Slowly, the MRI machine started to pull me into its deepest recesses. I did fine for approximately one minute before I dissolved into a full-blown panic attack. It was 1980 something and they weren’t so quick to give out the Valium before these procedures. Hats off to all you steady Eddies who remain calm during serious medical procedures. How did I come to be in and out and back into (after some Valium) an MRI machine? One word: stress.
Severe and chronic headaches plagued me during this time. I lived on ibuprofen and Tylenol, which dulled the pain enough for me to function. One day, the pain became so severe, I couldn’t lift my head up all the way. I sat on the floor of the living room weeping, not knowing what to do.
My man of action said enough was enough and off to the emergency room we trucked. Numerous tests resulted in a shaky diagnosis of spinal meningitis and nurses whisked my away to an isolation room. I remained there for a week, on various antibiotics. Finally, after no improvement, a new doctor weighed in and said, “Let’s try muscle relaxers.” Within hours I felt relief unknown for the past many months. I did not have spinal meningitis. My shoulder neck and head muscles (there’s a thin layer around your brain) were in such a state of inflammation, that the symptoms mimicked meningitis.
Like many, I process stress in my shoulders. For me, juggling the responsibilities of a senior pastor’s wife, a minister of music and a mother were too much some times. You can only push around stress so long, without releasing it, before you get yourself in a fix. Stress is a given, if you’re human and unescapable if you’re a leader. It doesn’t matter whether you’re leading a family of two or a church or corporation of thousands. The weight of ensuring success for whatever group you are leading can become heavy, so we scrunch our shoulders up tighter and work harder and harder until one day we can’t.
When stress is long term and there seems to be no end in sight, like caring for a chronically ill loved one, despair creeps in. When it seems like your life is a game of whack a mole, one tense event after another, misery will try to stalk you. If you’re tired of feeling like you’re swimming upstream against daily events, despondency threatens to overwhelm.
If your shoulders resemble a rock formation, or your damaging some other part of your anatomy due to various pressures, (stomach aches, nail biting, etc.) these strategies can help. Simultaneously, as you confront stress with these, your feelings of gloom will often lift away.
Memorize and meditate. “You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is fixed on You.” Isaiah 26:3 is 100% true. One of the best ways to keep your mind calm is to acquire a large volume of Scripture in your gray matter. Whether the stress is long term or a sudden event, I’ve got a treasure chest of pearls to use. I speak my memorized verses aloud as I find this quiets my body more quickly. Another great tool is to download the Bible app on your smartphone and listen to the oral version of scripture passages. D’s are available also. The word is life and power to the tearing down of stress strongholds.
Exercise Intelligently. By this I mean, don’t create more stress by over-exercising and don’t store stress by under-exercising. Figure out something you actually like to do and do it at least 5 times a week. Check with your doctor to see what activity best suits you, if you don’t know. I walk approximately 30 minutes a day and then do some weight training (only fifteen minutes worth) 3 times a week and some yoga stretches a couple times a week. Exercise also releases endorphins which give us a sense of wellbeing.
Deep Breathing. Hey, the “Hee, Hee, Hahs,” aren’t exclusively useful for pregnancy labor. Deep, abdominal breathing provides a complete oxygen for carbon dioxide exchange. When your body is well oxygenated, your heart rate slows and your blood pressure decreases. Check my Pastor’s Feisty Wife FB page for a helpful article on this.
Let go of things that aren’t yours. We can create our own stress by taking on things and people God isn’t leading us to be involved with. I used to try to be the patron saint of failing ministries and empty volunteer positions. This is ultimately self-destructive. God only provides where He guides, not where you venture off on your own.
Engage with things that make you laugh. God is serious when he says laughter is medicine to your heart. (Proverbs 17:22) Find lighthearted movies and shows. We particularly like the old sit-coms like “The Dick Van Dyke” show and such. Maybe it’s playing with your pet that makes you smile. We also like to play funny games at our house like “Tenzi.” (available from Amazon) Deliberately spend time with people or activities that cause smiles and laughter.
God knows intimately what stress loads slid you into your valley and He wants to guide you out. Instead of vegging in front of yet another episode of CSI, use several of these ideas and watch those shoulders relax and your blood pressure go back down.