Stress and Trauma in a Time of Crisis

Following are notes from Dr. Pat Fosarelli’s presentation, as well as a poem shared by Dr. John Hayes, for the virtual #TheologyTownHall held Wednesday, April 1, 2020. [Join us at noon on Wednesdays for Theology Town Halls led out by different members of the EI community.]

What is stress?

  • Stress is anything that moves us off our equilibrium
  • A stress can be positive if it makes us feel joyful (e.g., getting married) or competent (getting a promotion)
  • A stress is negative when it causes us to feel out of control or unable to cope or the stress is never-ending
  • The current COVID situation fits the description of a major negative stress

What is the body’s response to negative stress?

  • A negative stress is associated with the fight-or-flight “response,” one of the oldest protective mechanisms in the human body
  • Fight-or-flight is supposed to be short-lived, but in chronic stress, it goes on and on
  • That is important because the chemical processes in the body associated with fight-or-flight are harmful if they last too long; these include effects on the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, the immune system, and the way we use glucose in our body
  • Raised heartrate and respiratory rates help to get us away from an immediate danger, as does a higher blood pressure and higher glucose in the bloodstream, but if these effects last too long, they damage the very body they were trying to protect
  • Structures in the brain contribute to this cascade of events, as memories of similar dangers make us more anxious; in addition, the center in our brain that alerts us to dangers (amygdala) often gets “stuck” in the on-position (just like a smoke detector that’s not working well)
  • The result is our bodies and minds are impacted sometimes in a major way
  • Physical responses: the aforementioned reactions, an improperly functioning immune response, worsening of chronic conditions, alterations in sleep and diet, etc.
  • Emotional responses: Fear, irritability, sadness, panic, crying, re-visitation of memories that are negative, etc.
  • Spiritual responses: Greater intimacy with God OR anger at God, doubting of God’s existence or care, inability to pray, etc.

Resilience

  • Resilience is what is needed
  • Resilience can be learned
  • Steps in building a resilient attitude:
    • know yourself (what are your strengths/weaknesses; what makes you more stressed or worried; what obstacles have you overcome in the past);
    • pay attention to the positives/spend much less time on the negatives (e.g., watch less TV);
    • lean in to the situation, accurately noting your reactions and if they are helpful; 
    • change your reactions to responses (the difference is that a reaction is usually automatic while a response is usually measured and considered);
    • realize that you can’t know or fix everything…and that’s OK;
    • do what you can as positively as you can (don’t dwell on what you can’t do);
    • find something to laugh or smile about…EVERYDAY;
    • connect in positive ways with others;
    • do something that gives you joy or meaning EVERYDAY (such activities evoke the production of endorphins in our bodies, neurotransmitters that counteract many of the effects of fight-or-flight noted above); 
    • lean in to God, lean on God, connecting to God in the way that seems most meaningful and natural to you

As members of the Body of Christ, each one of us is important in the overall health of the Body.

Fear is the Cheapest Room in the House
by Khwaja Hafez Shirazi (q.s.) (1326-1389 CE)

Fear is the cheapest room in the house
I would like to see you living
In better conditions,

for your mother and my mother
Were friends.

I know the Innkeeper
In this part of the universe.
Get some rest tonight,
Come to my verse tomorrow.
We’ll go speak to the Friend together.

I should not make any promises right now,
But I know if you
Pray
Somewhere in this world-
Something good will happen.

God wants to see
More love and playfulness in your eyes
For that is your greatest witness to Him.