The Upside of Stress?

Be still and know that I am God...
— Psalm 46:10

Stress can be beneficial to your health. I know what you’re thinking. Impossible. It’s not the Jewish way. Oy vey is the Jewish way.

Then came along Dr. Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford, with her new book The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You and How to Get Good at It. Good at it? In the words of one of my children about ice-skating: “That’s a talent I don’t want to have.” No one wants to be good at stress. We just want to get rid of it quickly, like shaking off the rain when we come indoors or swatting pesky flies to get them to leave us alone.

The religious response to stress is to put one’s trust in God because that faith with minimize our own sense of looming crisis. If we just let go and let God, goes the expression, all will be OK. It’s not that we don’t have biblical figures who communicate the intensity of their anguish. Job is a prime example. “My inward parts are in turmoil and never still; days of affliction come to meet me” (30:27). It sounds like Job needs a really good gastroenterologist. Job here does not invite disaster. It finds him. It causes him acute pain. Job does not minimize stress - the tension, pressure and emotional strain- of his situation. He articulates it artfully.

This kind of articulation in the Bible is often followed immediately by a statement of God’s role in one’s life – as in the verse above from Psalms. Be still. If God is with you then you can quiet those shaking inner parts. The famous 23rd psalm reminds us that the Lord is our shepherd so that we will not want. When we know we are being led by forces of good and handled with care, we can release some of the pressures – the way that good company allows us to be at ease. We read in Psalms that God is “our stronghold in times of trouble” (9:9) as a way of suggesting that we can put down some of our own armor.

Many people have shared with me the way that this idea of being held by God helps them manage their own “catastrophizing” in the spirit of Isaiah’s words: “Fear not for I am with you; don’t be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you. I will help you. I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (41:10). A more obscure biblical book, Habakuk, records the actual catastrophe and the reliance on God to minimize it: “Though the fig will not blossom and no fruit be on the vines, the olive tree fails and the field has no yield, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord. I will take joy in the God of my salvation” (3:17-18).

 This type of faith – to find joy even though one’s surroundings offer little or nothing – is very hard to achieve. Let’s imagine for a moment, a contemporary equivalent. “Though I cannot find a job, there is nothing in my fridge, I’ve gained ten pounds, my girlfriend dumped me and I lost my cellphone, I will still take joy in God.” Stated that way, we can appreciate that even though so much of daily life is not working, there is still reason for hope and happiness by rising above crisis and touching eternity.

 McGonigal’s approach to stress is not spiritual in this way. She says part of the problem is that we use the term stress to describe everything from a traffic jam to a death in the  family, thus making it an ineffective catch-all for any time we feel any tension. She finds that talking about the negative impacts of stress on one’s health just created more shame and stigma around stress. After researching stress, she concluded that the way that we think about stress impacts our capacity to manage it. View it positively as a way to learn and grow and develop resilience and you have recovered what she calls “the biology of courage.”

Stressed? You may be a click away from relief. Listen to McGonigal’s TED talk “How to Make Stress Your Friend”. Stress may never be your friend, but it doesn’t have to be a persistent enemy either. 

I used to say “Don’t be stressed be blessed.” After the book, my new line is “Be blessed because you’re stressed.”

 Shabbat Shalom