause and sit in stillness for five to ten minutes focusing on one of the images from Psalm 23.
3. Connect with Others
We were created for connection with God and with others. This is a very basic principle: it’s not good for people to be alone. Recent research into relationships and connection has concluded that we have a need for attachment without which we cannot survive. Safe, secure attachment is as essential as water, food, and shelter.
During times of stress, it’s important that we reach out to safe people, who we can trust and share what’s going on in our lives. Our need isn’t for others to solve our stressors but instead to listen with empathy and be present with us. Listening and being present with someone in this way is actually a complex skill because our natural impulse is to problem solve. But when it comes to stress reduction, what we need is someone’s presence, just knowing that we’re not alone. It can be especially powerful to talk with someone who’s experiencing or has experienced your same stressors.
Consider some of these practical suggestions:
Reach out to a friend or family member and talk about the stressors you’re experiencing.
Join a gathering of people who are dealing with the same kind of stressors, such as racial trauma, the stress of isolation and limitations due to COVID, grief, or stressors related to work, school, or family.
With time, the unique stressors in our lives right now hopefully will lessen, but they probably aren’t going to disappear completely. But by practicing calm and connection, we will be better equipped to deal with those stressors when they arise.
Information on this web site solely reflects the opinions of the author and is provided for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute medical advice or mental health advice and is not intended as a substitute for the advice provided by a licensed physician, counselor, or other healthcare professional. Always speak with your physician or other healthcare professional about any mental health or medical concerns.
Jennifer Aguirre is a Licensed Professional Counselor, who has been in private practice for the past nine years. She cares deeply about cultural competence in counseling, helping people live balanced and healthy lives, and helping them identify the patterns, cycles, and habits that keep them from thriving.
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