By Valerie Minard
Remember when it was OK to smoke in restaurants and public buildings? (Think “Mad Men” TV show.) That was until we were told of the negative effects of “secondhand smoke”– the smoke exhaled by someone else. Thanks to the grassroots efforts to eliminate smoking in public spaces, smoking in most buildings and public transportation finally became illegal in the United States.
Now studies have shown that there are negative effects of “secondhand stress”– picking up on others’ feelings of stress. Heidi Hanna, a fellow at the American Institute of Stress and author of Stressaholic, says that secondhand stress can be triggered by subtle changes such as an aggressive boss walking into the room or an angry taxi driver honking during rush hour. It has a ripple effect. So it’s important to protect our thinking from the pollution of a negative environment and mental influence.
Some common recommendations for any kind of stress include healthy diet, avoiding cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs, exercise, social activity such as volunteer work or meeting friends, and time management.
While those approaches may be helpful, most of them do not address the more basic causes of feeling threatened or not in control. That’s where more spiritual wisdom can come to the rescue. The Apostle Paul’s life gives some useful guidance for how to get on top of stressful situations.
By most accounts Paul’s life looked pretty stressful. He was shipwrecked three times, beaten, stoned, hungry, and often in danger from those hostile to his mission. Yet he could say, “Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”
During one violent storm at sea, while everyone else on the ship was feeling hopeless, Paul emerged from a sustained period of quiet prayer and cheerfully assured everyone that they would be saved (and they were). What was it that enabled Paul to not only survive all these dangers, but continue to thrive? Was it that he knew (from time spent thinking on these things) that God was an infinite and ever present wisdom governing his life and all life, protecting and delivering him no matter what happened?
While Paul’s experience may seem far removed from the challenges of ordinary modern life, his example shows how we can resist being frazzled or stressed out from the bumps and roadblocks we face. There is no need to feel out of control, put upon, or overwhelmed when we remember that God, divine Love, is good, and in charge– governing every outcome.
One Thanksgiving, I saw, in a small way, how this viewpoint can help to reduce stress. When I was growing up, holidays were not always peaceful or happy. So, for many years, I became anxious around the holidays. On top of that, I usually felt a bit overwhelmed by all the cooking and holiday preparations.
Then I realized that in a way I was experiencing the effect of secondhand stress, projecting unhappy memories onto future holidays. One morning it occurred to me that I no longer had to accept or go along with that pattern of thinking. I didn’t need to let past memories rob me of the joy of present good. Like Paul, I could humbly trust that divine wisdom was in control, and focus on whatever was “lovely and of good report.”
So I decided to drop the old story of discord and began to express patience, strength, and joy as I went about my preparations, knowing that God was in charge of every detail. Mary Baker Eddy, a Christian theologian and healer,found that consistent spiritual ways of thinking were a practical and powerful benefit to health. She wrote, “Hold thought steadfastly to the enduring, the good, and the true, and you will bring these into your experience proportionably to their occupancy of your thoughts.”
This change of viewpoint brought a new-found calm. I completed holiday preparations without drama or stress. Some activities I realized I didn’t need to do. Thanksgiving Day turned out to be a sweet day. And instead of being worn out, I was filled with energy.
Like Paul, we don’t need to be bullied by stress– our own or others’. Putting God first, knowing divine Love is in charge and governing every detail, we can claim our freedom to be calm and so help eliminate the ripple effect of secondhand stress.
Valerie writes regularly on the connection between consciousness, spirituality, and health. She is a Christian Science practitioner and the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in New Jersey.